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Scott Donaton: Barbie and the Bravery Behind a Bold Brand Storytelling Approach

Scott Donaton, CMO/CCO/Advisor/Storyteller

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This article was originally posted on LinkedIn.

I swore I wasn’t going to do it. I was not going to join the parade of thought leaders writing pieces on LinkedIn that used the #Barbie movie as a jumping-off point to a broader business or life lesson. Not for me, a dive into the sea of pink washing over my timeline. Then I saw the movie. And here we are.

I’ve read multiple pieces about how Barbie might impact branded entertainment. How it’s something any brand could (and should) replicate. How it’s something only other entertainment brands could possibly replicate. How it’s something no other brand could replicate. There’s one take I haven’t read, and that’s about the bravery needed to do it right. Brave may seem like a strong word to attach to a movie that—while brilliant, fun and subversive—is ultimately a two-hour commercial for a line of toys. But brave is what it is. Think about how many companies treat their brand guidelines like a bible. How many of them actually use that word to describe them. Brands like to control every aspect of their message, which often means avoiding controversy. Not Mattel, apparently. It recognized that the only way to credibly tell the Barbie story was to confront cultural criticisms and uncomfortable truths head on. A teen girl in the movie accuses Barbie of promoting unrealistic images of beauty and mindless consumerism before calling her a “fascist.” Barbie creator Ruth Handler makes an appearance via Rhea Perlman and reveals that she was indicted for tax evasion. Mattel’s leadership team is portrayed as a cadre of clueless men trying to put their star creation back in a box while mumbling about their mission to empower girls.

An argument could be made that Mattel, Inc. was brilliant rather than brave. Cynical, even. As Vulture noted, “The trouble with trying to sneak subversive ideas into a project so inherently compromised is that rather than get away with something you might just create a new way for a brand to sell itself.” Confronting longstanding criticisms may have been a necessary move, a way to defang controversies before others used them to bite. And it gave Mattel a chance to rewrite narratives. Ruth Handler comes across as wise and sweet, and that teen girl later befriends and teams up with Barbie. But I’ll stand by the word brave. As savvy as Mattel giving Greta Gerwig the freedom to tell the story she wanted to tell may have been—as much as they knew the benefits and rewards far outweighed the risks—most brands still wouldn’t be willing to go there. They’d back away from controversial material, avoid negative references to their products and protect the reputations of their founders and C-suite executives. If there’s a lesson for brands to learn from the Barbie movie, it's about whether they’re brave enough to let go, to choose the integrity and tension necessary to tell a great story over the bland constraints of their brand bibles.


About Scott Donaton

Scott Donaton is an experienced and award-winning producer, growth marketer, creative executive, people & business leader and published author who has dedicated his career to creating and monetizing storytelling in all its forms.

Donaton coined the phrase “Madison & Vine” to describe the convergence of entertainment and marketing, and is the author of an acclaimed book by the same name, which helped launch the branded-content industry.

Donaton's work has won numerous awards, including a Producers Guild of America award for Oustanding Short-Form Content and multiple Cannes Lions, Clios and Effies. He was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Achievement, named by Business Insider as a Marketing Power Player in streaming media and honored as a Mediapost All-Star. Donaton served as president of the Entertainment jury at the Cannes Lions festival in 2013 and 2019, and served as president of the AICP Next Awards Branded Entertainment jury in 2019 and 2020.


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