How does a brand find its unique voice?

How do the people tasked with communicating a brand through digital channels decide what to say and how to say it?

On the surface, the questions are easy. However, do not let your guard down. Look beyond the obvious and you will see the intricacies of the decision on how to present a brand to the world.

You have to account for the brand’s history, motivations, and the why of it. You factor market research and what customers say – either about your brand or, if conducting reconnaissance before launch, of similar brands. You also have to incorporate the internal audience into that picture – their stake in the brand and the influence that comes with the degree of brand ownership.

It’s complex, to say the least.

Enter message architecture – a tool that puts into words what a brand stands for and arranges these talking points into a hierarchy of communication goals which “appear in order of priority, typically in an outline” (Bloomstein, 2012, p. 20).

In this blog post, I am going to explain what brand message architecture is using one of the recent examples of successful cross-platform content marketing campaigns – the multichannel campaign of the Barbie movie.

And because I am a masochist, I am going to rewind and start with the basics.

This term can be very simple and very broad. I have yet to find a standalone definition that nails what a brand is. A “brand” as a concept is extremely ambiguous. It spans tangible and intangible in a way that is difficult to grasp. 

Luckily, you can stack definitions from notable practitioners to paint a picture of what a brand entails. Let’s Bob Ross* it.

Wikipedia tells us that “a brand is anything that is used to identify and distinguish a specific product, service or business” (‘Brand (Disambiguation)’, 2022). It can be “ a name, term, design, symbol or any other feature that distinguishes one seller’s good or service from those of other sellers” (‘Brand’, 2024).

Once you go past the physical representation of a brand, the territory that lies ahead is all about how your brand is received by the consumers.

A brand “can be understood as the cumulative result of all user interactions with your organization” (Bailie & Urbina, 2013, p. 24). A brand is a mental image that is conjured in your customers’ minds when they hear your brand name, including the factual and emotional aspects (McLaughlin, 2011).

Marty Neumeier – a prominent author and speaker on the subject of branding – put forward a different definition in his acclaimed book “The Brand Gap”. He recommends seeing brands exclusively as something on a metaphysical level, defining a brand as “a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or organization“ (Neumeier, 2007). Neumeier’s definition has clear roots in the advertising industry and semantics, where subtext (‘The Treachery of Images’, 2023) and a promise an object represents are the most powerful leverages in building customer-brand relationships.

While Neumeier’s take is more relevant than ever in the era of expectation economy (TrendWatching BV, 2009) and empowered consumerism (especially when it comes to digital services), it unnecessarily deifies the concept of a brand. In my opinion, not addressing the tangible representation of a brand when defining it inadvertently undermines the influence a brand owner has over their creation. A brand does not need to pass a mysticism check to be considered a brand. “Tech founders may control the source code, but users shape the product,” wrote Taylor Lorenz in her book, “Extremely Online” (Lorenz, 2023, p. 289). True, but consumers are fickle. Have we not seen successful rebranding projects resuscitate a dying product? I am thinking Old Spice and Crocs. I still have the memory of sneering at the sight of nurses wheezing through the corridors of the Northampton General Hospital in a pair of white Crocs still fresh in my mind. And yet, I have Crocs on my shopping list for the summer so I can fit in with the cool kids.

Ultimately, there is always a moment in a brand’s lifecycle where the people steering it decide how the brand wants to be seen and the elements needed for that image to come through in content. It’s a responsible job in an extremely volatile environment.

Luckily, with tools like brand message architecture, the path to nurturing a brand that resonates with its intended audience is easier than you think.

As stated earlier, a message architecture is a hierarchy of communication goals (Bloomstein, 2012). Goals and not values – this is an important distinction which Margot Bloomstein emphasized during our lectures and wrote about in her book:

“Note that a message architecture differs from brand values, which speak more to the company’s credo than to how it should communicate with its target audience. Ideally, transparency is a virtue, but values and communication goals don’t always align—or may not always be relevant to each other.”

Margot Bloomstein in “Content Strategy at Work” (2012, p. 28)

Margot goes on to explain that a list of values (usually short and snappy nouns or adjectives) presents the core beliefs of a company, but doesn’t tell the employees HOW to translate these words into content. A message architecture, which is an internal document that informs customer-facing channels, names between three to five communication goals in an actionable way and orders them from the most to the least important.

Saying all this, I will inject some advice from content strategy practitioners here.

Don’t freak out and spend too much time polishing the message. As Erin Kissane said in her phenomenal (and short, which makes it even more impressive!) book “The Elements of Content Strategy”, clarifying a message is important but they are an internal tool that should be “developed only to the point of optimum usefulness” (Kissane, 2011, p. 57). In the same breath, she quotes Kristina Halvorson whose practical approach to working in content strategy is enjoyably no-nonsense: “Messages aren’t content. They’re used to select and shape content” (Halvorson, 2009, p.88). Halvorson expanded on her thoughts on the role of messaging in the second edition of her book released three years later writing that messaging “is the art of deciding what information or ideas you want to give to – and get from – your users” (Halvorson & Rach, 2012, p. 74).

Following this train of thought, in addition to providing a common vocabulary (Bloomstein, 2012), a message architecture document creates a consensus of what a brand is meant to say and how. It’s a brief that should reach the hands of anyone, who is involved in content creation at the company to adequately channel the messages into copy, visuals, content models, different formats of communication and so on. 

The best part is the flexibility of message architecture: core brand values do not change often (if they do, it tends to be a big deal and part of a bigger image overhaul) but message architecture can be adjusted to reflect changing priorities. A brand message architecture is a guide, “the North Star of an organization” (GatherContent by Bynder, 2023), that trains the team in consistent communication to fulfil these changing objectives.

Now that we have ticked the theory behind message architecture off the list, it’s time for a real-world example.

The content marketing campaign surrounding the Barbie movie astounded marketing professionals all over the world. It was executed brilliantly and had not lost its momentum. Unexpectedly, it even picked up speed at different moments in time, partially thanks to the unexpected cultural moment that Barbieheimer was but also due to the ingenious strategy of taking the Barbieverse off the screen and letting it out in the world before, during, and after the world premiere. 

First, I applied the card-sorting method developed by Margot Bloomstein. Margot walks the reader through the exercise step by step in her book, “Content Strategy at Work” (pages 28-34), if you are curious about the detailed process. Essentially, you are given a deck of cards with over 80 commonly used adjectives that Margot has seen in her long career of mentoring companies in crafting their brand message architecture. You follow her script to come up with topic groups using the cards and then translate the adjectives into statements and action points.

Margot recommends creating between three to five topic groups – it’s a good benchmark to have in mind. The more elaborate your message architecture is, the more diffusion you experience. It’s best to focus on fewer goals. Your team will also thank you for being more precise in what you expect them to deliver.

The following message architecture was developed by me based on desk research and the card sorting exercise.

  • The timeless and authentic Barbie Pink never goes out of fashion.
  • Emphasizing the historic impact Barbie has had on generations of people but through a modern lens.
  • Rebuilding trust through relationship-oriented partnerships.
  • We are bringing Barbie back to trendy by releasing pink-coloured items into the world. Let’s drown the world in pink!

One of the most powerful weapons of Barbie as a brand was its incredible legacy. The marketing team responsible for promoting the much-anticipated first live-action movie of the Barbie universe had to stay true to the legend of Barbie while emphasizing the movie’s novelty aspect. Mattel CEO Ynon Kreiz shared that choosing a live-action over an animated movie was part of honouring the history of Barbie. 

“We could have done something that is maybe easier and take a brand that is less complicated and has less of a history to manage. Or we could have done animation rather than live-action. But we actually wanted to create something ambitious and unique. And you go basically straight to the top with our key brand.”

Mattel CEO, Ynon Kreiz, in “Barbie: Why Mattel Wanted Live-Action Over Animation” (Brown, 2023)

Even though the movie had a separate website and social media accounts, the branding was indistinguishable. The ever-present Barbie pink (Pantone 219C, “a magenta pink” to be exact), the recognisable golden font. The Barbie logo is dutifully included in every social media visual. And no, the Barbie movie was not responsible for depleting the supplies of Rosco’s pink paint but it’s a nice story to add to the hype (Treisman, 2023).

It’s important to note that while the message of the movie was tailored to be more mature and empowering – with Greta Gerwig as the director, it could not go any other way – in the early days of the movie campaign, it was the nostalgia for the world represented by Barbie that got to be at the centre of the conversation.

Mattel taught the world a masterclass in licensing and established partnerships with over 100 brands. We got to see it all: Barbie cosmetics, clothes, jewellery, travel accessories, homeware, and food. If you searched for Barbie movie-related topics on Google, the search was returned in a Barbie-pink-themed space with animated pink sparkles. Margot Robbie made sure to fan the pink flames and alert any fashionista out there of a new trend by embracing her character and wearing actual Barbie outfits to press tour events and any award ceremony for which Barbie was a nominee (Davis, 2024).

There were also partnerships that surprised and delighted the audience with their novelty. The Airbnb’s Barbie Dreamhouse offered an unparalleled experience of living in a pink dollhouse. Pop-up Barbie Cafés appeared in New York City and Chicago. A licensing deal with Xbox saw a release of “exclusive Forza Horizon 5 in-game content, an inspiring video about careers in gaming with a Barbie touch, the first ever Xbox Barbie dolls” (Ward, 2023), and an Xbox Series S that has been built into the glamorous Barbie DreamHouse and offered in a giveaway.

Of course, there was also the official Mattel merch – with exclusive Barbie dolls inspired by the characters in the movie (including Weird Barbie or Sugar’s Daddy Barbie), clothing, mugs, toys and games.

The spread of partnerships was comprehensive and strategic, offering everyone a chance to obtain a Barbie-themed item.

“These partners that you’re seeing across the board, they’re not random. They’ve been a very calculated and precision-based marketing execution. It really is a constellation of ensuring that every age—and every category—has best-in-class partners, where you can play Barbie.”

Mattel President and COO, Richard Dickson, in “Barbie: Why Mattel Wanted Live-Action Over Animation” (Brown, 2023)

It was genius – even if you didn’t have a relationship with Barbie, you probably had a relationship with one or more of the 100 brands that Barbie partnered with. Kirsten Ward, Vice President of Integrated Marketing at Xbox, said it best:

“Barbie is one of the most recognised brands in the world and with the release of ‘Barbie the Movie’, Barbie-mania has been at an all-time high. Warner Bros. and Mattel have done a wonderful job tapping into the nostalgia of fans who have grown up playing with Barbie as well as younger generations who currently look up to Barbie as a role model. The brand has been able to authentically expand the Barbie universe and reach new audiences with all that there is to love about Barbie: her persevering optimism, wide-ranging career journey and never-ending capacity for self-discovery. Xbox is grateful to be working with Warner Bros. to celebrate ‘Barbie the Movie’ which highlights mutual core values our brands share – such as diversity and inclusion and inspiration through play.”

Kirsten Ward, Vice President of Integrated Marketing at Xbox, in Creative Salon (Creative Salon, 2023)
  • We build trustworthiness by acknowledging Barbie’s history – but we are also ready to step into the progressive and empowering Barbie era.
  • We speak to our audience in a friendly and casual tone of voice which is consistent with how approachable and down-to-earth Barbie is.
  • In touch – We encourage connection and finding similarities with Barbie through fun and informal content that shows we are paying attention.

The second communication goal of the content marketing campaign was not only to call upon the pink tribe but also to make Barbie more relatable. It’s not a secret that Barbie has been divisive – it’s credited with infecting girls with unrealistic beauty standards and can be used as a derogatory term towards women (Naylor, 2023). Barbie in its original form lives in a Barbieland and hasn’t got a worry in the world.

Maybe this escapism could work at another time, but not in our era of struggles with identity and the global mental health crisis. This was reflected in Mattel’s sales:

“In 2014, Mattel had a real Barbie problem. The brand was in the pit of a three-year sales decline; but worse, its image was in disarray. According to the company’s research, Barbie was outdated and didn’t reflect the diversity or image of modern girls. Just as importantly, they didn’t communicate the image that their parents wanted to see. That’s when Mattel really dug into the data to find out what was missing. Barbie was the company’s crown jewel brand, and they needed to find a way to fix it.”  

Jeff Beer in his article for the FastCompany, “Barbie’s global domination: Exactly how Mattel pulled it off” (Beer, 2023)

One of the concepts that comes through in interviews is that even if you do not like the movie because of its association with the doll, there are reasons to still watch it. In his interview with Variety, Warner Bros. President of Global Marketing Josh Goldstine shared that the “If you love Barbie, if you hate Barbie, this movie is for you” message embraced in the campaign was an idea of Gerwig to embrace the dissonance some felt towards Barbie and the movie:

“We wanted to recognize there were legions of Barbie fans, but that Barbie had quite a history and there are people who felt like Barbie wasn’t for them. This was a movie that understood that and was acknowledging it. Listen, the word “hate” is a tricky word for marketing and we don’t usually use it. But in this case, it allowed the tent of people to experience this movie and to realize that it understood the journey that Barbie has been on for the last 45 to 50 years.”

Warner Bros. President of Global Marketing, Josh Goldstine, in Variety (Rubin, 2023)

The movie addressing these challenges head-on with themes of existential struggles, self-discovery (Rome, 2024), and even criticism of Barbie (Haasch, 2023) was yet to be released so it was the marketing department’s job to get the ball rolling.

Following the release of the first movie trailer on December 16, 2022, Barbie announced a no-sign-in-required selfie generator developed in partnership with PhotoRoom, an AI-based photo editing app, on April 3rd, 2023. Initially, the slowly announced cast members used the filter to stoke the excitement around the film. Soon, the memes followed and the hashtag #thisbarbie, not only mimicked the job title-announcement style of the official selfies from the movie cast, but also highlighted the not-so-flattering but very realistic human conditions such as being broke, depressed, or in the process of becoming a crazy cat lady. 

The meme machine truly kicked in with official set photos or clips shared on the Barbie Movie accounts finding their way into user remixes. Fans played into the Big Ken energy with a “My Ken” trend featuring people celebrating the “Kens” in their lives, at some point garnering more than 69.8M posts on TikTok alone. The unexpected positive masculinity Ken angle – specifically “I am KENough” – resonated well with men and women alike, who enjoyed the message of self-acceptance.

The customers are the marketing department,” wrote Mark Schaefer (Schaefer, 2019, p.32) but even he had not envisioned the phenomenon that Barbenheimer was. Independently of the marketing efforts of the Barbie movie and the Oppenheimer teams, the audience immediately picked up on how extremely different the two movies were in terms of content and topic and began discussing double feature trips to see the movies after their simultaneous theatrical release (‘Barbenheimer’, 2024). Truly, a product of our times which only increased the relatability of Barbie. Even if some members of the audience did not identify with the doll, they did identify with the desire to escape into the Barbieland, especially to neutralise the effects of the excellent but depressing Oppenheimer.

  • We let the curious ones behind the scenes with detail-oriented content snippets that highlight the uniqueness of the Barbie movie.
  • Broad and welcoming –  Everyone is welcome to join the conversation about the role of Barbie in our society.
  • We are fun and casual but we communicate with respect, stay matter-of-fact and provide consistent updates on the development of the movie.

On the surface, the Barbie movie could be categorised as for kids (age 13 and up, as the movie was rated PG-13). However, the content strategy tells a different story. 

Look at the social media accounts of the movie. The captions on Instagram are written in a matter-of-fact tone of voice, praising the people behind the movie and announcing promotional milestones (such as the trailer release, the AI filter, or different promotions surrounding the movie) like a reporter. The text is sparse – the visual execution on the other hand is A+. Whoever planned the editorial calendar for the social media accounts did so with shareability and visual experience in mind. 

“For the younger audience, the campaign focused on highlighting the film’s imaginative and lighthearted elements, while also celebrating the brand’s timeless influence on the aesthetic for generations of girls.

For adults, the appeal of the film came from the cast and crew behind it. Greta Gerwig’s reputation for crafting subversive and compelling coming-of-age narratives with a focus on female characters created a sense of anticipation for her approach to the Barbie film.

The cast announcements of Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling further heightened expectations, leaving audiences eager to see what this talented team would deliver on the big screen.”

Quote from the “Dissecting Barbie: The Ultimate Case Study in Movie Marketing” article by Inside Reveel (Reveel, 2024)

It’s also clear that The Barbie Movie wanted to be considered unique not because of being a Barbie movie but because of how it was made. 

For example, the marketing team collaborated with the Washington Post in producing a pop-up newsletter called Unboxed, reaching an audience that did not know that they had to pay attention to the movie. The topics explored in the mailing were very much for adult eyes, telling stories of the cultural significance of the movie, including the long process of making The Barbie Movie happen following the long search for directors and cast or the life of Barbie doll collectors from where I sourced this telling quote:

“This film is like Jesus coming to Earth or something, the Second Coming,” said Simon Farnworth, a 53-year-old Barbie collector from outside London who sells new and vintage dolls on his website, Simon’s Collectibles. “It’s the most exciting thing to ever happen to a Barbie collector, I think.”

Quote from the “The Barbie merch explosion is ‘heaven’ for collectors of the iconic doll” Unboxed newsletter by Allie Jones (Jones, 2023)

To fuel interest in the “making of” a video tour of the Barbie movie set was arranged with the  Architectural Digest – an international authority on design and architecture aimed at an affluent and style-conscious readership. Led by Margot Robbie around the set, the viewers got to appreciate the artistry and skill behind the deliberate choices of scenography. 

Finally, we cannot undermine the importance of Greta Gerwig’s involvement with the project. Her reputation for crafting compelling stories focused on strong women set the tone for what to expect from the movie. Greta and Margot – both recognised in the movie industry for their work and grit – discussed the topic of Barbie and feminism, challenging critics to give the movie a chance, in an interview for ABC News In-depth. The director and cast appeared in different constellations in interviews and on the covers of TIME, Out, the Cut, Vogue Mexico, Vanity Fair, and The Wrap. 

While social media kept the constant flow of beautiful visuals and Barbie nostalgia going, the PR tour was very much about the cultural impact in the making of the movie and the themes that the cast was able to tell on the backdrop of the legendary Barbieland. 

The third communication goal is a great example of how to handle speaking to different audiences at the same time without sending mixed signals.

The example of Barbie movie is inspirational if not a bit extreme. Even more so when you understand that the movie was Mattel’s big ticket to put Barbie back on the pedestal and regain consumers’ trust after falling into irrelevancy (Beer, 2023). So much hinged on the success of the movie that the marketing campaign surrounded it had to be painstakingly prepared and executed (I am not even mentioning the budget). Now it has forever gained an uncontested place in the history of marketing for delivering a consistent and well-targeted experience that built up and maintained the excitement around the movie. And they made it rain:

“The Barbie brand itself practically doubled in value in 2023 compared to two years ago, now sitting at more than $700 million.”

Danny Parisi in his article “The ‘Barbie’ movie’s impact on culture and Mattel” for Glossy (Parisi, 2023)

A message architecture is one of the elements of creating that reliable consistency that captures the audience. With clear communication goals, a brand can set the tone for how it’s talked about online and offline. What is more important, it can anticipate and manage potential obstacles – such as when Gerwig suggested embracing the negativity that some felt about Barbie and making it part of the conversation. I recommend trying out the card-sorting exercise to explore the possibilities of brand message architecture for yourself.

* “It’s hard to see things when you are too close. Take a step back and look” – Bob Ross

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