Pink Power: 5 “Barbie” Lessons for Higher Ed Marketers

Need some more “Barbie” in your feed? Here are tips on the power of nostalgia, relevant partnerships and other cues from this summer’s biggest movie event.

3 minutes
By: Dr. Carrie Phillips

A blockbuster summer hit is putting the power of pink front and center. Yes, I’m talking about the “Barbie” movie that launched in theaters Friday, July 21. 

The movie is making a pink splash across social media platforms, television airwaves and in theaters with its $100 million budget for marketing.

For those of us working in higher education marketing shops, we probably can’t fathom a budget that size to tell our story. “Barbie” may have a big blockbuster budget for marketing, but there are some lessons higher education marketers can learn from the teams taking us back to the days of Barbie and Ken. 

Here are five takeaways that I think we should consider. 

Nostalgia Is Powerfu

Taking a trip down memory lane builds strong emotional connections. For many of us, “Barbie” is a look back at being children of the 80s and 90s. We reflect fondly on it but are also curious to see what’s changed in the story. When we consider nostalgic things, we tend to remember the best parts.

That means, as we tap into nostalgia, marketers can help people revisit the best parts of an experience. When engaging with alumni, legacy students and donors, we must harness that feeling of the “good old days” or the OG. Whether it’s an event, an email or a video series, we must find ways to capitalize on looking back at where an experience, an event or a tradition began but also engage the target group to create excitement about moving that experience forward for the next generation to experience.  

Make It a Moment 

The “Barbie” marketing team has done an incredible job of making everything about the movie a moment without excluding people. It started with Margot Robbie matching Barbie’s classic looks as she zigzagged at premiere events across the globe. Now, the trend is to don your pink when you head to your local theatre to take in the movie. 


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A post shared by Margot Robbie (@margotrobbieofficial)

The marketing team has done a great job of creating a moment in which people want to be included. And the good news: they can. They have found a way to invite everyone into the space with their pink apparel, without significantly burdening those who might not be able to execute a specific look perfectly. Higher education could do the same by creating traditions of wearing a specific color on move-in day, providing annual shirts to help people wear the brand or creating a way to engage all students in a specific tradition.  

Own Your Brand Colors

“Barbie” is teaching us that pink never goes out of style. It is just accessorized with glitter and sparkle. Seriously though, as higher ed marketing leaders, we can take note of Barbie’s strong brand familiarity. While I am sure the marketing team is already tired of seeing pink, they are resisting the temptation to add in other colors and change things up. 

Sometimes, the marketing team leads the charge to change something because we are sick of it first. Keeping it simple, clean and iconic is working. As a marketing leader, I’ve been in many conversations where someone else wants to change something because it’s old and dated. There are moments when that makes sense, but this movie just wouldn’t feel the same without the color pink and the round typography. We should be better at questioning those calls to change without valid, strong reasons, as it can impact our brand familiarity. 

Stick to Relevant Partnerships 

“Barbie” has found great partners to help spread the word. The team didn’t just pick random partners; they focused on partnerships where it made sense. For example, Progressive talking about bundling home and auto for the dream house, AirBNB crafting a dream house that could be rented, or OPI nail polish developing the perfect shade of “Barbie” pink. Although the AirBNB house is no longer on the market, HGTV is renovating and designing a Barbie DreamHouse for one winner to enjoy a “staycation.” The marketing team used partnerships judiciously and intentionally to advance the story, and they worked hard to avoid partnerships that didn’t make sense for the brand. 

In higher education, we are often eager to partner with anyone we can find. Instead, we’d be better served to pause and examine how these partnerships can help both groups succeed. When that happens, we see the best success and can do incredible, meaningful work. 

Don’t Underestimate Brand Awareness 

The “Barbie” movie is a classic example of the value of brand awareness. We know about it, and we know when it’s hitting theatres. However, not every billboard, bus wrap, restaurant pop-up or tv appearance can be tracked to a ticket bought. Although there are specific metrics that the Barbie team is tracking at the top and bottom of the funnel, “Barbie” is spending big on brand awareness, targeting a specific demographic and then retargeting. All three are working to drive sales in a relatively short window. 

For higher education, we need to be better at looking at the entire funnel, instead of just focusing on lead generation. We need to make sure people know more about us, as well as the work we’re doing. As a profession, we could borrow from the Barbie playbook to make sure that, regardless of where a person is in the buying journey, they see our message. 

Dr. Carrie Phillips

Dr. Carrie Phillips


Carrie Phillips, Ed.D, is the chief communications and marketing officer at UA Little Rock. She began her career as an assistant director and moved to supporting a team of creatives, to now leading both a marketing and communications team at a university in the state’s capital city. She earned her doctorate from Texas Tech, studying how universities are using marketing to mitigate the enrollment cliff. After finishing her doctorate, Carrie is now carrying on about higher education and leadership on her website She has presented nationally at multiple conferences including HighEdWeb, AMA, CASE, Hashtag HigherEd, and more.

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