Spooked by the Idea of a Licensing Agreement? Barbie Taught Us There’s Nothing to Fear

“Your brand can’t be everything to everyone.” It’s a phrase I’ve heard again and again as a professional marketer with experience helping brands navigate major shifts. Apparently, Barbie didn’t get the memo.  

Without a doubt, 2023 will always be remembered as “The Summer of Barbie,” thanks to the diversification of the pink-tinged brand. The Barbie portfolio didn’t just diversify — it blanketed whole continents. From fast-food condiment packaging to high-end celeb luggage, Barbie imagery seemed to be everywhere due to Mattel’s seemingly endless licensing partnerships. 

Yet, despite this undeniable Barbie World branding invasion success, I suspect that many companies will remain hesitant to consider such bold types of licensing arrangements. In my 12+ years on the marketing scene, I’ve witnessed how most brands choose a lane and stick to it like glue. 

This protectiveness and risk aversion make sense, given that brand image is difficult to build and maintain. In cases where brands miss the mark the results can be catastrophic (think Bud Light’s Dylan Mulvaney collaboration). Brands need to lean into a mindset of “how can we connect with our audience in an out-of-the-box way” rather than avoiding a step outside of the box altogether, or failing to fully understand their audience and creating a misstep. 

I’ll be the first to admit that strategic brand licensing can be tricky to master. However, it can also be highly lucrative and powerful when handled correctly. To glean all the advantages of licensing with brands outside of your conventional wheelhouse, à la the Barbie franchise, consider applying these strategies to your branding and marketing initiatives: 


I’ve worked for companies who hold the terms “on-brand” and “off-brand” like a crutch. Want to make an intangible critique and quickly dismiss a marketing project or idea? Call it “off-brand” and watch it disappear. 

Eventually, the premise turned into somewhat of a joke that spilled into my life outside work. Ordering a second margarita while out with friends? Decidedly on-brand. Navigating the dreaded pick-up queue at LAX as a favor? Sorry, airport runs aren’t on-brand for me. 

Although I’m making light of this penchant to definitively classify things, it’s not entirely humorous when you consider how it breeds black and white thinking within organizations. The truth is that the pathway to loyalty, brand awareness, and revenue requires you to be flexible and explore how your brand can adapt to the gray scenarios. If we’re not willing to stay open to trying different approaches or being a little inventive, we’re limiting our success. 

During my career, I’ve assisted brands in adapting to significant changes, so I know it’s possible to think “outside the brand.” For example, I supported a bridal company that transitioned from physical retail and print advertising to being fully equipped for digitization. The company was forced to reimagine their brand in an entirely new context and plethora of new channels, while maintaining the consistency that was responsible for its successful earlier years. The good news is that it evolved as a brand without alienating its existing demographics, even though the team stretched and changed its thought processes. 

These principles similarly apply when looking at the creative use of brand license business models and how you could build them into your existing branding and future strategy. In my current position at Hologenix, we’ve developed brand partnerships for our flagship ingredient, CELLIANT®, with medical textile manufacturers, luxury loungewear designers, mattress and bedding makers, and others. The goal is for our partners to maintain their brand image while folding our technology into the mix. It takes time to get everything nailed down, but it can all work. After all, how do you think Barbie got away with making everything from roller skates to toothpaste to donuts feel on-brand? 


What does a hamburger have in common with a board game? Monopoly and McDonald’s somehow made us forget how dissimilar their brands were by forging ahead with their absolutely one-of-a-kind promotional partnership. In fact, their collaboration was met with so much initial interest that it has become a mainstay. Every few years, the Monopoly game pops up again — and everyone rushes out for shakes, fries, fun, and freebies. 

Instead of dismissing collaborations immediately as impossible or ill-fitting, you’ll need to reframe your thinking and shift your attitude. Admittedly, this can be difficult depending on where you work. In many organizations and corporate cultures, the tendency is to be cautious first and foremost. But businesses that shed their traditionalism can take the guerrilla marketing route and suddenly compete, even if they don’t have a big budget. While not all companies will have the budget of the Doritos/Taco Bell partnership, all companies can take a lesson from these two bold brands, both of which were unafraid to reimagine their appeal in a way that has obviously paid off.

Not long ago, we developed a brand licensing strategy with Duluth Trading Company that illustrates this point well. The company licensed our CELLIANT technology and leveraged its corresponding claim of benefiting local circulation in a decidedly “cheeky” way. In its advertising for men’s recovery underwear, Duluth promised to help guys enhance their performance, stamina, and endurance “where it matters most.” 

Most brands would have shied away from this style of humor. By leaning into it as an opportunity to stand out, Duluth is seeing terrific success. It saw an untested brand partnership as a chance to zig while everyone else was zagging. In doing so, the company surprised and delighted its customers because it looked at opportunities from a “win-win situation” perspective. It is the ultimate case study about how our wellness textile brand can be folded effectively into any brand’s DNA to help them tap into the health and wellness movement.  


The nostalgia and whimsy of Barbie turned out to be an irresistible movement that tons of businesses wanted to be part of. It’s not the only trend or movement out there, though. Your job should be to keep up with cultural phenomena so you can tap into movements. 

Take the mash-up between United Overseas Bank and Taylor Swift. UOB wanted to stay on the pulse of what was happening and tap into a movement, so it offered exclusive presale access to Swift’s record-breaking Eras Tour in Southeast Asia. The partnership paid off both figuratively and literally. Not only did people get early access to see Swift in concert, but UOB saw an increase in credit and debit card applications across the board. 

Swifties aside, the ongoing discourse around health and wellness is another example of a growing trend that presents fertile ground for brands to showcase their commitment to the well-being of their audiences. A licensing agreement with CELLIANT helps brands tap into this hot cultural movement, turning their everyday products into health and wellness items, and innovating in a customer-centric direction. Utilizing innovation partners to help you branch out and stay on the pulse of trends allows your brand to be the hero in terms of cultivating a likable and trustworthy brand persona that harmonizes with larger societal dialogues.

At the end of the day, it’s as hard to be a brand as it is for Barbie to find a closet big enough for all her stylish apparel. However, if you are ready to discover what a CELLIANT licensing partnership could do for your brand, exploring creativity in your marketing as a ticket to improved loyalty, instant fandom, and broader reach, then we invite you to get in touch by filling out the form below. We’d love to show you how CELLIANT can be “on-brand” for you.


Charlotte Pratt, Marketing Director at Hologenix, believes that organizations need to branch out to license with brands outside their normal wheelhouse, à la the Barbie franchise. To do so, brands need to ditch the motto of “that’s not on brand,” which limits their opportunities to promote themselves. Untried collaborations are key — think Barbie and Dragon Glassware — as they can help companies revamp their appeal and reach wider audiences. While Barbie became an irresistible movement that numerous businesses wanted to join, it’s not the only trend out there. Brands must constantly be on the lookout for the next movement that will match their image and goals. A version of this article was originally published on Media Post.