Friday, December 26, 2008

It's Barbie, Bitch!

America's favorite playdoll is turning 50, and she's copping a 'tude!

Building An Edgier Barbie
By Nicholas Casey
The Wall Street Journal

Barbie turns 50 next year, and her luster has faded over the years. Now, Mattel Inc. executives have begun a sweeping makeover of the doll's marketing in advance of her birthday.

The company wants to return the doll to her roots, doing everything from revamping the corporate structure that oversees Barbie to changing the way the doll is photographed for ads. The goal: to make Barbie fashionable again with older girls, who are dropping her for other, edgier playthings like video games.

For years after her introduction in 1959, Barbie reflected and even shaped fashion trends with her bell-bottom pants and power suits. But the Barbie empire started to lose its focus in the past decade as Mattel put the Barbie name on everything from animated cartoons to golf clubs.

Goosing Barbie's appeal is crucial for Mattel. The world's largest toy maker is suffering from weakening consumer demand as the industry prepares for what's expected to be more than a 5% drop in toy sales for the Christmas season, the worst in a decade.

Sean McGowan, an analyst at Needham & Co., recently reduced his estimate of Mattel's fourth-quarter sales by $21 million to about $2.28 billion, citing weak sales before Thanksgiving. "They needed to be smokin' hot and they weren't," he says.

Video games and iPods aren't the only cause of Barbie's declining appeal. MGA Entertainment Inc.'s teenage Bratz line and, more recently, the Hannah Montana line, a Walt Disney Co. license whose dolls are made by Jakks Pacific Inc., have moved into Barbie's turf with sexy outfits and cutting-edge fashions.

Barbie had largely ceded the "tween" customer -- kids eight to 12 -- to Bratz and other toys, instead making do with an audience that skewed younger and younger.

"We had lost a whole piece of the business, the older girl," he says.

Around the time of the Bratz dolls' arrival in 2001, Mattel launched a new line with Barbie dressed as Clara, a character from "The Nutcracker." The new fantasy tack proved a boon to the company, leading to new characters each winter and spring. But it also pigeonholed Barbie as a doll associated with younger girls.

In the future, Mr. Dickson says, the company plans to anchor the brand more firmly in the world of fashion. Mockup ads for 2009 include close-up shots of Barbie's face and show the doll posing as a model in what Mr. Dickson says is a deliberate nod to fashion magazines like Vogue.

The company hopes to regain the "tween" customers with the edgier look, while holding on to the younger girls, who like to copy older siblings.

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