New kids challenge Barbies’s dominance

Barbie’s reign as the queen of the doll world is under threat from the Bratz Pack, but there’s plenty of life in the old girl yet, says Adam Grossman

Barbie may be 44 years old this year, but Mattel’s plastic princess has shown little sign of stepping down from her pedestal as the world’s best-selling fashion doll. During the past four decades she has seen off many competitors, however, the latest, the Bratz Pack, appears to be mounting a major challenge.

Bratz was launched in the UK in 2001 by licensee Bandai, a few months after its debut in the US, where the fashion dolls went down a storm. But now the Bratz presence and marketing activity is about to increase as the US-based owner of the dolls, MGA Entertainment, is setting up a joint venture with Vivid Imaginations to relaunch the range (MW last week).

Bratz had no major marketing push, but through word-of-mouth and industry buzz the UK shipment sold out during Christmas 2001. A large marketing campaign in summer 2002 helped to shift 15 million Bratz in the UK by the year’s end. Sales estimates for 2003 are double that figure.

“Bratz may have originally been seen as a fad, but its market share has grown to a size where it is beyond such accusations,” says Bandai marketing director Rosemary Bayles.

However, Bratz is up against Barbie, which has stayed at the top, seeing off imitators such as the UK product Sindy through innovation and well executed brand extensions. Barbie moved into the world of animated movies and videos in 2001 with Barbie in the Nutcracker and a third feature is due this Christmas, Barbie of Swan Lake.

Children can also play with Barbie and her world in a computer game format, read about her adventures and dress in branded clothing. Barbie is no longer just a dolls range, but a lifestyle empire. Total UK retail sales of all Barbie merchandise reached £200m in the UK last year and $3.6bn (£2.26bn) globally, according to Mattel.

But the new kids on the block might be able to break the mould – or at least offer Barbie a decent cat-fight. The core Bratz pack of Cloe, Jade, Sasha, Yasmin and Meygan have shaken up the market with their mix of street fashion and ethnic diversity. One term that has been used for them is “the anti-Barbie”.

Mattel claims that Barbie has a 60 per cent share of the UK fashion doll market according to NPD data, while Bandai claims that Bratz had a 16.6 per cent share in February, also according to NPD data. But figures for May rank the Bratz assortment range as the number two selling toy in the UK, with the highest placing Barbie range being My Scene at 16.

Vivid chief executive Nick Austin predicts that the link-up with MGA will make his company “the clear number one girls’ toy company in this market”. Vivid Imaginations was launched in 1992 and has had such a meteoric rise industry experts consider the company as a peer to Hasbro and Mattel.

In the past, Mattel has seen off challengers to Barbie, one of its major brands, by adopting the features that made any rival dolls so hot. This is what it did in November when it released its own up-to-date and hip doll, My Scene Barbie. The move was seen by some industry experts as a direct response to Bratz, something Mattel denies.

However, the similarities to Bratz were evident to any casual observer of My Scene Barbie with its larger head, poutier lips, short skirts and platform shoes. It even mirrored Bratz’s “a fashion for passion” billing with its “fashion teens on the city scene” tagline.

But MGA Entertainment will be taking a leaf out of Mattel’s book by grabbing some of the licensing action and developing a revenue generating wide-ranging Bratz empire. It signed a deal with The Licensing Company to transform the Bratz range into a lifestyle brand in March. This year’s extensions have included a Lil’ Bratz range and slumber party packs, while tie-ins with Penguin for a range of books and a deal with Hasbro for jigsaws and games are scheduled in the next 12 months.

The arrival of Bratz has boosted the fashion doll market overall by helping to bring older girls, in the eightto 12-year-old age group, back to the fold. This point is made by Mattel’s marketing manager for girls division Angela Zirilli, who generously says: “Bratz has been good competition to have. The range has brought a lot more attention to the fashion doll market.”

Sales in the fashion doll market were up 18.5 per cent in February on the same period last year, according to NPD. And girls’ dolls comprised seven of the top ten toys in the UK last year.

Encouraged by the growth in the market, which has been boosted by the launch of Bratz, Mattel is preparing to launch its latest fashion doll range, called Flavas. This range, which has no connection to Barbie, is due to be released this year, and while details are being kept under wraps, one industry source describes the range as “much more of a direct response to Bratz than My Scene was”.

The fight to determine which fashion doll wears the trousers in this lucrative market is set to continue.

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