Holding back the years

The sponsorship deal between Mattel-owned Barbie and two children’s television channels on Cartoon Network is just one of the ways that the doll brand is facing the challenges of the modern toy market (MW last week). When the iconic doll reaches her 50th birthday next year, Mattel will start a year-long programme of activity and initiatives, all aimed at evolving Barbie’s world into an overall lifestyle brand for girls.

Barbie was invented in 1959 by Ruth Handler, the co-founder of Mattel, and named after her daughter, Barbara. Introduced at the American Toy Fair of 1959, Barbie was first marketed as a teenage fashion doll. In the past 50 years, she has acquired a boyfriend, Ken, and a wealth of paraphernalia ranging from houses and cars to pets.

Today, Barbie products include a huge range of branded goods such as books, video games and animated movies, and she has even been the subject of a multi-million selling record – Barbie Girl – which was released by Aqua in 1997. It is estimated that over 1 billion Barbie dolls have been sold worldwide in over 150 countries, and Mattel claims three Barbie dolls are sold every second.

Despite decades of success, experts say Barbie faces serious threats from the growing digital entertainment segment and doll competitor Bratz. Launched in 2001 by former Mattel employees, Bratz is now embroiled in a court battle with Barbie, with Mattel claiming the MGA Entertainment-owned Bratz dolls were designed in breach of its ex-employees’ contracts.

Futurebrand managing director Jasmine Montgomery says: “While Barbie occupies a huge amount of shelf space, both Bratz and digital games challenge her position immensely.”

According to Futurebrand data from 2004, Bratz has outsold Barbie dolls in the UK. And, while Mattel’s global sales in 2007 rose by 8%, sales of Barbie specifically rose by only 1%.

Montgomery attributes the success of Bratz to its refreshing identity, far removed from Barbie’s often-criticised impossible figure. Montgomery says: “While Mattel’s environmentally friendly Barbie accessories should be applauded, the pressing issue is Barbie’s body image. The mar-keting should revolve more around making girls feel good about themselves.”

But Mattel says Barbie will retain her physical identity and that “being consistent is one of her biggest strengths”.

Mattel senior marketer Trine Hammer-Frausing says: “New entrants will just provide more breadth in this space and help us innovate. Mattel does not think of them as a very grave threat to Barbie’s existence.”

Mindful that today’s children demand a high entertainment and digital quotient and want their offline buys to connect to their online lives, Hammer-Frausing says: “The digital roadmap is extremely high on our radar and we have initiatives such as Barbie.com and Barbie.everythinggirl.com that have over 9.5 million users worldwide.”

Mattel says the future of the brand will revolve around introducing consumer-centric marketing activities, television sponsorships and digital content. The company is introducing Barbie and Christmas Carol, the first ever Christmas movie for Barbie, and a digital DVD related to Barbie is to be launched in spring 2009.

In the opinion of industry experts, strategies such as introducing Barbie with inherent digital features or producing a modern variant such as a recyling Barbie would further boost the iconic brand.

While Barbie represents Mattel’s initial roots in girls’ toys, the girls division now dominates the market with several best-selling brands including American Girl, Diva Starz and Polly Pocket.

But Mattel is firmly committed to its flagship brand and has pumped a six-figure sum into the latest Barbie television sponsorship deal with Cartoon Network which, during its run between this month and Christmas, is expected to reach over 4 million girls aged four to nine.

Sue Burden, head of brand and communications at market analysts TNS, feels that Barbie is in good shape to compete in the dynamic toy market for some time yet. “Barbie has a very strong distribution line-up and an intrinsic charm,” she says.

According to Burden, the ups and downs that Barbie faces, such as criticism of her body shape, have not seriously hampered the brand and links with the fashion industry and celebrities, together with the Barbie website, will allow the doll to continue to reach its target audience. vFacts and figuresBarbie 1959 Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler invents the first Barbie and names it after her daughter, Barbara 1962 Barbie gets her first dream house with furniture made out of cardboard. Today, Barbie’s Dream House is three storeys high 1980 Mattel introduces the first Latino and African American Barbie dolls 2001 Mattel launches the first animated Barbie movie, Barbie In The Nutcracker. The company also launches interactive website Barbie.com 2007 Online virtual community BarbieGirls.com is launched. The website now has over 14 million registered users in the US and almost 1 million in the UK.

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