Six years ago, to the scorn of feminists worldwide, Mattel released Talking Barbie, a Chatty Cathy of a doll that could utter inspirational shibboleths such as ‘Math is hard,’ ‘Let’s go shopping’ and ‘Will we ever have enough clothes?’ Fast forward to 1999. Barbie’s handlers have done some major identity-tweaking. Gone is Talking Barbie and her ditzy dialogue. Today, the most popular doll of all time is singing a new tune. From the splashy Be Anything TV spots (featuring preteen girls speaking directly into the camera about their career aspirations), to the latest product lines unveiled at Toy Fair, the marketing message Mattel is trying to mold into its 40-year-old multibillion-dollar franchise is unequivocal: girl empowerment.
And nowhere does that message manifest itself more clearly than in Mattel’s Generation Girl line. The Gen Girls (US$22.99 each), which roll into retail this month, include an ultra-hip, funkily attired 20-something Barbie and five of her equally cool friends. Each doll comes with its own name, personality and career path. Barbie dreams of becoming an actress; Nichelle, a model; Chelsea, a musician; Lara, an artist; Tori, an extreme sports athlete; and Ana, an Olympic swimmer. The Gen Girl franchise will eventually include: books (the first two will be released in June, to be followed by a monthly book release thereafter); handheld electronics; licensed products such as cell phones, bags, inflatable chairs and cosmetics, which will be released in September; and software that’s hitting shelves in October.
Mattel’s strategy with the Gen Girl brand is transparent, toy watchers say. By infusing the Gen Girl line with the Zeitgeist of girl power, Mattel is betting it can attract girls six and up, a demograpic they’ve been losing to the industry-wide scourge of age compression. According Margaret Whitfield, an analyst who follows Mattel for New York’s Tucker Anthony, it’s a goal that’s worth pursuing. However, she remains dubious about its potential for success.
‘I think it will be a challenge to get girls in this age group interested in dolls again. [But] it would certainly be helpful to get slightly older children playing with Barbie dolls and related product once again, otherwise we’re destined for slower growth,’ says Whitfield. (Last year, retail sales of Barbie dolls and accessories remained flat at US$1.42 billion, according to the NPD Group, a Port Washington, New York-based market research firm that tracks the toy business.) A better tack, Whitfield advises, would be for Mattel to focus on developing Barbie software that skews to an older generation.
Ed Roth, president of the leisure activities business unit at the NPD Group, agrees with Whitfield’s assessment to a point, but doesn’t see it as panacea in the long term. ‘I’d be hard- pressed to believe that the Barbie software business would ever approach US$1 billion. I can’t see Barbie, even though it’s a great success, ever grabbing 50% of the software market.’ According to Roth, projected `98 sales of Barbie titles accounted for roughly US$60 million of the US$1.8 billion girls PC edutainment and entertainment software categories. So, what Barbie product categories should retailers be stocking up on? ‘I’d probably be a little more aggressive on the software lines, but I wouldn’t get rid of my doll aisle just yet,’ adds Roth. ‘The interactive product is still dwarfed by the total doll business, by about an eight or 10 to one ratio.’ Roth argues that there may be no quick fix available to Mattel for growing the Barbie brand. ‘I don’t think Mattel is running out of consumers, but consumers have more entertainment options available to them. That’s really what Mattel is competing against, whether it’s video games, computer software or movies,’ says Roth.