Consumer Products

Toycos take tween doll play out of the closet

Watching Bratz blitz the fashion doll category in 2001, many toy marketers had to be asking themselves, 'Why didn't we think of that?' The tween doll formula - über-hip girls with oversized heads and feet - might evoke a few 'duhs' now, but there was a time when toycos worked from the assumption that tweens were simply too sophisticated for doll play.
February 1, 2003

Watching Bratz blitz the fashion doll category in 2001, many toy marketers had to be asking themselves, ‘Why didn’t we think of that?’ The tween doll formula – über-hip girls with oversized heads and feet – might evoke a few ‘duhs’ now, but there was a time when toycos worked from the assumption that tweens were simply too sophisticated for doll play.

‘For several years, [toycos] have said that girls were out of traditional fashion dolls after age six, but the reason they were is that they couldn’t really relate to them,’ says New York-based toy analyst Christopher Byrne. In the current cultural climate, six- to eight-year-olds have moved away from typical princess or ‘I want to be a doctor’ play towards taking a genuine interest in fashion and lifestyle, which is reflected in what they watch and listen to, Byrne says.

Around 15 million Bratz dolls have sold worldwide since the line’s June 2001 retail debut, and research played a key role in developing the winning tween doll formula. In focus group testing, L.A.’s MGA Entertainment put Barbie next to early Bratz prototypes and asked girls what Barbie reminded them of. They said, ‘Our mother.’

And Bratz? It represented what they aspired to be – teenagers. After taking cues from its target demo, MGA intentionally positioned Bratz as the anti-Barbie, with much of the research pitting it against the quintessential fashion doll. For instance, Barbie was 11.5 inches tall; Bratz would be one inch shorter since tweens connected with smaller dolls in testing. (And it ensured that competitors like Barbie wouldn’t fit into Bratz fashions.) Another discovery was that a tween-targeted doll needed to stand on its own – something the traditional Barbie couldn’t manage – for fashion display and accessorizing.

MGA CEO Isaac Larian says research also revealed that tweens are more detail-oriented than anticipated. A tiny fashion element few adults would notice – an embroidered hem on the doll’s pants, let’s say – was monumentally important to tween focus groups. That fashion relevancy – something MGA keeps top-of-mind as it refreshes the brand every three months – is critical to the doll’s appeal.

Bratz TV spots also struck a nerve, showcasing the dolls in an animated music video style without any of the traditional play scenarios. Slow-building with one spot (‘Mall’) debuting in conjunction with the North American launch of the dolls and another (‘Beach Party’) in spring 2002, four new Bratz spots aired this past holiday season (‘Spa,’ ‘Cruisin,’ ‘Clubbin’ and ‘Totally Glam’). MGA handles all of the creative in-house and purchases space on tween TV destinations like Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, ABC Family and Canada’s YTV. Two more spots are slated to begin airing this spring, with another five or six planned for fall.

Spots for Mattel’s My Scene Barbie dolls (launched in November 2002) are equally hip – a departure from the toyco’s pretty-and-pink Barbie marketing strategy. Three recent ads produced by New York-based Curious Pictures for agency Peterson Milla Hooks are essentially urban short stories that end in cliffhangers. The 15-second animated spots (‘Webcam – Barbie,’ ‘Webcam – Chelsea’ and ‘Webcam – Madision’) tap into tween interactivity through a closing tag that invites viewers to the website to find out how these stories end: How does Barbie get her cell phone back after leaving it in a cab? Mattel also extended beyond its traditional advertising channels to hit tweens where they live – mainly MTV (TLC and Becoming), Nickelodeon (TeenNick and SNick) and The WB (Gilmore Girls and Sabrina), says spokesperson Julia Jensen.

Of course, My Scene isn’t Mattel’s first crack at the tween market. It has the license for Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen dolls, and launched What’s Her Face! at same time as Bratz. What’s Her Face! currently ranks ninth in overall sales, according to the NPD Group, and the line appeals to the tween market because a child needs a certain dexterity to craft a viable face. The company came a little closer to tween market paydirt a few years ago with the My Generation doll, which reaped 80% of its sales from girls ages nine and up. Its popularity was short-lived, however, with Mattel scrapping it just two years after its 1999 launch. Says Jensen: ‘Unfortunately, we took our eye off that ball and didn’t evolve the My Generation girls quickly enough.’

Now Mattel is back in the game, expanding the My Scene line and evolving its Diva Starz brand to better attract tweens. Introduced in 2000, Diva Starz was initially more of an interactive toy featuring then-new speech technology. In subsequent years, the company has worked on establishing personalities for the dolls. ‘And now we’re starting to dial up the fashion play,’ says Lisa Gaudio, Mattel’s VP of worldwide girls marketing. In fact, last fall’s line was called Fashion Divas – taller than the original and designed to wear fabric fashions rather than the plastic garb assigned to Diva Starz. Gaudio says Fashion Divas allow for more creative play because they aren’t programmed with voice features.

Naturally, the play patterns of preschoolers and tween girls are fundamentally different, and ‘the older girl wants a baseline,’ claims Gaudio. While a preschooler is discovering the world and uses fantasy in her play, a tween is trying to determine who she is and will focus on more realistic play. ‘[Tween] dolls are a way for a girl to experiment with who she wants to become,’ says Gaudio. And that’s why character traits – what she wears, her zodiac sign, her favorite color – are so essential in a tween doll.

For MGA and Mattel, that ‘baseline’ appears to lie in outreach efforts such as websites for their respective doll lines. The site – home to a Bratz fan club, product showcase, newsletter and contests – racked up close to 28 million hits in 2002. In December 2002, a mere one month after its launch, hits on Mattel’s website had doubled to 1.5 million, making it one of the most successful site debuts in the toyco’s history. In addition to the ‘Webcam’ ads (with answers to the cliffhanger endings), the site features a game, e-cards, desktop wallpaper, on-line shop, character pages with a personal journal and a fashion trend newsletter.

But how do Bratz, My Scene and Diva Starz avoid stepping on each other’s oversized toes? ‘Bratz and My Scene can compete side-by-side,’ says Byrne. ‘Bratz has the advantage of momentum and word-of-mouth, while Mattel has the ability to advertise.’ For its part, Diva Starz’s advertising will consistently reinforce the brand’s point of difference over Bratz and My Scene. Diva Starz dolls are much more fantastical than either brand, which promotes a different play experience, says Gaudio. For now, Mattel seems to be putting most of its focus on My Scene, adding two new friends this year – a boy and a girl – along with cars, fashions and accessories including a music mixer that’s designed to appeal to the target group’s strong identity with music. ‘Obviously, it makes sense to connect the brand with music,’ says Gaudio.

Other companies are thinking along the same lines. Bandai entered the tween girl market for the first time last month with its soft launch of Glamma Jammaz (US$9). The line features six dolls, each with an instrument or microphone that plugs into a speaker and interacts, so the dolls can play alone or as a band. ‘We wanted something that tapped into the trends of fashion and music,’ says Matthew Golding, senior marketing manager. The six dolls, each with its own distinct personality, allow for the character-driven, open-ended play that tweens enjoy. The TV campaign, created by J. Walter Thompson and slated for pre-Easter, features the characters as if they are members of an actual band, says Golding.

A caveat to other market players eager to get in on the action: Toycos must ensure that their tween dolls remain just that – tween dolls – without getting co-opted by younger girls. As soon as that happens – and it’s always a threat – they’ll lose their tween appeal. MGA is trying to beat preschoolers to the punch by offering them their own version of Bratz this year. Launching this quarter, L’il Bratz (US$5.99 to US$14.99) are miniature incarnations of the doll with matching accessories.

Mattel is also taking measures to ensure that My Scene doesn’t fall into the wrong (read: smaller) hands. ‘There are certain themes with My Scene that we will simply stay away from,’ says Jensen. ‘The My Scene girls will never become babysitters.’ Apparently, the seemingly innocent babysitting scenario screams ‘mommy and baby’ to the younger child – absolute bliss for their nurturing play patterns.

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