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On Eve of Turning 40, Barbie Faces Midlife Marketing Crisis

February 04, 1999|GREG JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

She's had her share of plastic surgery, seen the spotlight shift to an upstart younger sister and heeded the call for diversity by evolving from blond bombshell to a multihued, multi-tasking, multimedia Barbie.

But as Barbie starts celebrating her 40th birthday party this weekend at the annual American International Toy Fair in New York, the world's best-selling doll faces a midlife crisis brought on by changing play patterns among Barbie's young fans and fundamental shifts in the way toys are sold.

Shipments of Barbie dolls, apparel and accessories fell by 14% in 1998 to just under $2 billion, a dramatic reversal for a play toy that for years delivered double-digit revenue growth for El Segundo-based Mattel Inc.

The doll's uncharacteristic slip notwithstanding, Mattel Chairwoman Jill Barad predicts that the parade of new Barbie products being introduced at Toy Fair will take Barbie to "high single-digit" sales growth in 1999. Speaking during a Tuesday conference call with analysts, Barad maintained that Barbie's future "has never looked better."

Barbie remains by far the world's most popular toy--sales at the retail level actually increased during 1998, although much of the sales were of merchandise marked down by retailers eager to clear their inventories.

But some industry observers are wondering if the world's first material girl has the right stuff to continue as a growth engine in an increasingly interactive age. Although Barbie has taken her first steps toward a multimedia future, observers say the doll's success remains tied to her role as a basic toy.

"Mattel wasn't just sitting on its hands last year, but for whatever reason, it didn't win the pot," said John G. Taylor, an industry analyst with Portland, Ore.-based Arcadia Investment Group. "What I think they need to see is kids start to head back into the doll aisle in a meaningful way."

As it tries to revive Barbie's fortunes, Mattel will continue to play to its decades-old strength of marketing myriad versions of the doll and her friends to girls between the ages of 3 and 8.

But Mattel knows that little girls can only buy so many dolls, so the Barbie line is being expanded to include a doll designed to appeal to older girls and younger teens with plenty of discretionary income.

The marketing plan calls for Barbie to continue her march into the hotly competitive world of interactive toys and games. Mattel also wants to craft a new line of Barbie-inspired fashions for girls that will be sold through department stores and mass merchants.

In short, Mattel wants to turn Barbie into a lifestyle brand that includes everything from music CDs to books. "Just as adults say, 'I want a Donna Karan suit,' we want girls to say, 'I want Barbie overalls,' " said Lisa McKendall, Mattel's director of marketing communications.

Mattel's battle plan runs counter to a world in which girls tend to put their toy dolls on the shelf as they see their peers gravitating toward more grown-up interests--and industry statistics suggest the trend is occurring earlier than ever before.

But Mattel counters that there's a market for Barbie among older girls. For proof, it notes that Barbie software registration forms show most buyers to be older girls or younger teens.

As Mattel tries to broaden Barbie's appeal to older girls, toy industry observers caution that the company must safeguard Barbie's relationship with young girls who use their imaginations to craft their own story lines each time they enter Barbie's world.

"That's the reason we've stayed away from entertainment and books with story lines, because we don't want to give Barbie definable attributes," McKendall said. "There's a very fine line to walk, and we're aware of that line at all times."

When apparel and accessories are counted, Barbie still sells the cash equivalent of 1.5 million dolls each week, so observers say she's well-positioned for a rebound. "The fundamentals are still in place, but Mattel has to put in place the vehicle to make it happen," said Eric Johnson, a professor at Vanderbilt University's Owen Graduate School of Management in Nashville who studies the toy industry. Mattel will stick closely to the formula it has used to build Barbie from a $200-million toy in 1982. Look for new occupations for the doll who's already toyed with more than 75 careers. Barbie also will squeeze new friends into her busy social calendar, and add to her sizable menagerie of cats, dogs and horses.

The avalanche of Barbie product starts this weekend in New York, where Mattel is painting the town Barbie Pink with advertisements on buses, billboards, taxis and trains. But the message will be different from that of recent advertising. Instead of telling young girls they need Barbie dolls, Mattel is shifting its marketing message to their mothers.

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