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`Sonic Brand' Marketer Pitches Barbie's Song

Tena Clark believes a three-note combination could become the classic doll's signature.

July 03, 2006|Charles Duhigg | Times Staff Writer

If Barbie were a song, what would she sound like?

The question sat in Tena Clark's mind as she drove through downtown Los Angeles last fall. Would Barbie be three notes, or four? Would they cascade up or down?

The answers were no small matter. With Barbie's sales sagging, toy maker Mattel Inc. had turned to Clark, a pioneer in the emerging field of "sonic branding," to help give the icon of American beauty a marketing face-lift.

Recent scientific research had suggested that distinct combinations of just a few notes -- known in the advertising world as a sonic brand -- could have more influence on consumers than the longer, frequently changing jingles Mattel had used for years.

Clark's mission was to develop a sonic brand that would define Barbie and become as recognizable as McDonald's golden arches, the five tones that conclude Intel's television ads or NBC's three-bell chime.

"There's nothing more powerful than music," said Clark, the 52-year-old founder of Pasadena-based DMI Music & Media Solutions. "Music is processed immediately in the brain's emotional core. If we can harness that, advertising will impact people in ways they've never imagined."

Corporate America is beginning to agree. Dozens of the world's largest companies are developing sonic advertising campaigns to compete with those that have emerged in the last few years, such as Yahoo's yodel and McDonald's "I'm Lovin' It." A Motorola musical burst -- "Hello Moto" -- has been remade into a ring tone and a hit song in Asia.

In anticipation of the World Cup soccer tournament, a five-note melody advertising the soccer group FIFA was mixed into songs by pop star Shakira and the classical group Il Divo.

Most sonic brands are versatile enough to be expanded into full songs. But typically, they are played alone as a three- or four-note melody so memorable, marketers hope, that they cut through the media clutter and lodge indelibly in consumers' brains.

"There are so many more media options now that it's important to have a song that can link television commercials, websites and the tunes that play on a kid's cellphone," said Richard Dickson, a senior vice president at Mattel Brands. "We're constantly looking for new ways to communicate with consumers that involve all the senses."

In an interview, Dickson declined to discuss advertising plans for Barbie. Executives at the El Segundo-based toy giant said sonic branding was only one of many options the company was considering.

But few sonic campaigns will be more closely watched than Barbie's, if Mattel moves ahead with it this year. With more than $1 billion in worldwide sales last year, the doll is one of the biggest products yet to get a sonic makeover.

Mattel began searching for a fresh marketing approach after Barbie's sales slipped 13% last year in the face of new competitors such as the saucy Bratz dolls. Clark pitched Mattel on a three-note sonic brand that could emanate from anywhere: TV commercials, store sound systems, display aisles, cellphones, speakers installed in Barbie boxes, Barbie movies and DVDs -- even the horn on Barbie bikes.

"Someday a little girl will walk through a store with her parents, and she'll faintly hear a few notes, and will turn to her dad and say, 'I want a Barbie doll,' " Clark said.

At first glance, Clark might seem an unusual choice to help revamp the image of such a classic American toy. A white, churchgoing lesbian from racially segregated Mississippi, Clark made her bones writing sultry R&B ballads.

But since starting her advertising firm in 1997, she has developed some of Madison Avenue's most successful sonic brands -- including McDonald's "Have You Had Your Break Today?"

To prepare for the Mattel assignment, Clark interviewed executives and surveyed previous Barbie advertising campaigns. Her conclusion: Barbie owners were smart, strong girls who were members of a special club. While Bratz dolls bared their midriff, Barbie didn't need to grow up too fast or obsess over boys or clothes.

Though Barbie has been derided by critics for fostering unhealthy body images and for teaching little girls to crave fashion and glamour, Clark thought her sonic brand could express the more empowering aspects of the doll.

"I wanted to find a way to say to little girls, 'This is your time to play and be young,' " Clark said. "This brand is a cause. I wanted something that would make a difference."

That required finding just the right notes. Months after pitching her idea to Mattel, Clark sat in slow-moving traffic on the 110 freeway, puzzling over chords. For weeks, she had experimented with various tone combinations. In the car or walking through the grocery store, she would suddenly hum a few notes to see whether they captured something Barbie-ish. Sometimes, she'd call her own voice mail to record a snippet of a tune that occurred to her.

But nothing seemed quite right.

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