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Watch out, Barbie: Mattel's edgy Monster High is in session

The new fashion-doll franchise is a dramatic departure for the company, which is launching a slew of toy, apparel and entertainment products all at once.

August 13, 2010|By Andrea Chang, Los Angeles Times

Barbie wouldn't last a day at Monster High.

The latest fashion dolls from Mattel Inc. are a dramatic departure from the toy maker's most recognizable blond: As the offspring of famous monsters, the new Monster High girls are fearless, occasionally furry and a bit freaky.

There's Draculaura, daughter of Dracula, who is vegan and faints at the sight of blood. Her best friend Clawdeen Wolf, whose father is Werewolf, spends much of her time plucking and shaving her excessive, fast-growing hair. And classmate Frankie Stein, who sports stitches just like dad Frankenstein, loves to shop for "scary cute clothes that are absolutely to die for."

"They're fun characters to build a world around," said Tim Kilpin, general manager for Mattel Brands. "Who doesn't feel like a freak in high school? It started with that universal truth."

Six of the dolls — five girls and one boy — began hitting the shelves at major retailers and toy stores in recent weeks, with a suggested retail price of $16.99 per individual doll. Now, El Segundo-based Mattel is ramping up the rollout of Monster High products and advertising with a number of events planned for, fittingly, Friday the 13th.

Monster High marks the first time that Mattel has introduced a new toy concept as a complete franchise, far from its typical approach of rolling out a toy first and evaluating its success before moving forward with related products.

At a time when many of the industry's most successful toys, such as "Toy Story" and "Transformers" products, are linked to popular movies and television shows, toy industry experts are calling it a bold move for Mattel.

"It is innovative, but there's a much bigger risk to doing something like this instead of a built-on extension of an existing brand," said Gerrick Johnson, a toy analyst at BMO Capital Markets. "It's not like it's a new Hot Wheels stunt part or something — it's something that's entirely new."

Already, shoppers can buy Monster High dolls, youth apparel and accessories in stores (prices range from $3.90 to $42.90); see animated webisodes and character bios at http://www.monsterhigh.com; and become fans of the franchise on Facebook.

On Friday, Mattel takes over the YouTube homepage to promote the brand and debut a music video set to the Monster High "Fright Song." A young adult book series about the characters hits bookshelves Sept. 1, followed by Halloween costumes at Party City and, in a couple of years, possibly a feature-length movie.

With its lineup of creepy characters, Mattel is capitalizing on the vampire and werewolf obsession that has infiltrated books, movies, television shows and magazine covers in recent years and making it relevant for pre-teens, or "tweens." Analysts have praised the creative, quirky storylines at Monster High, where students play "casketball" and try out for the "fearleading squad."

But the biggest challenge facing the brand will be whether young, image-conscious girls can get on board with dolls that look more like kids from the Addams Family than pals of Barbie or the American Girls.

"Fashion dolls are tricky, because fashion dolls have an emulative aspect or an aspirational aspect. Girls want to be Barbie … but I don't know how many girls aspire to be Draculaura or Frankie Stein," Johnson said. "One reason why Shrek was never a good toy line — never has been, never will be — is because boys want to be Luke Skywalker, they want to be Optimus Prime, Spider-Man. They don't want to be a green ogre living in a swamp."

That wasn't a concern for 8-year-old Ashly Garcia as she rushed over to the Monster High section at a Justice youth apparel store in Westside Pavilion this week, snatching up the remaining Clawdeen Wolf doll and a hot pink Monster High journal.

"I have lots of dolls, but in real life I don't like them," she said. "The only one I like is this one. I'm going to play with her a lot with my friends."

For Mattel, launching a slew of toy, apparel and entertainment products all at once is a strategy that the company hopes to employ further in the future, Chief Executive Bob Eckert said.

"That's a model that we're keen on — franchise management, if you will. Not just creating toys but creating brands," he said. "We used to be just so myopically focused on the toy and its features. We're now starting to think much broader."

Retailers say they're seeing early indications that the line will perform well.

Store associates at the Justice store in Westside Pavilion said they have had trouble keeping the dolls in stock and are fielding calls throughout the day from kids and their parents looking for specific characters (Frankie Stein is currently the most sought-after).

"It's been a very long time since we've carried dolls in our store, and they're extremely popular," said Leslie Armour, who heads strategic partnerships for Justice, a mall-based retailer of tween apparel and accessories. She said the company placed an order for more dolls last week because they've been selling so well.

"What we saw was something that was fresh," she said. "It took on the whole craze of vampires and made it fun and very comedic. It has a little twist to everything, and tweens really like that."

Such was the case for 8-year-old Maya Reynoso, who rolled her eyes at the mention of traditionally girly toys, saying she hadn't played with dolls since she was 4.

Yet the soon-to-be fourth grader picked out a pink hoodie with the Monster High skull logo at the Justice store this week and even paused to admire the dolls before deeming them acceptable.

"They seem like they would kill Barbie," she said.

andrea.chang@latimes.com

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