By Quentin Fottrell
Barbara Millicent Roberts stood her ground in the face of less-than-classy rivals before, but some analysts say the 53-year-old doll may need to up her game to stay in fashion.
Mattel’s first quarter earnings plunged 53%, the toymaker reported Monday, and gross sales of Barbie fell 6% during that period in contrast to a 4% rise in sales for American Girl Brands. The iconic doll’s fortunes see-sawed in recent years, leading some analysts to question whether she needs another makeover. (She already received a facelift in 2009 for her 50th birthday.) “One of the great paradoxes of branding is that you must keep changing to remain consistent,” says Derrick Daye, managing partner at LA-based consultancy The Blake Project, “and Mattel appears to be losing the struggle to keep Barbie contemporary.”
Barbie faces competition from MGA Entertainment’s leopard print-clad Bratz and outdoorsy Moxie Girlz, and even Mattel’s less coiffed, freckle-faced American Girl dolls and Monster High dolls. The first three have plumper figures than Barbie’s svelte frame. Monster High is based on famous monsters and capitalizes on books, movies and TV shows like “Twilight” and “Vampire Diaries.” Jim Silver, editor-in-chief of TimeToPlayMag.com, says, “Instead of playing with Barbie, a lot of six year olds are playing with Monster High.” But he says Barbie is still the “queen” of the 3-, 4- and 5-year-old age group. Mattel spokesman Alan Hilowitz says Barbie remains “culturally relevant” and aspirational with an “I Can Be… President” doll coming in July with a dress by Chris Benz, who has designed for Michelle Obama.
That said, Barbie has also been slower than other toymakers to tackle some social issues herself. In February, MGA released bald versions (pdf) of its Bratz and Moxie Girlz dolls after social networking pages called for toymakers to create hairless dolls to support children with cancer. MGA will donate $1 from every doll to the City of Hope charity for cancer research. Mattel responded last week to a “Beautiful and Bald Barbie” Facebook page – which has nearly 160,000 likes – by distributing a bald “Friend of Barbie” rather than actual official Barbie doll to children’s hospitals in early 2013 with accessories like wigs, hats and scarves. “We made the decision not to sell these dolls at retail stores and profit from them,” Hilowitz says.
Barbie does have a few quick wardrobe changes planned for 2012. “Barbie continues to be aspirational, as only she can be,” Hilowitz says. In July, there will be a “Hunger Games” Barbie and a Barbie Photo Fashion doll with a fully functioning digital camera in the Fall. But, analysts say, she’s a prisoner of the past. “A main problem for Barbie is that she was created in the mold of the 50s archetypal, idealized woman: blonde, blue-eyed and impossibly slim,” Daye says. Independent retail analyst Jeff Green says that regardless of how fast Barbie changes, the world will change faster. He’s not convinced by her planned wardrobe changes. “She’s pretty, sure, but she isn’t high-tech enough,” he says. “She is to toys what Kodak is to outdated photographic technology.”