Doll shape shifts with times

Mattel carefully monitors girls' habits

Pink is still the favorite color of most girls, but in the nearly 50 years since the Barbie doll debuted, girls’ tastes and habits have changed a great deal.

While girls from an earlier generation were well-versed in department store clothes, today’s girls are savvy enough to know what Fred Segal is, even if they’ve never been in one.

To stay cool, Barbie has also changed, aligning herself with the brand of the moment and moving into new arenas such as the Internet and movies.

“It’s part of the brand’s DNA — that the brand continually evolve as girls change,” says Richard Dickson, Mattel senior VP worldwide of marketing, media and entertainment. “If you look at Barbie at any moment in time, she’s a snapshot of what’s going on in the world and with girls.”

Like girl anthropologists, Mattel surveys and watches how they spend their days — their habits, how they play, their favorite colors — and studies popular culture, fashion and anything else that influences them. The company then uses that information to figure out how best to incorporate Barbie into girls’ lives, whether it be with the doll itself or a Web site or a movie.

It was through this careful study that the company saw girls’ habits dramatically shift around 2000, with entertainment and the Internet taking up bigger chunks of the day.

That led the company to launch Barbie.com and its first direct-to-video Barbie movie, “Barbie in the Nutcracker,” to make sure Barbie was part of the new lifestyle. Barbie.com attracts 64 million girls a month. For Mattel, it’s also given them immediate access to those girls to continually survey them on their changing interests.

To keep the doll on the hot list, Mattel has partnered with top fashion designers and brands such as Giorgio Armani and Citizens for Humanity. Fashion lines are created for women with the idea that the coolness trickles down to young girls who look up to them.

For example, this month, MAC Cosmetics and Mattel will launch a Barbie Loves MAC makeup line geared at women in their 20s to 50s.

“Our intent is not to have younger girls buy makeup,” Dickson says. “Our intent is to see Barbie associated with a cool, younger brand that she will continue to look up to.”

MAC Cosmetics senior VP and creative director James Gager notes that for women, the appeal of the brand is nostalgia. And since trends change, Mattel’s partnerships can last as little as a few weeks, which is the time frame for the MAC partnership.

Barbie has been a success in the DVD world because Mattel didn’t only rely on the brand name — it made sure the movies were high-quality, says Universal Studios family homevideo head Glenn Ross.

He adds that when Artisan introduced the first Barbie movie in 2001, some retailers questioned whether the doll would translate to video.

“Mattel produced such a fine movie that when they saw it, word spread,” Ross says. “The fact that Mattel had a toy line to support the video and vice versa really helped establish it.”

To avoid tiring girls out on Barbie, Mattel has avoided some partnerships — you won’t find Barbie lining the aisles of supermarkets, for example.

“We don’t just do anything to do anything,” Dickson says. “We do everything to answer the interest that girls have.”

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