Barbie’s in the dustbin as ‘Generation Z’ dolls mount an intelligent assault

Despite new-wave feminism, one apparently irreversible trend is that girls play with dolls (and boys with proto-military Bratz-eEequivalents). But time does move on, and the 56-year niche offered by Mattel’s ever-changing Barbies is being contested – mainly by rebooted Bratz dolls, product of MGA Entertainment. Both companies (and some newcomers) are having to face up to the truth that the 9-11-year market needs more than the flaccid Barbies longing for Ken dressed in spacesuits. This demographic (“Generation Z”) is part of the digitial remaking of the world itself – and so the new Bratz play-things can be bought with mobile phones and Twitter hashtags; and even Siri-style operating systems and avatars. That Bratz products have imitated Barbie in the past has been through an arduous legal turn-and-turn-about odyssey. Perhaps the first real attainment of artificial intelligence will arrive when your daughter’s Bratz starts to ask questions about you. – Peter Wilhelm

Bratz

By Claire Boston

(Bloomberg) – Look out, Barbie: the Bratz are back. A rebooted version of the pouty, heavily made-up fashion dolls will hit toy aisles on Saturday after an 11-year legal battle between Bratz’s MGA Entertainment Inc and Barbie’s Mattel Inc.

The Bratz franchise was a hit with girls a decade ago, before a judge ordered them to be pulled from shelves in 2009 over an intellectual-property dispute. Though that decision was reversed, the Bratz line fell into a slump. Now MGA is taking another stab at the doll market and trying to adjust to the shifting tastes of young girls. Today’s youths, known as Generation Z, are a heavily plugged-in group who have gravitated toward customisable features. They also have plenty of apps and other digital entertainment to choose from — something that wasn’t the case in Bratz’s heyday.

“Of course, they still play with toys and do imaginative play, but they’re digitally connected,” MGA Chief Executive Officer Isaac Larian said in an interview. “We’re bringing those two things together in many ways.” Thus, Bratz’s revamped dolls come with tie-in technology that lets girls download an app, create customizable Bratz avatars, and watch online stop-motion videos featuring the dolls. The new “selfie-styles” line also comes with mobile phones and earrings shaped like Twitter hashtags.

This isn’t Bratz’s first comeback bid. The dolls got a style makeover in 2010 that added leggings under short skirts and swapped halter tops for long sleeves. Fans complained that the new dolls weren’t the same quality as the old ones. MGA also experimented with new doll bodies, logos and slogans before pulling Bratz in 2014 to overhaul the brand.

Larian said the company lost “the DNA of the product”. To appeal to its vocal community of older collectors, MGA brought back the chunky purple Bratz logo it scrapped in 2013 and made sure the new lines included the four main dolls that debuted in 2001. The dolls were shrunk from a 12-inch body tested in 2013 back to their original 10-inch size.

MGA, a closely held company based in Los Angeles, is planning a marketing push to accompany the new dolls. That will include YouTube spots, TV ads, and a new website. After this summer’s rollout, the brand will release fall, winter and study-abroad themed dolls before the end of the year.

For Mattel, the renewed competition brings another headache to a company trying to stage its own turnaround. Barbie sales plunged 19 percent last quarter as the 56-year-old doll struggles to connect with modern girls. Mattel aims to update Barbie’s image with a Siri-style version of the doll later this year, though that effort has drawn criticism for potentially violating kids’ privacy.

The legal feud between the two companies stemmed from an allegation that Bratz designer Carter Bryant was working at Mattel when he came up with the concept. El Segundo, California-based Mattel sued MGA over the matter in 2004. MGA, meanwhile, argued that Mattel’s “My Scene” Barbies too closely resembled the Bratz line.

A judge ordered MGA to turn the property over to Mattel, but that decision was reversed. In the fight’s latest iteration, MGA is seeking $1-billion from Mattel, saying the company keeps a “how-to-steal” manual to help employees collect trade secrets about Bratz at toy shows. The suit, filed in January 2014, is continuing.

Both Mattel and MGA are facing fierce competition in the doll industry, said Jim Silver, who runs the toy review website TTPM. It may be tough for Bratz to win back its former glory. “There’s always opportunity — the question is what size will that opportunity be,” Silver said. “In terms of brands, the fashion doll aisle is as crowded as it’s ever been.”

The 6- to 11-year-old girls who once adored Bratz can now choose between Disney princess and Frozen dolls, Hasbro Inc’s My Little Pony Equestrian Girls and Mattel’s Monster High and Ever After High lineup. Larian isn’t worried about the competition. Spooky dolls — Monster High’s niche — are “over” and largely derivative of the aging “Twilight” franchise, he said. Today’s girls look for dolls they can customize with mix-and-match styles and share on social media.

“That creates a wide space for Bratz, for self-expression and creativity,” Larian said. “We’re basically going to be where the girls are with this brand.”


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