LOS ANGELES - Barbie's going through a mid-life crisis.
After splitting with longtime boyfriend Ken earlier this year, she has sought refuge in shopping, surfing, bubble baths and partying with a crew of trendy pals on the beach in Jamaica. At 45, she even made a bid for the White House.
Then there was the makeover: A new set of Paul Frank fashions, her own fragrance, a new musical and a new man - spiky-haired Australian surfer Blaine.
But she's nonetheless going through a crisis, one that started at the cash register. While the Barbie brand as a whole generated $3.6 billion in global retail sales this year, according to manufacturer Mattel Inc., Barbie has seen sales slide over the past seven quarters. And in the last few years, rivals including the edgier Bratz have upstaged the iconic doll.
To re-energize its flagship brand, the world's largest toy maker set out to cast Barbie and her pals in a series of books, magazines and animated films, hoping the story lines would drive sales of the doll and her trove of accessories.
For girls 6 to 9, Mattel crafted stories with preteen scenarios - dance parties, dating and shopping. Barbie's look now better reflects current fashion trends. And Mattel signed "tween" diva Hillary Duff to promote the brand.
She's "the 'It' girl for the Barbie set," observed Chris Byrne, an independent toy consultant and editor of Toy Report.
Mattel is applying the story line concept to new and existing doll lines across Barbie's universe, though only about two-thirds of the new toys will be in stores this year, with the rest arriving in 2005.
"We need to make progress in regaining the confidence of retailers, and that takes time," Robert A. Eckert, Mattel's chairman and chief executive, told Wall Street analysts last month.
Perhaps a bigger challenge for Mattel is persuading parents and kids that Barbie is cool. That cachet has eluded the brand in recent years, particularly among older girls, many of whom either have lost interest in dolls or preferred Bratz.
Shopper Davina Lee, browsing the Bratz aisle at Toys R Us Inc. store in Burbank, said it's all about looks and attitude.
The Bratz, made by MGA Entertainment Inc., have disproportionately large faces, prominent makeup and sport hip, sexy clothing with hair to match.
"That's how kids dress these days," the 25-year-old student said. "Barbie's plain. Bratz look better."
Mattel hopes to alter that perception with design touches meant to give Barbie a younger, hipper look. There's Cali Girl Barbie - an update on Malibu Barbie - and the Jammin' In Jamaica series for the My Scene Barbie line that's intended to be direct competition for Bratz.
"The initial response to the Cali Girl has been good, but it has not been off the charts," said John Reilly, spokesman for Pittsfield, Mass.-based retail chain KB Toys Inc.
Other new products that Mattel hopes will attract older girls include the Fashion Fever Barbie line and her runway model look, and an "American Idol" Barbie inspired by the popular talent show.
Mattel has also redesigned the My Scene Barbie line. The line, which debuted in 2002, features Barbie as one of several characters decked in fashions that seem ripped from MTV and shows such as "The O.C." Mattel has updated their accessories with real-world labels including Levi's, Aldo and Sephora.
Mattel is confident storyline-centered marketing will draw Barbie fans deeper into her world. The approach was inspired by the successes of Mattel's American Girls brand dolls and fantasy-themed Barbies aimed at 3 and 4 year olds.
Last holiday season, the company saw strong sales from dolls inspired by its "Barbie of Swan Lake" movie. This year, it hopes for the same from its "Barbie as The Princess and the Pauper" animated musical. Also new is Fairytopia, which thrusts Barbie into a world of pixies and other creatures of fantasy.
Still, fantasy and princess motifs, which appeal to younger girls, won't help Mattel battle the Bratz for preteens.
"Bratz continues to have a strong market share with girls over the age of 6," said Margaret Whitfield, analyst with equity research firm Ryan Beck & Co.
How well the new Barbie concepts sell this season will help determine whether Mattel recovers shelf space and advertising support lost this year when retailers cut back Barbie orders, according to Jill Krutick, an analyst with Citigroup Smith Barney.
Mattel girls' brands spokeswoman Julia Jensen said executives familiar with Barbie's overhaul were not available to comment.
Mattel's CEO has said it's too early to tell whether or not the plan is working.
"It's difficult when you are in the midst of a turnaround to tell exactly where you are," Eckert also told analysts.
Shopper Maria Diaz, 21, said she liked the story line and accessories from the My Scene line, including a new take on Barbie's pink convertible (this one with a CD player). But the dolls' bare midriffs, low-slung slacks and short skirts are too racy, the medical assistant said.
"I'm used to the original Barbie, the old-fashioned Barbie," said Diaz, who was shopping for her nieces and nephews, ages 6 to 9.
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Mattel Inc.: www.mattel.com
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