As a true American icon, Barbie has an appeal that in many ways transcends age. For millions of adult women, nostalgia for the Barbie dolls of their youth is something that they have never fully outgrown.
Despite Barbie's mythic sway over generations of women, however, one marketplace reality for the doll's maker, Mattel, is that the age span in which young girls play with Barbie has diminished considerably. Whereas two decades or so ago girls as old as 11 or 12 still played with their Barbie dolls, in recent years they have been saying good-bye to Barbie and moving on to more sophisticated pastimes at a younger and younger age. This early departure from the Barbie brand has caused Mattel to miss out on the huge and growing market of "tween" toy buyers between ages 8 and 12, a market estimated at nearly $5 billion a year.
"The primary market for Barbie now is girls from 4 to 7," acknowledges Cynthia Rapp, vice president creative for Barbie WorldWide. "We consider it a priority to expand that base, and to make Barbie important again to older girls as well as their little sisters."
Determined to reconnect with tweens, Mattel last fall teamed up with Minneapolis-based creative agency Peterson Milla Hooks to market My Scene, a Barbie-and-girlfriends ensemble for the tween set. My Scene Barbie features a very contemporary, made-over-for-MTV Barbie complete with low-rise jeans, pouty lips, and exposed navel. One friend, Madison, goes for high-style designer clothes, while the other, Chelsea, is more bohemian, with a penchant for denim, retro jewelry, and go-go boots.
"The goal," explains Rapp, "was to speak to these girls in a new and very untraditional way. We wanted to break frame with what people were used to, to make the look, feel, and style of the ads more like a hip, edgy fashion ad or an MTV video than what people conventionally think of as a doll commercial. "In order to create that kind of campaign," she continues, "we needed a really special agency not afraid to take chances. Peterson Milla Hooks fit the bill. They did a great job conveying just the right Ôvery cool teenager' look and quirky humorous tone tween girls can identify with and aspire to. And they did it in several different media."
According to Rapp, a major challenge of mounting an integrated campaign was to identify all the key media tween girls use regularly and are most influenced by. Another big challenge was to make the creative in each medium work together seamlessly and stand out as radically different from any doll ads seen before. Two types of TV ads were employed. Product ads began to run in early November on Nickelodeon and ABC Saturday, running steadily for two weeks before the launch of a wider brand campaign, which debuted the week before Thanksgiving. After introducing Barbie and her "buds" in the initial TV campaign, Mattel launched a branding campaign Rapp says "was completely unprecedented for us, and, we think, for the toy industry.
The TV branding campaign was clearly aspirational marketing. Most tween girls aspire to be very cool 16-year-olds, so the ads made My Scene Barbie reflect this aspiration." Barbie and her friends live in a very trendy urban neighborhood (evoking a PG version of Friends or Sex in the City) with great stores, cute boys, and beautiful clothes.
The branding campaign TV ads consist of short, animated narrative episodes involving the friends in urban scenes. In one scene, for instance, Barbie leaves her cell phone in the backseat of a cab, where it's found by a cute boy. Like a classic cliffhanger or a soap opera close, the ad ends with the question "Will the boy call her?" To find out the answer, viewers must go to Mattel's My Scene mini-site to catch further installments of the narrative. "We wanted to seamlessly connect the TV campaign and the website," explains Rapp. "So as we move from a TV episode to what we call a Ôwebisode,' people follow the campaign from medium to medium."
The My Scene mini-site adds further interactive dimensions to the campaign, giving visitors a look at each character's fashion, opinions, and lifestyle. Barbie and each of her friends have their own blog and webcam. In addition, there are chat areas for comment on fashion trends, music, shopping, and other areas of interest.
In addition to running the branding campaign ads on Nickelodeon and ABC Saturday, Mattel also bought ads for the first time on MTV and the WB network, primary media for the tweens demographic. The ads, which ran throughout December and January, will continue with constantly refreshed topic episodes. Rollout of My Scene also entailed print and outdoor ads. "With print and outdoor," Rapp explains, "we worked to achieve another kind of synergy. We started with a huge, 16-story billboard in New York's Times Square with images of each of the characters that looked exactly like a very trendy fashion photo. Under each photo is a quirky, tongue-in-cheek comment."
For instance, underneath an image of Barbie is the quote "Know What You're Made Of," with the attribution "Barbie, On Being Plastic." Each of these images will also be reprised in full-page print ads in J14, Teen People, and other key books catering to tween and teen girls. The print ads, which launch in February, will run throughout the spring.
The My Scene website archives all of the billboard images. Visitors to the site can also email the images as e-postcards to friends.
Mattel plans to introduce both new doll characters and new accessory products into the My Scene line as the campaign evolves.
Though the ad budget for My Scene has not been disclosed, it is described as involving a "major and ongoing investment." "What we are doing with My Scene," says Rapp, "is creating a new Barbie brand which is geared to a very different market than traditional Barbie. I can say we're off to a good start selling the dolls, but this is not a single-focus sales campaign. It's a long-term brand-building campaign, which we'll evaluate in phases.
"Even though many of these girls played with Barbies when they were a couple of years younger, their lives, interests, and motivations have changed," she says. "We want Barbie to grow with them. This is a huge market and we're committed to extending the Barbie brand to serve it."