Royal Rumble

BY LEE HAN SHIH
Dec 14, 2006
*Special to asia!

Barbara Millicent Roberts, known to her numerous admirers simply as Barbie, needs help. For many years Barbie had reigned supreme in the cut-throat business of selling dolls to young girls. Now she is being mobbed by half a dozen women led by Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, and she needs reinforcements to fend them off.

 

Ever since she made her first appearance in the American International Toy Fair on March 9, 1959 (which makes her 47 this year), the 11.5-inch blonde bombshell has captured the hearts of girls from six to 16 all over the world. Year after year, Barbie in various guises— the ballerina, the bride, the brunette, on the beach, in the kitchen, you name it — has flown off the shelves at dazzling speed. Mattel, its manufacturer, claims that three Barbie dolls are sold every second of the day, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Perhaps not for long. Since 2000, Barbie has faced a growing challenge from The Walt Disney Company. While Mattel depends on just Barbie to drum up demand, Disney’s sales rest on a growing stable of characters that feature in its cartoons. The characters are popular, but doll sales had consistently lagged behind Mattel's. Then, some bright spark in Disney decided to package six of the best-loved characters – Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Belle of "Beauty and the Beast" and Jasmine, the paramour of Aladdin – into a new series called the Princesses, and sell them as a single collection. It was nothing but repackaging, but it worked. Sales boomed and by 2003/2004, the collection overtook Barbie. Today, the Princesses series brings in US$3 billion a year, against the US$2 billion by Barbie. In the Disney stable, the Princesses are major cash generators, and are poised to challenge the Winnie the Pooh family (US$5 billion annually) for the pole position.

Ken Chaplin, Vice President of Retail Sales & Marketing and Emerging Markets Asia Pacific of the Disney Consumer Products, explains that the Princesses "appeal to the romance and fantasies of little girls all over the world". Each Princess, he adds, has a unique character that girls can identify with: Snow White is grace, Cinderella is glamour, Sleeping Beauty is romance, Ariel (the mermaid) is adventure, Belle is compassion, and Jasmine is mystery. There is something for everyone.

Belatedly, Mattel has learned the Disney lesson. It has decided to fight fire with fire, or rather princesses with princesses. If Barbie alone finds it difficult to fight six formidable women, then turn the number game to her advantage. Like the gods in Indian mythology who created unique avatars of themselves to fight different foes, Mattel has reincarnated Barbie in a dozen royal versions — Princesses Kadley, Isla, Courtney, Fallon, Blair, Edeline, Genevieve, Ashlyn, Della, and three small assistant princesses. The 12 Dancing Princesses, as they are called, have been unleashed to fight the Disney Princesses head on.

So far it seems to be working. Sales of Barbie dolls in the third quarter of this year went up 1% (against the same period last year), the first rise registered by Mattel since 2003. But the true test will come this Christmas. Will the young girls, surrounded by other sources of entertainment from DVDs to instant messaging, succumb to the allure of the Princesses; and if they do, would it be Disney’s or Mattel's?

 

lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.

 

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