In the fantasy world of children's toys, there are a few franchises that manage to last from generation to generation. Not an easy thing to do, given changing tastes and technological advances that make toys more sophisticated each year.
One of those franchises that maintains its magic is Mattel's Barbie, who is turning 52 this year. Mattel continues to see sales surge for Barbie dolls and related merchandise. In January 2010, sales of Barbie globally were up 12% from the year-ago quarter, with U.S. Barbie sales up 9%. Sean McGowan, an analyst with Needham & Co., told MarketWatch that it's "by far the biggest increase in Barbie sales in over ten years."
Lately, Barbie has had a few blips, such as the closing of its flagship store in China, but overall the brand remains strong.
The depth of the Barbie product line is obvious from the doll's pinked out website — but the new excitement around Barbie this year comes from her long time male companion, Ken.
Ken Carson is officially a younger man (invented two years later than Barbie, which makes her a bit of a cougar) and he is enjoying a miracle makeover that's unusual for a doll. In fact, he's getting a new face based on a real person.
It all started with Ken making a comeback in last summer's Toy Story 3 blockbuster movie. Then in January, a television-like reality show featuring Ken launched, but it was restricted to online media and designed to appeal to adults, not kids. Genuine Ken: The Search for the Great American Boyfriend ran as an eight-part web series that culminated in a real guy winning the right to have the new Ken resemble him.
The winner was a 25-year old former Iowa State football player named Kurtis Taylor. That's right, Ken will now bear an eerie similarity to Kurtis.
The show debuted on Hulu and was cross-posted to the Barbie-branded YouTube channel, and got heavy social media supported on Facebook and Twitter, where there are character feeds for Barbie and Ken.
Genuine Ken was "among the most popular reality shows on Hulu," said Elisa Schreiber a Hulu spokesperson. comScore, a company that tracks websites and online usage, said Hulu had nearly 25 million unique visitors in January 2011.
Michael Rourke, CEO of the Hud:sun Media production company, said he proposed the online show to Mattel. "This is not branded entertainment, but brand adjacent," Rourke told the New York Times.
Stephanie Cota, SVP for worldwide marketing for Mattel girls brands, told the Times that the reality series, which ended March 15, "is a great way for grownup girls and boys to stay connected to the brand."
She said, in fact, that "the series is aimed at grownups. The Barbie brand resonates with three generations, from consumers who played with the dolls as children to those who love the brand today." Cota adds that the "Genuine Ken" series appears to have contributed to increasing the brand's Facebook likes which, she says, "have risen to 1.7 million in recent weeks."
Apparently, Ken's new face is not the only thing that will endear him to Barbie. This past Valentine's Day, Mattel made a big deal of the fact that "Barbie took Ken back."
Barbie and Ken's break-up was played out (hilariously) on social media, including Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and this tie-in to Match.com:
With their Valentine's Day reunion, Ken's Twitter feed posted one final tweet, merged into Barbie's Twitter feed (and heart):
The happy couple then detailed on Twitter and Facebook their make-up trip to Australia, from which they just returned. Back home again in the Barbie Dream House, Ken can continue to whisper sweet nothings in Barbie's ear — the new "Sweet Talkin' Ken" doll records anyone's voice for 5 seconds and plays it back in a Ken-sounding voice. That should keep the relationship going at least another fifty years.
Retail analyst Howard Davidowitz told NPR why Mattel's character-based social marketing and digital campaign was a smart play: "When you have a top brand, because there's so many private labels, so many knockoffs, the name of the game is to create buzz about your product. Nothing does that better than social media — nothing."
Barry Silverstein has been a frequent brandchannel contributor since 2007. He has thirty years of advertising and marketing experience and is currently a freelance writer and marketing consultant. He founded and ran his own direct marketing agency and held executive positions with Epsilon, a leading database marketing firm and Arnold, a major ad agency. Silverstein is the author of three marketing books, including the McGraw-Hill book, The Breakaway Brand, which he co-authored with Arnold CEO Fran Kelly.
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