Dolls living the high life
Since its US launch in June 2001, doll brand Bratz has run former doyenne Barbie off the scene. But as its success escalates, industry insiders wonder how much longer it can maintain this momentum.
MGA Entertainment, the company behind the brand, is setting up its own UK business in 2008 having severed its four-year partnership with Vivid Imaginations (MW last week), which has held the UK licence for Bratz since 2004 - it launched in the UK in 2003 under Bandai. Both parties say the split is amicable despite refusing to say whether the partnership came to a natural end, but rival Mattel says the move raises questions over the brand's future.
According to the latest figures from consumer and retailer information provider National Purchase Diary (NPD), Bratz owns 55% of the £100m-a-year British fashion dolls market and Vivid says Bratz has remained the dominant leader in the industry for 27 consecutive months.
Vivid marketing director Emma Sherski says the brand's success has been driven largely by new product development. "MGA continues to deliver fresh, innovative dolls that appeal to girls above the age of seven," she adds.
The dolls would perhaps never have materialised had MGA chief executive Isaac Larian not taken his 11-year-old daughter into the office. Although Larian thought the prototype doll unsightly, he was swayed by her approval and pressed ahead with production. Yet, industry buyers were unimpressed with the first samples in 2001 and Toys R Us cancelled initial orders due to poor sales.
Despite this, Larian borrowed money for extra advertising and by Christmas 2001 sales had taken off. Since then more than 150 million Bratz dolls have been sold around the globe and now generate annual sales of £1.26bn, although MGA refuses to disclose profits from the brand.
And the brand's portfolio of products has grown inexorably. In the past year alone fashion line Bratz Couture has been rolled out, a hand-held games console called Miuchiz launched to take on established brands such as Nintendo in targeting young girls, and a live-action Hollywood film will hit cinema screens later this year. It also launched the Bratz Diamond products including a DVD, playset, video games and dolls packaged with a real diamond.
Ronnie Dungan, editor of Toy News, says Bratz has stolen a big chunk of market share from rival Barbie since its launch. "I can't however confirm who is actually the market leader," he says. "There are two sets of figures provided by both brands claiming it is them, but the leading position is just too close to call."
He does acknowledge that Bratz has expanded on Barbie's target market by enlarging its age group to include girls aged between seven and 12. "Bratz has found the winning formula and is pushing the right buttons. It is expanding as a franchise but that is the norm. Children are no longer just impressed by toys, they want the whole package, the mobile technology and online social networks - it has to be much more than just a doll."
Anna Eggleton, senior consultant at The Value Engineers, says the Bratz success rests on a variety of factors including a strong "collecting appeal" for youngsters, affordable prices and functionality with items such as make-up, combs and lip balm. "The dolls also allow girls to emulate adults, and hold a strong appeal to the Hello magazine generation of mothers," she adds.
Although Bratz leads the UK doll market with 55%, this has fallen from 65% last September, according to NPD figures. Sherski claims the decrease can be seen across the whole toy market and is only a blip, but other industry insiders are not so sure. Vivid invested heavily in the marketing of Bratz, increasing TV advertising spend by 50% year on year since its UK launch in 2004.
But whatever the marketing investment, Eggleton warns the brand's solid link to fashion trends may be its ultimate downfall. "I wouldn't be surprised if Bratz has already peaked, as the toy market is very fickle. There is a certain type of fashion around at the moment that is associated with the brand and I don't think it has had a good idea in the past eight months. The only way it can keep expanding at this rate is by extending its franchise - and there are only so many options it can explore."
Barbie's UK general manager, Jean-Christopher Peant, admits Bratz identified a gap in the market and "used it in an exceptional manner", but he says its reign in the toy market is nearing an end. "A few years ago it was incredibly popular in Europe but now it has only a small market share, a trend I think will continue in the UK."
According to NPD, Bratz holds 4.1% of the value market share in France and less than 3% in Germany. Peant also believes MGA's move to the UK will prove to be challenging and it will take time for the company to adapt.
Certainly, MGA has much to preoccupy it, not least a legal battle between Mattel and MGA after Mattel filed a lawsuit in 2005 claiming Carter Bryant, the doll designer of Bratz, sold the range to MGA while employed by the Barbie owner. MGA counterattacked with allegations of "serial copycatting" by Mattel when it launched new lines.
In spite of this contention, Bratz has achieved success on the back of urban fashion and sassy characters. But fashion is notoriously fickle.
Facts and figures
1994 Brand first launched in June 2001
2002 Dolls named Girl Toy of the Year in the UK. As well as the dolls, the Bratz-branded products include playsets, vehicles and accessories, Lil Bratz, the Bratz Babyz, plush Petz toys and a series of video games
2006 MGA Entertainment withdrew the Kiana doll after Barbie-owner Mattel claimed it owned the trademark to the name "Kianna" with its Teen Trends doll line. The two companies are now entangled in a legal battle More than 150 million dolls have been sold and generate an annual profit of £1.26bn.