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Mattel Plays Dress-Up With Barbie Site

Beleaguered toy maker Mattel Inc., El Segundo, CA, revved up its Internet activities this week with a more interactive Web site for its flagship Barbie brand.

Targeting girls between the ages of 6 and 12, the new Barbie.com is first among many Mattel online properties to get a makeover. Next in line are relaunches for Barbie Collectibles, Generation Girls for older girls and a fall online debut for the Diva Starz brand.

“I think it indicates that we're a player in the interactive arena,” said Christina DeRosa, vice president of Web site and media content at Mattel's Barbie/Girls division.

Barbie.com's online ramp-up is one of the few bright blips in recent Mattel history. The marketer is still suffering from its $3.5 billion purchase a year ago of The Learning Co., a move that cost Jill Barad her job as CEO in February.

Live since last week, the new look of Barbie.com was done with help from interactive shop MarchFIRST, Macromedia and Cheskin Research.

A focus group of 26 girls and their parents also contributed to the site design, which is icon-based and requires little typing. The group offered their navigational preferences and what they liked or disliked about their favorite sites, including the first Barbie.com that launched in 1998.

Features of the site include a Barbie calendar for activities updated weekly; Storymaker, which involves creating stories for one of three characters; and Fashion Fun, which reveals the latest fashions for girls that can then be tried on Barbie and her friends.

Visitors also can play games, demo the new Barbie Software for Girls title and party on the site by mixing music tunes. A printing function for stationery, bookmarks, place mats and picture frames, and a parents' section for Barbie anecdotes from real mothers, complete the interactive experience.

To heighten the fun element, the site uses Macromedia Flash, Shockwave and Generator technology. MarchFIRST, previously known as USWeb/CKS, was assigned the task of creating a site that fostered interaction for more consumer involvement.

Mattel's DeRosa said the biggest challenge was to make the technology easy to use.

“The key thing has been to develop activities which are of interest to [girls], to make sure the content is not peripheral to their everyday lives, to make sure that it's relevant and to make sure that's it designed so they're able to play simply,” DeRosa said.

To allay parental fears of abuse or misuse, Mattel has drawn a stringent privacy policy for Barbie.com. The site will not collect any data for sweepstakes, contests or registrations from children younger than 13 years old. And Mattel's family of sites will seek permission from parents to collect personal information from preteens.

According to DeRosa's estimates, there are some 7 million girls between the ages of 6 and 12 in the United States. Barbie.com claims an estimated 500,000 unique monthly visitors, she said.

The new site will be supported by a two-week ad campaign in August, featuring TV commercials on girls-focused channels and online banner buys. Peterson Mila & Hook, Minneapolis, will handle the account.

Slightly better off than its struggling Hasbro competitor, Mattel had domestic growth this second quarter in its key brands, including Barbie, Hot Wheels and Fisher-Price. A strong dollar and a difficult European retail market depressed international sales, which were down 9 percent from a year ago.

Worldwide gross sales at the Girls division, which includes Barbie, Polly Pocket and Cabbage Patch Kids, were up 1 percent for the second quarter to $315.3 million. But Barbie sales, as a brand, grew 5 percent worldwide.

Overall, sales for the second quarter were up 2 percent to $817.8 million, from $802.3 million in 1999's second quarter. However, income this second quarter was only $6 million, down 64 percent compared with $16.5 million for the same period last year.

A new online look for its flagship Barbie brand and the resultant media interest is expected to boost Mattel's fortunes. Yet the emphasis here is more on content than commerce.

But the marketer is not oblivious to the prospects of converting visitors to buyers.

A highly visible catalog tab on the home page directs visitors to listings of more than 400 items, including dolls, doll accessories and apparel, software and electronics. These items can be added to a wish list for parents from which they can pick and choose. Another tab on the Barbie.com home page takes visitors to sister sites such as Kelly Club, Generation Girl, Barbie Collectibles and the forthcoming Diva Starz. BarbieCollectibles.com allows visitors to not only design ensembles but also buy Barbie merchandise.

“I don't think we're looking at [Barbie.com] as a way to generate more sales,” DeRosa said. “I think the most effective way for us to generate sales is through TV commercials. So, we're really looking at this to develop more of an emotional connection with the girls for the brand of Barbie, not just the doll of Barbie.”

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