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Why Little Girls Aren’t Buying Barbie

Mattel’s problem: Girls don’t need to be perfect any more. But Monster High dolls are booming.

It’s a bad day in a bad year for Barbie.

Mattel said Wednesday that sales of the iconic toy fell 12% in the three months through June 30 — the fourth straight quarterly decline. But it wasn’t a doll problem: Mattel’s American Girl and the even bigger, goth-inspired Monster High dolls hit it out of the park, as has been the pattern for the past year and a half.

Barbie has been losing ground recently in part due to the growing success of the other dolls — watch the throne, Regina George — and Mattel’s decision to shift certain promotions to the back half of the year to snap up holiday shoppers, CEO Bryan Stockton said today on a conference call with analysts. Monster High, introduced in 2010, is now a $1 billion brand and the world’s second-most popular doll, while American Girl is a $600 million name, according to the company.

That’s right: Monster High dolls, which feature ghoulish makeup and hair in shades of pink and blue, and American Girl, the wholesome, dream-achieving, “every girl” dolls, are outpacing sales of the perfectly manicured, blonde-haired, blue-eyed bombshell. Talk about a cultural shift.

In Barbie’s defense, it’s a lot easier to build new brands than juice similar growth out of a doll that turned 54 in March. And she still generates about $1.3 billion a year.

But the key difference that is steering sales toward Monster High and American Girl and away from Barbie seems to be a broader shift in the culture. The new dolls offer something “very personal” to children, with storylines that accompany each doll, and a variety of physical characteristics instead of a static appearance, Morningstar analyst Jaime Katz said.

“There’s only one character in Barbie, and it’s Barbie, unless you really want to draw straws and say Skipper,” Katz, who has the equivalent of a “hold” on Mattel shares, said. “There’s nothing that’s particularly relatable to young people that want to do these individualistic things.”

Saige, American Girl’s 2013 “Girl of the Year”

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Katz’s point is not lost on Mattel.

The brand’s new Ever After High franchise, geared toward girls older than the Monster High crew and rolling out globally later this year, “introduces the next generation of fairy-tale legends who are empowered to choose their own storybook fate,” Stockton said today.

Barbie, in contrast, doesn’t give off the sense that she’s empowered and in control of her destiny, Katz pointed out.

Barbie tends to represent “perfection” in a world where that’s not looked at as a healthy attribute, while a brand like American Girl is more relatable, said Allen Adamson, a managing director at brand consultancy Landor Associates in New York.

“Perfection is not a thing that leads to fulfillment anymore,” Adamson said.

For example, American Girl doll sales in the second quarter were propelled by Saige, the “2013 Girl of the Year” doll. The DVD about Saige is pretty inspiring: A 9-year-old girl in Albuquerque finds out that because of funding cuts her school won’t have any art classes this year. Moreover, her best friend is growing apart from her. Saige’s grandmother, before being injured in an accident, urges her to gather her friends and rally to raise money for art classes. What happens next is a mystery, but it seems more complex than the Barbie-Ken romance storyline, or Barbie’s move to a new Dreamhouse.

Mattel’s other problem is that they can create digital media around new franchises, but have to retrofit Barbie for the digital age. Barbie has two more DVDs coming out in the second half of this year (Barbie Mariposa and the Fairy Princess and Barbie & Her Sisters in a Pony Tale), and Mattel is also releasing Barbie makeover and dress products for tablets.

The toy company has high hopes also for the Barbie Dreamhouse that’s coming out this fall, which is “really innovative…it’s got two elevators in it,” CEO Stockton told analysts this morning.

Still, Barbie may have to get used to sharing the cool kids’ table.

“You can have a new house or a new car, but there are only so many add-ons you can do, and you kind of run out of steam, because it’s not a brand like these new ones,” Katz said.

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