Dolls Compete for 'Britney' Generation

She’s newly single, has trendier clothes and new managers. But can Barbie (search) compete with a hip gang of girls with a "passion for fashion?"

On the heels of some recent bad sales news for Barbie, Mattel announced plans to give the all-American doll a more modern style. But experts say Barbie will have to be tough to take on spunky Bratz (search) dolls, which have continued to grow in popularity since they were unveiled in 2001.

“Bratz exude a more sophisticated attitude — the clothing, the looks on their faces. It’s in-your-face, anti-establishment," said toy industry analyst Sean McGowan. "There’s an irony and sassiness more in keeping with the MTV (search) generation."

But as Mattel updates Barbie to compete with MGA Entertainment's Bratz, the company risks alienating parents who prefer the innocence of Barbie dolls.

“I refuse to ever buy Bratz," said Maureen Dwyer of Sommerville, N.J., who has six kids, including an 8-year-old daughter, Casey. "I don’t like the name. We used to not be able to say 'brat' in our house. I don’t think there’s one conservative outfit on the Bratz doll. They show midriff — even the sneakers have high heels."

A Barbie buyer, Dwyer was upset by last week's much-hyped Barbie/Ken split.

“How does a doll get divorced? I don’t like that at all," she said. "When Casey heard the news, she said 'What does that mean? Are they not going to make Barbie anymore? Why are they getting divorced?' I told her it was just a publicity stunt.”

However, after seeing Barbie's sales slide 25 percent domestically in the fourth quarter of 2003, Mattel felt forced to make changes.

“For Barbie, particularly in the U.S., the trends have not been good for several years now, and that’s caused us to rethink our strategy and to retool the whole brand,” Mattel’s Chief Executive Robert Eckert said in a conference call earlier this month.

Indeed, fresh from her break-up with Ken, Barbie will soon be sporting more fashionable clothes, such as insulated Ugg boots — the must-have winter item for real-life fashion followers and stars like Cameron Diaz. Mattel is also unveiling a new Barbie with ears that girls can pierce up to three times.

“Barbie’s had a head-to-toe makeover," said Julia Jensen, a vice president in Mattel's girls' division. "She’ll be wearing clothes that girls are really wearing, new footwear, new coats."

Meanwhile, the Bratz pack, who have names like Yasmin and Jade, will hit the clubs this year wearing "funkalish" looks as part of their new "Girls Nite Out" line.

Jim Silver, publisher of Toy Wishes magazine and father of three daughters ranging from 8 to 13, said he thinks there's room for both Barbie and Bratz in girls' lives -- Bratz for older girls and Barbie for younger ones.

"Bratz is leading for girls 7 to 9, but Barbie is number one for girls 3 to 7," he said. "Eight-year-olds are cooler. They don’t want to play with the same toy as 4-year-olds. The 3-year-old likes the pink, pretty girl." Silver added that his own 8-year-old likes Bratz, but she's outgrown Barbie.

For better or worse, Silver said girls today aren't like they used to be when he was a kid -- and their choice in dolls may reflect that.

“Girls have changed from the girls I grew up with," he said. "Their role models are different, they’re dressing differently. I call it the Britney Spears generation."