Commentary: To Really Be a Player, Mattel Needs Hotter Toys

By Christopher Palmeri

The Bratz pack has invaded the Gabriele house. The line of trendy dolls burst on the scene two years ago, offering girls a hipper alternative to that old standby, Barbie: Think Jennifer Lopez to Barbie's Reese Witherspoon. Joan Gabriele, a Hollywood (Fla.) mother of two, now has eight Bratz dolls in her home. Her daughters, ages 6 and 8, rarely touch their Barbies. "Barbie is pretty much a thing of the past," she says. "They like Bratz better."

That's bad news for Barbie's maker, Mattel (MAT ) Inc. -- and for the three-year-old turnaround efforts of CEO Robert A. Eckert, the ex-president of Kraft Foods (KFT ) Inc. who replaced the embattled Jill E. Barad. The El Segundo (Calif.) toy giant counts on Barbie for about one-third of its revenues and more of its profits. But Mattel says U.S. Barbie sales declined 2% last year and 14% in this year's first quarter. The overall doll category, says market researcher NPD Group Inc., dropped only 3% in the quarter.

Give Eckert, 48, his due: He pulled Mattel out of its tailspin after its disastrous $3.8 billion acquisition of Learning Co. He got rid of the money-losing computer-game maker and slashed costs. His goal: to bring the stability of a consumer-products company to the hit-driven toymaker. And using such practices as computer-aided design to speed up product development and just-in-time inventory management, he succeeded.

But now it looks like Eckert is learning a valuable lesson: Mattel is selling toys, not soap or cornflakes. Good brand management goes only so far in a business that caters to children's whims. Like it or not, the key to success is launching innovative products and promoting the heck out of them. If you don't do it, your competitors will.

Eckert's strategy has been great for Mattel's bottom line. Profits last year, before special charges, were a healthy $455 million, and the stock has nearly doubled, to $20, since Eckert arrived in May, 2000. But top-line growth has sputtered. U.S. revenues, $3.4 billion in 2002, have declined marginally in the past few years. Total 2002 sales of $4.9 billion crept up from $4.6 billion in 2000 -- thanks to overseas expansion.

While Eckert continues to build on the massive Barbie franchise that Barad constructed, he now knows that he needs hot new toys. Recycling old characters like Sesame Street's Elmo just won't be enough. "We need to do a better job on the top line," he says. "The good news is, it's only spring training, and we have a long season ahead of us."

To that end, Eckert has begun an ambitious push. Between now and Christmas, he hopes to launch 250 new toys, including dozens of Hot Wheels models and Flavas, a Bratz-like hip-hop posse with baggy jeans and serious bling-bling. Originally, half of these toys weren't scheduled until 2004.

That should help boost sales. But it's even more important that Mattel prove it can respond to nimble upstarts as well as traditional big rivals like Hasbro (HAS ) Inc. After all, it took the company more than a year to launch a competitor to MGA Entertainment's Bratz. My Scene Barbie didn't hit stores until last October and has yet to make a dent in Bratz's success. At its Santa Monica (Calif.) store recently, Toy 'R' Us Inc. devoted just a sliver of the shelf space to My Scene that it did to Bratz. And My Scene dolls were being offered at 2 for 1. "It's not really catching ground," says Sean P. McGowan, toy industry analyst at Harris Nesbitt Gerard Inc. Mattel will start tossing in a cell phone with 300 free minutes if you buy four of the $13.99 dolls. It also plans to add accessories and boy versions -- Hudson, River, and Bryant.

Barbie isn't the only Mattel stalwart under attack. Its Fisher-Price unit, long the king of preschool, is losing sales to newcomer LeapFrog Enterprises Inc., whose electronic interactive books have captured 19% of the $2.9 billion preschool toy and electronic learning aid markets. Eckert is counting on a successful launch in August for PowerTouch, Mattel's version of LeapFrog's popular interactive book. PowerTouch is operated by pointing a finger at an image or a word, instead of the stylus used in LeapFrog's original products. That's key for younger kids. "It's much easier for her to use," says Christopher Coye, a Los Angeles-area parent whose 4-year-old tested a PowerTouch. Still, LeapFrog releases a finger-operated system in August, too.

Over the long term, Eckert puts at risk one of the strongest toy companies around if he can't instill innovation and rapid reaction in his much-tightened organization. To his credit, he is making it crystal clear that he doesn't want ideas to linger in the pipeline. When Matchbox brand managers mentioned this year that they had designed a toy firehouse that could be shipped with no assembly required, Eckert told them to get it out by fall. "Why wait?" he says. "If you've got it, sell it." And not a moment too soon: Sales of Mattel's Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars fell 6% in the first quarter, thanks to competition for boys' attention from action figures like Hasbro's resurgent G.I. Joe and Transformers.

The question is how much Eckert needs to tweak his model. He probably cut back too much, for instance, on marketing. In 1998, Mattel's advertising and promotional spending totaled $631 million, or 13.8% of sales. By last year, it had fallen to $552 million, or 11.2% of sales. Aggressive television marketing boosted sales of Hot Wheels cars in Spain last year, and a strong new campaign could help Mattel toys here.

Mattel won't live or die on every new toy it develops. But it can't just rely on Barbies, either. "Like they say in business school -- no risk, no reward," says Isaac Larian, CEO of privately held MGA. He should know: He got the idea for Bratz after seeing his own kids run around in navel-baring tops and hip-huggers. As Eckert is finding out, sometimes the best ideas are right in front of you.

Palmeri covers toys from Los Angeles.

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