Calling Preteens with a Barbie Phone

Mattel hopes its doll-themed prepaid cell phone -- a real working one -- will be a hit with girls and turn its classic toy hip again

By Roger O. Crockett and Olga Kharif

It's amazing she doesn't already have one, but Barbie is finally getting a cell phone.

Mattel (MAT ), the world's largest toymaker and the company that made Barbie famous, will soon start selling cell phones alongside the Barbie My Scene toy line. Barbie My Scene features a series of dolls with a greater air of modernity than the original Barbie -- they tend to wear hip clothes and brandish a personal digital assistant rather than a frying pan.


  The new Barbie-brand phones aren't toys at all, but real phones. Mattel expects them to appeal to 8- to 14-year-old girls and will offer them in all stores that carry Barbies, company executives told BusinessWeek Online.

The initial rollout of the Barbie-brand phones is slated for April, and such nationwide stores as Target (TGT ), Wal-Mart (WMT ), and Toys 'R' Us (TOY ) will have them on shelves starting in July. In a nifty cross-promotional move, a teen actress in a not-yet-named Hollywood movie will brandish a Barbie phone around that time.

The phones are the first prepaid -- meaning the user prepays for calls -- cell phones targeting the "tween" girl market. It also marks an escalation of Mattel's efforts to make its Barbie doll, which saw sales slip 8% last year, hip once again. Mattel and software and content partner Single Touch Interactive are jointly marketing and distributing the phone. "It transcends traditional doll play," says Timothy J. Kilpin, senior vice-president for girls marketing and design at Mattel. "It's steeped in entertainment. It allows girls to interact with the brand."


  It's just the latest digital entertainment move by Mattel. On Feb. 17, at the American International Toy Fair in New York City, it unveiled a slew of gadgets, including a handheld entertainment system that allows kids to create their own minimovies out of video clips.

Nokia (NOK ), the maker of the new phone, may get a boost from the product. The Finnish concern has been struggling to maintain its market share. Ditto for a yet-to-be-named national wireless carrier that will provide the service to this very youthful and unproven demographic. "This particular age group has yet to be addressed in a structured program anywhere in the U.S.," says Richard Siber, CEO of the wireless consulting firm SiberConsulting.

Certainly, Mattel isn't the first outfit to market cell phones to the youth market. In recent years, several wireless-service providers like Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile have successfully sold prepaid cell service to 18- to 30-year-olds. But this is likely the first time a business has gone after preteens.


  Mattel and Single Touch are offering the Nokia 3587i phone, which features a full-color screen and voice dialing. It also lights up when a call comes in. The phone, expected to retail for $49.95, will come with 30 minutes of airtime, with additional minutes sold in $5 increments. It also boasts three stick-on faceplates -- so a girl can dress up her phone with a leopard-colored sticker to match her purse, for example -- nine exclusive wallpapers, and three exclusive ring tones.

"It's an 'aspirational' demographic -- young girls looking to the older girls," explains Anthony Macaluso, CEO and founder of Single Touch Interactive in San Diego.

Mattel and Single Touch are also positioning the cell phone as a parenting tool. Moms and dads will be able to buy those additional minutes for their kids online. When parents activate the new phone, they can go to a Web site,, and list chores they want their children to perform to earn extra minutes. These can include making the bed, doing homework, or not fighting with brothers and sisters. At the end of each month, parents can buy extra minutes if their children have, indeed, behaved.


  The kids and parents will also be able to buy additional faceplates and ring tones through "It's customization to fit your image," says Bob F. Aniello, director of Mattel Interactive.

Mattel execs say extensive focus-group work and market tests show a demand for the service. In 2003, the toymaker offered Barbie My Scene buyers a cell phone with 300 minutes of prepaid airtime -- more than 40,000 phones were sent out within a month. "In a way, this project was a marketer's dream," says Aniello. "We had real market behavior that would predict appetite for product."

Let's hope Barbie doesn't use that cell phone when she's driving her convertible.

Crockett is deputy bureau manager of BusinessWeek's Chicago bureau, and Kharif is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in Portland, Ore

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