MGA relaunches Bratz line with updated look

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

The outfits are less sexy, the makeup and hair a bit
more demure and the heels not as sky-high, but the saucy Bratz dolls
are strutting their way back onto toy shelves.

During the last few years, a legal tug of war between Bratz maker MGA Entertainment Inc. and rival toy company Mattel Inc. over the ownership rights to the dolls left the brand crippled. After a trial jury ruled in Mattel’s
favor, the wildly successful dolls all but disappeared from stores as
MGA pulled back on manufacturing and retailers kept their distance.

But when a federal appeals court in July overturned the 2008 ruling and ordered a retrial, MGA’s outspoken Chief Executive Isaac Larian triumphantly declared that he would be releasing a new line of Bratz dolls for the fall.

Updated versions of Sasha, Cloe, Jade and other
popular Bratz dolls began to reappear on toy shelves in recent weeks,
and 10 new characters are scheduled to be released Oct. 10 to celebrate the brand’s 10-year anniversary.

Yet the road to recovery for financially and
morale-weakened MGA, which built its toy empire on the Bratz dolls, is
fraught with challenges.

In a recent interview at Larian’s Van Nuys, Calif.,
office — where dolls were displayed on his desk, perched on the
windowsills, lined up on the bookshelves and stacked in boxes on the
floor — he spoke candidly about the difficulties of relaunching the
dolls whose edgy style and sassy personalities shook up the toy market
and once posed a major threat to Mattel’s Barbie empire.

“It’s going to take a long time for Bratz to become
what it was before because of the damage that’s been done,” Larian
said. “But it still resonates with kids.”

At their peak, annual U.S. wholesale sales of the Bratz dolls and related products were estimated to be more than $500 million. Meanwhile, U.S. wholesale sales of Barbie dolls and related products fell every year from 2001 to 2005, from $825 million to $470 million, according to estimates from Gerrick Johnson, a toy analyst at BMO Capital Markets.

Getting retailers back on board has been an arduous
process, and Larian recalled his frustrations at having to re-pitch a
line that had already proved to be a hit among young girls. With
continued uncertainty surrounding the brand, privately held MGA is
releasing a limited number of different Bratz products this year
compared with hundreds in the past.

Those retailers he has persuaded to sell the dolls again — including Toys R Us, Target and Kmart
— haven’t embraced the brand wholeheartedly, Larian said. Bratz orders
for the fall were about 10 percent of the level they used to be at the
height of the dolls’ popularity five years ago.

“Literally all of them were hesitant because of the
legal issues,” he said. “Retailers don’t like to get involved with
competitors’ disputes. I don’t blame them.”

Longtime fans might be surprised to see the Bratz characters a bit toned down from a few years ago.

Unlike the bare midriffs and tube tops that were popular during the “age of Britney Spears
when Bratz first hit the market, today’s styles are more modest and
understated, Larian said. So MGA’s designers worked to make the new
dolls “more preppy than sexy,” which meant downplaying some of the
traits that had made them unique in the first place: skimpy outfits,
pouty lips, dramatic makeup and bling jewelry.

For example, an earlier version of the Yasmin doll,
named after Larian’s daughter Jasmin, sports a long, thick mane of
Goldilocks-style curls, oversized pink sunglasses and a skimpy gold
swimsuit with pink ribbons crisscrossing her slender waist.

In a 2010 version, Yasmin wears a pink baby-doll top
over gray leggings, a fitted navy-blue cropped jacket and studded black
boots. Her earrings are smaller, her lips less Angelina Jolie-like and she has almost no exposed skin.

Sean McGowan, a toy analyst at Needham & Co.,
said relaunches could be tricky, pointing to subsequent releases of
Cabbage Patch Kids that weren’t as successful as the original dolls.
Some retailers may have asked for “significant concessions” from Larian
to make shelf space available for the line, he said.

“Sometimes brands can come back and sometimes they
can’t,” he said. “I think that retailers would say it’s a safer bet
that Bratz will sell better than something that’s unproven. But right
now, there’s no shortage of proven dolls.”

That was the case at a Toys R Us in Culver City, Calif., recently, where two aisles were dedicated to fashion dolls including Bratz, Barbie, Disney Princess, Wizards of Waverly Place, Monster High, Liv, Moxie Girlz, Best Friends Club Ink and iCarly.

Even with all the choices, Bratz made an impression on 9-year-old Jasmine Gutierrez, who has owned about half a dozen of the brand’s dolls.

“They’re really cool and they’re really fun to play with,” the Culver City
fourth-grader said. “With Barbie, it’s more for like younger kids, but
for Bratz, they’re more for like kids my age. I’m more skinny jeans and
skirts and stuff — and with Barbie, it’s more like dresses and pink.”

Executives at several major retailers declined to discuss the specifics of their Bratz orders.

“We evaluate each product on its merits and we
believe the product and the brand has merit, so we definitely carry
it,” said Toys R Us Chief Executive Jerry Storch. “We test product, we watch the sales and we order appropriately.”

For Larian, seeing the hip dolls back on toy shelves
instead of in the courtroom has been “like getting my kids back,” he
said. But with a retrial set for January, Bratz still has some major
hurdles ahead.

The bitter dispute with El Segundo, Calif.-based Mattel is centered on whether the creator of the Bratz concept was in Mattel’s employ as a designer when he did early development of the brand. The designer, Carter Bryant, defected from Mattel in 2000 to MGA, which released the Bratz line shortly after.

Larian has characterized the multi-year saga — which he said has cost MGA an estimated $1 billion
in company value — as a David-and-Goliath-like battle, pitting him
against the world’s largest toy maker in a major fight that has
included allegations of spying, anonymous warning letters and forensic
experts. In recent weeks, the companies have filed new claims against
each other.

Larian balked at analysts’ suggestions that the two
sides settle by working out a profit-sharing agreement that would allow
MGA to continue making the dolls while giving Mattel a cut of the profit.

“There’s too much bad blood,” Larian said. “I don’t
think there’s ever going to be a situation like that. They’re not who I
want to do business with.”

Mattel, which
maintains that Bryant dreamt up the doll line while on its payroll,
released a statement on the day of the appeals court ruling that said
it was confident that the judicial system would “right the wrongs that Mattel has suffered.” It has declined to comment further on the dispute.

Bratz will be put to the test quickly with the
all-important holiday season coming up, analysts said, which could set
the tone for the company’s future plans for the dolls.

“I don’t predict it’ll soar to the top like it did
10 years ago or that it’ll flop. I think my prediction then is sales
will be successful,” McGowan said. “And that’s not something that
looked like it was in the cards a few months ago.”

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