By Alexa Hyland

Monday, May 31, 2010

Monsters are coming to the house that Barbie built.

Mattel Inc. is unveiling its Monster High franchise this summer, the first in-house toy brand the company has launched since Hot Wheels in 1968, featuring characters based on teen children of werewolves, zombies and other frightmeisters.

It will also be the biggest brand launch in the company’s history because the dolls will be accompanied by an apparel line, a series of books, an interactive website and webisodes, and Halloween costumes this fall. A movie is expected in 2011 or 2012.

It’s a break with tradition for the El Segundo company because Mattel typically launches a product and tracks its popularity for a year before creating games, TV shows and books based on the item.

“This is the most comprehensive franchise launch that I can recall since Barbie in the 1950s,” said Margaret Whitfield, a senior research analyst with Birmingham, Ala.-based Sterne Agee & Leach Inc. who follows Mattel.

It’s unclear how much money Mattel could reap from Monster High, and it’s also unclear how much the company has invested in resources and cash – although one analyst estimated the toymaker will have spent tens of millions of dollars in merchandise and media costs by the holiday season. Chief Executive Robert Eckert acknowledges the big bet. “This is a commitment of significant marketing energy from our standpoint to see if we can create a franchise,” Eckert said in a May 13 conference call with analysts. “Maybe we can, maybe we can’t. But I’ll tell you it’s the beginning of what we see as some opportunities to create franchises like this going forward.”

A Mattel spokeswoman said the company is shipping Monster High fashion dolls to mass retailers and Monster High-themed apparel to tween clothing retailer Justice. The merchandise is scheduled to hit shelves in July. The dolls will retail for $16.99 to $29.99, while the apparel will sell from $20 to $42.

There’s also a Monster High book that is available for preorder on and will be out Sept. 1. Then there’s the Monster High-themed Halloween costumes that’ll be sold at party supply retailer Party City.

In addition, Mattel has inked a deal with Universal Studios for a Monster High movie. Plans call for a musical by “Chicago” producers Craig Zadan and Neil Muron. Zadan and Muron have already enlisted “Hairspray” composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman to write an original score for the film.

Industry experts said Mattel hopes it has a hit in Monster High, which the company has described as “Grease” meets “Addams Family,” because it’s a combination of the gothic-inspired “Twilight” movies and Disney’s tween-friendly “High School Musical” franchise.

“It’s really an attempt to go after the trends that are out there right now,” said Lynn Rosenblum, an L.A. toy industry analyst, “whether it be the ‘Twilight’ franchise and girls’ fascination with things that are ethereal or otherworldly, or this obsession with high school.”

But with Monster High, industry experts said Mattel’s also focused on a much larger feat: capturing the attention of tween girls, roughly defined as 8 to 12. In fact, the toymaker has been trying for years to keep the attention – and dollars – of young girls after they’ve outgrown their Barbies. But the company has faced stiff competition in the submarket from rival MGA Entertainment Inc. and its line of wide-eyed, pouty-lipped Bratz dolls and more recently its Bratz-esque Moxie Girlz line.

“This is a part of the market that Mattel has wanted to develop more share in, but has never been able to do the job,” Whitfield said. “But this could capture the Bratz age group.” Target spokeswoman Erin Madsen said the discount retailer will begin carrying the Monster High dolls nationwide Aug. 1. She said the company is planning to dedicate up to four feet of aisle space in each store and will also feature other display advertising to support the brand.

“Target is really excited about Monster High because it showcases the current trend in vampires/monsters,” Madsen said, “and has the great fashion aesthetics required in the fashion doll category.”

Most industry insiders and analysts are bullish on Monster High. But there are some skeptics.

Sean McGowan, an analyst with New York-based Needham & Co. LLC, believes that Mattel’s costs for the launch will rise to the tens of millions before the end of the year. The expensive bet could pay off – or not.

“If this thing winds up being – year in, year out – a $100 million-plus line, then it will be very profitable,” McGowan said. “But it could be a complete whiff. No one really knows.” He pointed out that most new toys fail or fail to sustain themselves after a period of popularity. He believes it would be better for Mattel to focus on growing existing lines.

“The strategy of relying for growth on extending existing brands is smarter than gambling on new ones,” he said.

In addition, Rosenblum, the local independent toy consultant, wonders if tween girls will want to buy dolls, which are central products in the new line.

“It may resonate with them, but that has to turn into a purchase of a doll and then merchandise,” Rosenblum said.

Guys and ghouls

Mattel began developing the Monster High franchise about three years ago, after a company packaging designer came up with the concept. The toymaker has extensively tested the concept with focus groups.

Monster High is the first brand that Mattel’s created internally in decades. Barbie was launched in 1959 and Hot Wheels in 1968. Since then, the company has added its most profitable product lines through acquisitions, including Fisher-Price, Cabbage Patch Kids and American Girl.

Monster High’s storyline centers on six classmates – Lagoona Blue, Clawdeen Wolf, Draculaura, Cleo de Nile, Deuce Gorgon and Ghoulia Yelps.

Biographies of the characters are already on Mattel’s Monster High website, which also features minicartoons in a webisode series. For example, one episode features Clawdeen Wolf, the daughter of a werewolf, who performs in the school “talon show” – and accidentally shows her werewolf side.

The Mattel spokeswoman said the company wanted to bring the Monster High characters to life by developing a fantasy world that resonates with tween and young teen girls. “It’s all about high school and the trials and tribulations kids experience in high school,” said the spokeswoman. “It’s really engaging and relatable for girls, but it’s also infused with humor and wit.”

Mattel will use Internet advertising to promote the Monster High line. The spokeswoman said the company is planning to present a music and dance video on You Tube’s home page on Friday the 13th in August.

The company has also enlisted former “American Idol” contestant Allison Iraheta, whose music will be featured in a half-hour program with a Monster High theme that will be broadcast on the Internet or TV.

But the Monster High fashion dolls will be the first test of success for Mattel. The dolls don outfits edgier than Barbie’s girly garb. For example, Frankie Stein, the daughter of Frankenstein, comes with zebra platform heels, a plaid dress with chains, and hair streaked white and black.

Meanwhile, girls doing back-to-school shopping will be able to pick up Monster High-themed apparel at tween retailer Justice, which has more than 900 stores in the United States and abroad.

Justice is already promoting the Monster High brand on its website with a two-minute cartoon webisode. Under a deal with Mattel, Justice will sell Monster High dolls and books alongside the apparel line.

“This is the first time I can recall a Mattel property that’s been internally developed with this kind of launch,” Sterne Agee’s Whitfield said. “It’s reaching out to so many different pockets.”

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