Since its US launch in June 2001, doll brand Bratz has run former doyenne Barbie off the scene. But as its success escalates, industry insiders wonder how much longer it can maintain this momentum.
MGA Entertainment, the company behind the brand, is setting up its own UK business in 2008 having severed its four-year partnership with Vivid Imaginations (MW last week), which has held the UK licence for Bratz since 2004 - it launched in the UK in 2003 under Bandai. Both parties say the split is amicable despite refusing to say whether the partnership came to a natural end, but rival Mattel says the move raises questions over the brand's future.
According to the latest figures from consumer and retailer information provider National Purchase Diary (NPD), Bratz owns 55% of the £100m-a-year British fashion dolls market and Vivid says Bratz has remained the dominant leader in the industry for 27 consecutive months.
Vivid marketing director Emma Sherski says the brand's success has been driven largely by new product development. 'MGA continues to deliver fresh, innovative dolls that appeal to girls above the age of seven,' she adds.
The dolls would perhaps never have materialised had MGA chief executive Isaac Larian not taken his 11-year-old daughter into the office. Although Larian thought the prototype doll unsightly, he was swayed by her approval and pressed ahead with production. Yet, industry buyers were unimpressed with the first samples in 2001 and Toys R Us cancelled initial orders due to poor sales.
Despite this, Larian borrowed money for extra advertising and by Christmas 2001 sales had taken off. Since then more than 150 million Bratz dolls have been sold around the globe and now generate annual sales of £1.26bn, although MGA refuses to disclose profits from the brand.
And the brand's portfolio of products has grown inexorably. In the past year alone fashion line Bratz Couture has been rolled out, a hand-held games console called Miuchiz launched to take on established brands such as Nintendo in targeting young girls, and a live-action Hollywood film will hit cinema screens later this year. It also launched the Bratz Diamond products including a DVD, playset, video games and dolls packaged with a real diamond.
Ronnie Dungan, editor of Toy News, says Bratz has stolen a big chunk of market share from rival Barbie since its launch. 'I can't however confirm who is actually the market leader,' he says. 'There are two sets of figures provided by both brands claiming it is them, but the leading position is just too close to call.'
He does acknowledge that Bratz has expanded on Barbie's target market by enlarging its age group to include girls aged between seven and 12. 'Bratz has found the winning formula and is pushing the right buttons. It is expanding as a franchise but that is the norm. Children are no longer just impressed by toys, they want the whole package, the mobile technology and online social networks - it has to be much more than just a doll.'
Although Bratz leads the UK doll market with 55%, this has fallen from 65% last September, according to NPD figures. Sherski claims the decrease can be seen across the whole toy market and is only a blip, but other industry insiders are not so sure. Vivid invested heavily in the marketing of Bratz, increasing TV advertising spend by 50% year on year since its UK launch in 2004.
But whatever the marketing investment, Eggleton warns the brand's solid link to fashion trends may be its ultimate downfall. 'I wouldn't be surprised if Bratz has already peaked, as the toy market is very fickle.