When Bratz were released in 2001, they were the first real threat to Barbie’s fashion doll dominance, shunning model-perfect poise and stature for comically large heads and feet, splashy outfits and makeup, and a gesture toward racial and ethnic diversity.
They were, however, still uniformly pinkie skinny and received their share of criticism for emphasizing appearance and fun times over aspirations–but they were also a huge hit. Then in 2004, Bratz’s parent company MGA Entertainment became embroiled in a downright Dickensian intellectual property dispute with Mattel that pulled the dolls off the shelves for a year in 2009, and only was resolved, sort of, in 2013 (MGA still has an outstanding billion-dollar suit of its own against Mattel for corporate spying).
After an unpopular comeback in 2010, MGA decided to take a breather and do some research, and a new Bratz line was relaunched last week with the original four dolls (Jade, Yasmin, Cloe, and Sasha), plus newcomer Raya, and a range of interactive tie-ins including emojis, a custom avatar creator, and a stop-motion web series by the company behind Robot Chicken, Stoopid Buddy Studios.
There’s nothing particularly earth-shattering about the new dolls themselves, other than Raya’s super-dope hamburger shoes–while the company is putting extra emphasis on the importance of individuality and being yourself in its messaging, and the makeup is toned down, they still look basically like Bratz. But one element of the rebrand, delayed from the initial unveiling to launch this week, just might be a game changer–a Target.com exclusive Create-A-Bratz platform that lets kids customize a doll, with a possible 3.5 million combinations of hair color, eyes, skin tone, and outfits (the huge number is due mostly to a broad range of wardrobe pieces to mix and match, but there are 20 different hair/skin/eye combinations available). The personalized dolls will retail for $49.99 and will arrive at a kid’s mailbox in about two weeks.
“Nobody ever in the history of toy business has done something like this,” MGA Entertainment CEO Isaac Larian tells Fast Company. “For little girls to be able to create 3.5 million combinations of dolls is incredible.”
Even with the criticisms of Bratz’s focus on image and frivolity, Create-A-Bratz is the strongest argument that the new Bratz are the anti-Barbie, at least in terms of rejecting a single blond-haired, blue-eyed standard. They may still have thigh gap, but there’s something pretty significant about, say, a multi-racial girl with green eyes being able to buy a fashion doll who looks like her, especially given ongoing issues of pricing and availability around non-white dolls and related items.
“We wanted to create an experience that gives kids lots of choices, yet was easy and intuitive to create a Bratz doll that reflected their personal style,” says Scott Nygaard, Target’s senior vice president, merchandising, noting that this is Target’s first toy personalization program. “In working with the teams we built a digital experience that provides lots of options, but isn’t overwhelming. Kids these days have an incredible sense of style and they’re looking for toys and clothes that represent who they are. The whole Bratz mantra is to ‘do it your way,’ so we couldn’t think of a better brand partnership to build an experience that allows kids to customize a doll that represents their individuality.”
According to Larian, the company rushed out the previous line of dolls after the lawsuit, compromising on quality and brand identity. Originally, he says, Bratz were “about self-expression, confidence. We thought them to be fearless and confident, encouraging creativity and individual style. We didn’t do that [the last time]. It was, frankly, just like any other fashion doll.”
On the quality front, Bratz had ditched the expensive Japanese saran hair of the original dolls for a cheaper material in the last line. “We have brought that back into Bratz,” says Larian. “The reason for that is kids are very smart, and they pay attention to these details. You should see all the hate mail that I got from the superfans.”
The digital elements of the relaunch are also meant to meet Bratz fans where they are–in addition to the web series, downloadable emojis, mobile games, and avatar creator, one of the new playsets is called #SelfieSnaps, which includes a working selfie stick.
“Fifty-three percent of girls 6 to 14 have their own cell phones,” says Larian. “Our research shows that definitely girls still want to play with dolls, hair play, fashion play, pretend play, etc., but since they are also so digitally connected, they want to be there, as well. If you bring both of them together, we have the best of both worlds, and that’s what they told us they want.”
Bratz is re-entering the market with a lot of competition–Frozen character dolls iced Barbie out of the number-one spot for girls’ gifts last Christmas, and while sales of Mattel’s iconic doll fell 19% last quarter, she will have a high-tech upgrade of her own when the conversational Hello Barbie is released later this year. But Create-A-Bratz is the kind of thing I would have sold my soul for as a kid, and if it’s successful, it could be a model for other toys that let kids, increasingly used to personalization in the digital realm, have more say in character design.