The Hottest Thing in Kids Marketing? Imitating Webkinz

Bratz, Barbie, Disney All Sell Toys That Connect Users to Virtual Worlds, and Millions of Children Are Logging On

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Pop quiz: Name one of the more common places you'll find a Webkinz stuffed toy today.
Bratz's latest line of dolls is sold with a flash drive that hooks users up to a website similar to Second Life.
Bratz's latest line of dolls is sold with a flash drive that hooks users up to a website similar to Second Life.

Answer: Tossed aside and forgotten in the corner of the bedroom. Everyone knows you buy them not for the physical toy but for the ID tag that allows access to the virtual world.

Through Webkinz and myriad other online virtual communities, kids -- especially girls -- are feeding pets, buying shoes and making salon appointments. While advertiser interest in the adult-focused Second Life may have all but evaporated, marketers targeting a generation younger would be remiss to dismiss virtual worlds as a fad. In fact, the interest in such communities is so high that they are increasingly seen as a vital marketing component for any kid-focused brand.

MGA Entertainment, the toy company that makes Bratz, introduced Be-Bratz in August, a line of dolls sold with a pet pink mouse and a flash drive that hooks users up to a Second Life-esque website similar to that of Webkinz.

Little surfers
It's not alone. Mattel launched a "Barbie Girls" site in April that now has 5.5 million registered users. The Barbie Girls doll-shape MP3-player/flash-drive hybrid hit stores in August, and users are spending about 30 minutes per visit on the site, Mattel said, although it declined to give traffic figures. The device hooks users into the free site and unlocks additional features -- more clothes and such. And Disney paid $700 million for Club Penguin in August, a site that had about 1.6 million monthly users at the time. Webkinz, owned by Ganz, has about 1 million registered users. MGA's user data weren't immediately available, but its director of online development, Lisa Sirlin, said children are continuously getting web savvy at earlier ages.

"The web is ubiquitous for children. They're getting online much earlier, and they're able to do much more than an earlier age," Ms. Sirlin said. "You've got 4-year-olds that are savvy. That's a departure from a few years ago." With that in mind, MGA followed its August Be-Bratz launch with MyePets.com and line of plush animal toys to be "rescued" in stores for access to the site. The product is geared to a younger clientele, in the 5-to-7-year-old range.

The similarities among all of the sites are striking. Be-Bratz and Webkinz both have pets that need to be fed and played with, and the sites have look-a-like meters for health, hunger and happiness. Both sites have games to play for points that can be used for clothes, pet toys or ways to fix up a house. At Club Penguin, inhabitants live in igloos, and pets are called "puffles." Barbie Girls can adopt pets and shop, too. One of the animals available: a penguin with an igloo.

Whose idea?
Ms. Sirlin of MGA denies any inspiration from Webkinz or Club Penguin.

"My team does not look at competition," she said. "Really the inspiration came from the existing brand and what we know about how kids play online."

And Mattel maintains that while Webkinz and Club Penguin have been met with success in the tween market, the Barbie maker was the first to market with a product and website just for girls.

"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," said Mattel spokeswoman Lauren Dougherty. "But Barbie Girls was first in the market, and we're really excited about the traction we've had so far. It's definitely reflective of how girls are playing today." The Mattel product was in development for two years.

As each new site seems to receive a warmer greeting than the last, the issue doesn't seem to be one of an overcrowded market -- yet. In fact, it seems that major toy launches will soon require interactive websites. Even American Girl has added more interactive features to its website.
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