'Project Runway' Exposure Sells Out 3,300 Limited-Edition Barbie Dolls

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The deal: In a rare, non-paid integration, toymaker Mattel challenged fashion design contestants on Bravo’s “Project Runway” to create a new look for an “American fashion icon” -- the company’s My Scene Barbie.

The result: ProjectRunway.com sold out of 3,300 limited-edition dolls wearing the winning designer’s outfit.

How do you freshen up the image of a 46-year-old doll with declining sales? Enlisting 12 up-and-coming amateur designers to give her wardrobe an updated look turns out to be one way.
The Mattel integration included a 'Project Runway' design of an outfit for real model as well as a miniature version for the limited-edition Barbie dolls.

Click to see larger photo.

In Bravo’s hit reality series “Project Runway,” amateur fashion designers compete against each other through a series of challenges. Each challenge has a winner and a loser, with the latter eliminated from the competition.

Weinstein Co. production

While Banana Republic and General Motors Corp.'s Saturn are official sponsors of the series, Mattel approached the show’s producers, the Weinstein Co., and suggested they use Barbie as a muse for one of the designers’ challenges. Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who already had a relationship with Mattel -- their company distributes the toymaker’s line of direct-to-video My Scene Barbie titles -- thought it was a great idea and a challenge was born.

The result was one of those rare unpaid integrations that resulted in an immediate payoff.

In the Barbie episode, which premiered Dec. 14, the 12 designers were told they would visit the “icon” in her home -- the Toys ‘R’ Us in New York’s Times Square. When they arrived at the store, Lily Martinez, head designer for Mattel's My Scene Barbie, was waiting for them in front of the Barbie Dream House. Ms. Martinez explained the My Scene concept: The line has a number of individual characters, all 16 to 18 years old, and Barbie is their social director. The designers’ challenge was to create a life-size outfit that models would wear down the runway as well as a pint-size replica that could fit the Barbie doll.

“Barbie has been a key part of many designers' history -- in fact, many designers tell us that some of their first designs were for Barbie when they were growing up,” said Richard Dickson, senior vice president of global consumer marketing and entertainment for Mattel Brands, in an e-mail interview from Toy Fair. “To date, more than 50 leading fashion designers have adorned Barbie and, last fall, we launched Barbie Luxe, an adult apparel and accessories collection, in partnership with several top designers.”

Limited-edition Barbie

Mattel promised it would offer a limited edition of the doll wearing the winning designer’s garb on ProjectRunway.com and the week after the episode aired, the site sold 1,100 units. Eventually all 3,300 units sold out -- with little outside marketing.

Even though Mattel didn’t pay for the integration, early numbers indicate Barbie’s appearance on the show paid off. The Weinstein Co. licensed the “Project Runway” rights to Mattel and contracted with Delivery Agent, which makes a business out of connecting consumers to products they see in TV shows, to run the e-commerce aspect to ProjectRunway.com, which lives on bravotv.com. Beyond selling the dolls, the site auctioned off the life-size version of each designer’s Barbie outfit; the winning design snagged a price tag of $1,700.

“There was no real on-air promotion,” said Mike Fitzsimmons, CEO of Delivery Agent. Other products available for sale on the site include winning designs from every episode, “Project Runway” t-shirts and tote bags and accessories. The dolls were also sold at the Times Square Toys ‘R’ Us and on ToysRUs.com.

General brand lift?

For Mattel, the integration may also pay off in a general brand lift, although it may be too soon to tell. Falling Barbie sales have spelled trouble for the toy marketer. Last year, Mattel said net income fell 27% and worldwide Barbie sales fell 13%. Barbie’ s biggest rival, of course, is the edgier line of Bratz dolls from MGA Entertainment.

According to Mr. Dickson, the design show’s success “isn't based on tangible, quantifiable results, but rather strong impressions and other positive reactions among our potential partners. Our association with ‘Project Runway’ was more about brand visibility and reinforcing Barbie's cultural relevance as a fashion icon.”
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