Barbie, Kitty age for mom

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Hello Kitty thong underwear, a line of Barbie Couture and OshKosh B'Gosh in grown-up sizes all speak to marketers putting an increasingly adult spin on typically kid-targeted brands.

Looking to keep core kid customers in the fold well into their own mom-hood, a slew of brands are turning the adult-to-kid brand extension trend on its ear by going from small to big.

"Companies are all trying to find ways to grow their products naturally, vs. getting into a business they don't belong in, and migrating up in age is one way to do it," said NPD Group chief analyst Marshal Cohen.

Sanrio's Hello Kitty, which develops thousands of new items a year across categories from cellphones to luggage, found in research that a full third of its boutique store customers are over 18, said Sanrio Marketing Director Bill Hensley. To address them, Hello Kitty has launched co-branded fashion licenses such as its Hello Kitty by Samantha Chang lingerie and jewelry designs from Tarina Tarantino.

strong adult audience

Recent research from Landor Associates, New York, similarly found that Barbie's strongest audience is between 18 and 29, and Mattel is clearly trying to tap into that great nostalgic fondness for the Barbie years with new products, said Hayes Roth, VP-worldwide marketing for Landor.

"Moms that enjoyed the relationship with Barbie are having children of their own and that gives us the opportunity to extend our brand beyond our typical target of girls three-to-9 years old," said Richard Dickson, senior VP-worldwide consumer products for Mattel.

That said, Mattel is being "very careful" about how it manages the extension into the U.S. of the Barbie Couture apparel line it has launched successfully in Japan. "We need to control the brand so that it remains very aspirational," Mr. Dickson said. The larger strategic intent is to influence little girls to see Barbie as cool and hip and therefore continue to buy more dolls at a later age.

Underground approach

The high-fashion line based on the early '60s designs created for Barbie herself will be disseminated "selectively to reach trend-seekers," Mr. Dickson said. Mattel will take an atypical underground approach to marketing the line, using the exclusive distribution to build word-of-mouth among fashionistas. "If we started to advertise it, it would feel contrived," he said.

Tom Julian, trend analyst for Fallon Worldwide, New York, is skeptical. Mattel has been so protective of the brand, he said, and "there's baggage with Barbie. ... it ain't Bratz [MGA Entertainment's popular line of brash fashion dolls] or Hello Kitty, which is girly but sexy, a wink but also the middle finger."

But Glamour Deputy Fashion Director Sasha Eglehart is excited. "I buy Barbie clothes for my kids and I imagine that there are a lot of moms like me who would buy it," especially as the cute styles fit the pretty, feminine style in fashion today, she said. "It seems like it should have happened sooner."

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