8 minute read

Feature: Dolls and Girls Collectibles

Hello dolly

One of the more traditional toy categories, dolls and doll play continues to evolve along with the needs and wants of kids increasingly connected to the fast-paced world around them. Rachael Simpson-Jones finds out how animated content, social media and sustainability are shaping the Dolls category, and the latest innovations and trends breaking through for 2021.

Nurture remains at the heart of the Dolls category, providing kids with classic play patterns that aid the development of social skills. While traditional features such as nappy wetting, sleeping, eating and crying are still seen across many leading brands, new technologies and innovation will this year be providing kids with an even more realistic experience. As revealed in our exclusive interview with Zapf’s Kasia Leskow (pages 44 and 46), leading brand Baby Annabell is launching a new Sweet Princess doll that blushes when she’s kissed, while Baby born Magic lets young mums and dads decide when their doll is asleep or awake using a special dummy. Mattel is poised for the July launch of its new large nurturing doll brand My Garden Baby, which introduces fantastical elements to this traditional category (find out more on pages 48 and 50), and in autumn/winter IMC Toys’ Cry Babies will unveil a more lifelike appearance for its best-selling dolls, featuring real rooted hair, glass crystal eyes and a soft-touch head.

However, with kids constantly exposed to social media, and the influencers and content creators that call such platforms home, hair-play, fashion and makeover themes are becoming ever-increasing drivers behind best-selling doll brands. An enduring appeal of Barbie has been the ability to change her look by swapping her outfit, shoes and accessories. Barbie Extra has taken this into new territory with eye-catching and over-the-top new looks, while Barbie Colour Reveal features an engaging water-reveal element and blind bagged clothing, pets and accessories to fashion-forward doll fans. MGA Entertainment’s doll range Rainbow High, which launched in autumn 2020, combines fashion with hair play, allowing kids to style their doll’s hair as well as their own, using safe hair chalks that easily wash out.

Swiss doll brand I’m A Girly says it offers Gen Z a platform for self-expression with its diverse range of dolls, fashions, interchangeable wigs and more. To ensure its products accurately reflect what kids are seeking, the company involves them in the development process, as founder Theresia Le Battistini explains. “’Created by Kids4Kids’ isn’t just a slogan for us, but our guiding principle,” she says. “Inspired by our community, and always on a quest to create value and meaning that go beyond the products themselves, we’ve also started to collaborate with leaders from other consumer industries. For example, we’ve partnered with The R Collective for the first-of-its-kind sustainable and upcycled doll clothing line made of excess fabric from big fashion brands.”

Accessories are also enhancing doll play. This is an area that Kasia at Zapf was keen to highlight during our interview when it came to Baby born’s 30th anniversary this year, telling me: “From the beginning kids could get their dolls any number of more imaginative accessories; we’re talking scooters and bikes, horses and dragons, camping and fishing gear. Each toy isn’t just a doll, it’s a friend with whom kids can go on adventures.”

Speaking of adventures, the upcoming release of Spirit Untamed is also providing new opportunities in the dolls’ space, as Mattel has found with its new range of posable dolls and their equine companions. The excitement surrounding the launch of the new DreamWorks movie is likely to result in soaring demand for horse-themed doll sets. With Baby Annabell Little Sweet Princess also benefitting from a noble steed of her own this year, retailers should be able to capitalise on this trend in the coming months. Mattel is also tapping into emerging trends with My Garden Baby, off the back of a year that saw consumers recognising the importance of nature and time outside arguably more than ever before. Zapf and IMC Toys, meanwhile, are catering to the increased demand for bath time doll play, the former with a new pretend bathing feature for Baby Annabell, the latter with its bath-time collectible dolls, Bloopies Fairies, which light up when put in water.

IMC’s content, hosted on its YouTube channel, Kitoons, is a fundamental driver behind the success of its Cry Babies and Bloopies dolls. When Kitoons launched three years ago it was available in five languages, but huge growth means it’s now available in 25 languages and has racked up 3b views, 300m hours of watch time and 3.5m downloads on the Cry Babies app. Sue Barratt, UK country manager at IMC, comments: “The animated adventures of Cry Babies and Bloopies on Kitoons are a massive hit with children. The doll range brings to life the characters children are already familiar with, so they can play out the adventures themselves. Our Nickelodeon content partnership boosted our Kitoons presence for Cry Babies Magic Tears, and a dedicated Cry Babies Magic Tears digital hub, which is linked to Nick Jr.co.uk and hosts content and videos, reinforces brand awareness and engagement.”

MGA’s Rainbow High also benefits from its own content slate. The popular animated series, which depicts relevant themes of friendship and school life, has had over 40m views on YouTube so far and recently launched on Netflix, trending as the seventh most-popular series on the streaming service on its first weekend live. Barbie content also continues to roll out from Mattel. Barbie & Chelsea: The Lost Birthday is the first Barbie movie to feature Chelsea, Barbie’s younger sister, in a starring role. In anticipation of increased demand for dolls based on the new content, Mattel has made The Lost Birthday one of the main highlights of its Toymaster window display for May (more on this on pages 70 and 72). With more kids than ever watching content via VOD (video on demand) and SVOD (subscription video on demand), supporting toy properties with webisodes, specials, movies and more is becoming a powerful marketing tool in its own right, helping kids build a strong rapport with characters before the doll ranges hit shelves, and driving kids to stores when they do.

The issue of sustainability also continues to be seen and felt in new doll launches. Zapf Creation has already announced a pledge for its packaging to be plasticfree across all its ranges by 2022, having revealed new packaging across core product ranges and new lines back in January. As mentioned earlier, I’m A Girly is developing a doll clothing line made from surplus fabric from the fashion industry, and Italian company Dimian, which is set to break into the UK dolls arena in the coming months after recently appointing SJR Associates as its UK distributor, aims to increase the amount of recycled material used in its packaging from the current 85% to 99% over the next few years.

At the same time, we’re also seeing clever use of packaging in the collectibles space that will not only cut down on the amount going to landfill, but also enhance play. Spin Master’s Hatchimals Pixie Riders come in new multi-use packaging which transforms into a backdrop, and Funrise’s BFF Bright Fairy Friends come packaged in a jar that doubles as the fairy’s home. Plenty of eyes remain on efforts to reduce plastic packaging and throwaway elements, so this kind of innovation will be very welcome indeed.

MGA must get a mention for the ongoing impressive performance of its L.O.L. Surprise! and Na! Na! Na! Surprise! collectible dolls. However, while the company very much remains the leader in the collectibles space, plenty more brands are carving out a name for themselves too. IMC’s Cry Babies brand, with its wide range of appealing characters, has translated seamlessly into the hugely popular collectible dolls range Cry Babies Magic Tears, which carries through the impressive crying function seen in the bigger counterparts. Later this year, Cry Babies Magic Tears Dress Me Up will launch, combining collectability with outfit swap-ability, in what is sure to be yet another best-selling range for IMC.

“We’re supporting all our launches with a full 360 approach that covers content broadcast on air, new series across all of our brands on our YouTube channel Kitoons, plus TV advertising, influencer campaigns, and eCommerce retail targeting,” says Sue Barratt. “Plus, later in the year there’ll be some exciting news as we take our content to a new platform.”

MGA is placing substantial investment behind Rainbow High, with extensive TV, PR, influencer and digital campaigns set to promote the brand’s ethos of empowering children and celebrating individuality. The campaigns follow on from the success of last year, with 2021 partnerships including UK TikTok star Gabi Faye, fashion and make up influencer Honey Rose Loves and activations with a well-known UK girl band to be announced soon.

“The Rainbow High academy campaign will also launch this summer,” adds Neil Bandtock, MD UK & Ireland, MGA Entertainment. “This will offer a series of influencer and celebrity partnerships, creative content and engaging and interactive activities for fans to get involved with across the UK Instagram account. Alongside the TV, digital and PR campaigns, the animated Rainbow High series is also set to continue, reflecting the characters’ school lives alongside a special double episode launching on Netflix in the summer.”

As a fashion-conscious brand, I’m A Girly produces plenty of high-quality product content as well as campaign images and video content, not only for its social media channels, but also for its retail partners. The company regularly receives unexpected celebrity endorsements too, most recently from Madonna and Chrissy Teigen. In pre-pandemic times, I’m A Girly organised doll styling events for kids together with its retail partners, as well as Kids4Kids design sessions. Theresia says: “We have now taken these events to the digital world and regularly host online sessions for kids around crafting, designing and creating. These events keep kids entertained and help to spark their creativity in the unprecedented times we are experiencing now, in which children might find it difficult to simply go out and meet other kids like before.”