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Mattel needs to reinvent Barbie and Hot Wheels: Can you help?

Mattel, the maker of Barbie and Hot Wheels, is partnering with Quirky Inc. to re-imagine the brand and ask inventors to submit toy proposals. Is crowdsourcing their brand a good idea?

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    Mattel will release 23 new Barbies this summer.
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With sales down 14 percent as kids gravitate to digital games, Mattel Inc., the maker of Barbie, is betting a new approach can help improve sales: crowdsourcing.

The American toymaker, founded in 1945, is looking for solutions from outsiders, partnering with New York’s Quirky Inc. to encourage inventors to submit product ideas for new toys.

Is crowdsourcing Mattel's best hope?

The Segundo, Calif.-based company officials appear to believe so, as they announced the partnership on Thursday, and said the move is an effort to address declining sales by reinventing the brand.

“This marks a new era for Mattel,” the company’s president and chief operating officer, Richard Dickson, said in a statement. “This new partnership will enable us to accelerate the speed and scope of invention by tapping into Quirky’s dynamic community.”

Individuals can submit their ideas through Quirky’s site. The company said they will focus on re-imagining its Barbie, Fisher-Price, and Hot Wheels brands in time for this year’s holiday season. Individuals whose ideas are selected will also participate in the product-development process.

Other companies have successfully used crowdsourcing to improve their brands and marketing strategies, including General Mills, Coca-Cola, and Unilever. Coca-Cola uses fans’ social media responses in its “Where Will Happiness Strike Next?” ad campaign, which allows Coke customers to submit their own ideas for creating happiness in a series of videos and commercials.

General Mills also accepts ideas from the general public through its “Submit a Novel Proposal” page that began in 2009. The company asks anyone for their input on packaging, ingredients, and strategies for improving their performance as a brand and company. Through this forum, 24-year-old Mark King created a device that measures the texture of granola bars, something the company needed and was unable to find. The pairing benefited not just General Mills, but also an up-and-coming inventor.

“I was going from making things out of Super Glue and bubble gum to making an analytical device for a multibillion-dollar company,” Mr. King said, reported The New York Times.

Kia Kokalitcheva of Fortune.com reported that with Mattel’s mixed first quarter results, it is uncertain whether or not the partnership will benefit the company. Mattel beat analysts’ Q1 performance expectations, but multiple toy product lines, including Barbie, continue to struggle. She wrote:

“While the Quirky partnership could help give Mattel a fresh take on toys and possibly yield a hit or two, these partnerships often account for only a small part of the large companies’ overall businesses.”

And perhaps that is where Mattel needs to save itself. The Detroit Free Press reported that in addition to its Quirky partnership, the company also intends to give Barbie a makeover. Launching in June, the new Barbie will be available in different skin tones, eye and hair colors, and nose shapes to better represent multicultural families. The new Barbie will have 23 different looks.

"This will be an important cultural milestone for the brand," said Dickson, reported the Detroit Free Press.  

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