Sweeheart deal for San Francisco Barbie

The Associated Press
Friday September 14, 2001

SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco’s estimated $7.6 billion tourism machine has a new ambassador. She is 11 inches tall, doesn’t speak a word and is hardly a symbol of social progression. 

But the “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” Barbie — all dolled up for the job of marketing tool and collectible plaything — looks unfailingly confident in her high-society fashions despite the troubled economy and the downturn in visitor spending. 

The San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau hopes to make about $100,000 during the next few months from trademark-licensing rights on the doll’s name while also tapping legions of future visitors. 

Tourism Barbie wears an impressively detailed, tailored cinched-waist jacket in satiny gold with faux-fur cuffs, a full black skirt, and seams on the back of her hose. She is made to look as if she’s off to afternoon tea circa 1940. 

Never mind that her heels would make a trek up Nob Hill treacherous in any era. 

This limited-edition Barbie is the product of brainstorming by San Francisco’s imagemakers at the visitors bureau and top executives at the $4.7 billion-per-year Mattel Corp. and South San Francisco’s See’s Candies. 

One of the world’s top destinations, San Francisco gets showered with nearly continuous publicity within the travel world. Still, the visitors bureau is always coming up with its next packageable attention-grabber, from embossed San Francisco pens to “I Love San Francisco” plush toys. 

The joint-venture Barbie doll is carrying a See’s shopping bag in one hand and a black purse in the other. She will be priced at $28 starting this month at See’s Candies’ 200-plus stores and airport chocolate kiosks in 14 states including California, Washington, Oregon, Utah and New Mexico. 

She also will be available for the same price at San Francisco’s Hallidie Plaza visitors center and is already advertised on the visitor’s bureau Web site (www.sfvisitor.org) alongside an “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” camera ($19.50) and wristwatch ($44.50). 

Mattel doesn’t disclose production details, but the doll’s handlers at See’s and the convention bureau say 100,000 “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” Barbies will be available. 

Last year, See’s and Mattel sold a special See’s-design Barbie dressed in the company’s trademark women’s uniform, a white dress with black trim and bow tie. It was the first cooperative venture by the two companies. 

“We didn’t advertise it. We just had it” in stores, said Richard Van Doren, marketing vice president at See’s, which tallied about $330 million in overall sales last year. 

Van Doren was skeptical at first when Mattel approached him: “I said, ’Look, I’m in the candy business.”’ 

He acquiesced and was dumbfounded when nearly 100,000 See’s Barbies, priced at $26 each, disappeared from See’s store shelves within just a few months. 

See’s had to have tapped new customers by luring them into its stores to buy the doll, Van Doren said. “It might have brought the collector in who never had been in a See’s Candies shop.” 

Mattel has struggled in recent years to re-energize the flagging sales growth of its most famous doll. As Barbie turned 40 in 1999, Mattel was fighting near-stagnation of sales, even after Barbie’s popularity had climbed dramatically from the 1980s. 

While 100,000 Barbies register only a blip on Mattel’s screen, the company was looking for new outlets and jumped at the chance to market a second See’s San Francisco doll. 

“This enables us to distribute Barbie Dolls in locations where one would not normally expect to find Barbies,” said Suzanne Schlundt, Mattel’s director of Barbie marketing. 

The visitors bureau wasn’t in on last year’s See’s Barbie experiment. But See’s and the bureau are veteran marketing partners, and the idea of tourists returning home to far-flung locales with San Francisco Barbies in their suitcases was an enticing public-relations opportunity. 

Last year, Brian Baker, the bureau’s marketing vice president, looked into how the agency could tap into the Barbie action by licensing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” to See’s and Mattel. The bureau owns trademark rights to the phrase (though not to the song by the same name). 

The bureau could make close to $100,000 on the licensing rights, said John Marks, bureau president. 

That could buy a few full-page national ads selling the city, he said. But the bigger payoff would be the lasting impression of the dolls themselves, which could become collectors’ items or be cherished for years by children, also known as future tourists. 

“It’s never too early to start building brand awareness,” Marks said. 

The Barbie packaging itself is an advertisement for the city and See’s. It comes with postcards of the Golden Gate Bridge and a cable car. 

Just how collectible the doll will be is largely a matter of guesswork, said Barbie aficionado Patrice Krems Walcoff, a San Rafael insurance broker and Barbie collector. She owns 1,500 Barbies and is the immediate past president of the San Francisco Fashion Doll Club. 

Value to collectors depends on, among other factors, the sale price, production volume, quality, packaging and pure luck, Walcoff said. 

“The face, believe it or not, has a lot to do with how much it appeals to collectors. There are certain collectors who absolutely refuse to buy anything contemporary.” 

This doll’s face is contemporary though her clothes have a retro look. She will come in two versions that Mattel describes as Caucasian and ethnic, which in Barbie’s world means light-brown skin with black hair.