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Dress-Up for Dollars

 

Rob Walker

New York Times
February 17, 2008

“This is a game that girls have played for centuries: it’s about standing in front of the mirror and dreaming about being a princess, a rock star or the cool girl next door.” Mattias Miksche is on the phone from Sweden, making a fair point. But like a lot of things that have been done for centuries, identity play is a little different now, and Miksche’s company, Stardoll, is a good example of a 21st-century version.

The Stockholm company’s product is, for instance, digital and transnational. Its variations on paper dolls and dress-up games help attract 7.8 million unique visitors a month to a Web site that is published in 15 languages and combines elements of a social network and a virtual world. The majority of visitors are girls — average age 13.8 — who spend between two and two and a half hours a month there. Another contemporary difference is that Stardoll is backed by venture capital and is battling a range of competitors all seeking to capture, and monetize, the attention of young fans. These range from Cartoon Doll Emporium to Club Penguin, Webkinz to Habbo.

At Stardoll.com, you will find a long list of celebrity names: Brad Pitt, Heidi Klum, Amy Winehouse, Paris Hilton’s dog. Click on a name to get a digital paper-doll version; nearby is a rack of outfits you can click and drag to dress the celebrity as you please. Younger users (up to age 12 or so) generally stick to this solitary pastime, possibly showing off their dress-up results to a sibling, or to Mom. But you also find many appeals to get more involved: join the millions who have registered and signed up for a free account, and you can create a MeDoll — a digital paper doll rendering of yourself, or of whatever self you’re interested in expressing. Chat with new online friends, join or form a club (there are more than 360,000) and expand your audience from Mom to users in Tennessee, Britain and Israel. It’s the 13-and-over part of the audience that generally takes the plunge.

The registration step gets you, free, 25 Stardollars to spend in the virtual “starplaza” mall. Recently, choices there have included a number of nonvirtual fashion brands like DKNY and Sephora (both owned by luxury conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton) and various celebrity spinoff lines like Stuff by Hillary Duff. “The millions of members of the Stardoll community are a group of great relevance to the future of our brands,” a top executive at LVMH has explained. “And it is exciting to be able to interact with them in their space.” Earn more Stardollars by winning a Covergirl of the Day contest or by recruiting friends to Stardoll. Or just buy more Stardollars with some real-life currency; credit cards accepted. Some things — a Heidi Klum-branded clover chain necklace, for instance — are available only if you become a Superstar. This entails a fee: about $6 a month, or $60 a year.

Miksche, the company’s C.E.O., will not say how many Stardoll users have gone the paid route. On the question of the financial arrangements that brought DKNY or Heidi Klum into Stardoll, he is evasive. But he has an answer to anyone made uncomfortable by commercialization in this girls’ world. “We have a list of 1,200 brands our users have asked us for,” he says, from aspirational names like Dior to quotidian ones like the Gap to “the most obscure Ukrainian jeans brand.” He adds, “They really, really want brands.” In other words, it’s not as if girls are being introduced to branding by the virtual world of Stardoll; they’re already up on it by way of experience in a different world, called earth. After all, one marketing association released a study last year claiming that teenagers talk about brands 145 times a week.

Recently, Stardoll did a study of its own, polling United States users about their brand preferences. Apparently they saw real-world brands on the same plane as the half-dozen or so invented brands that exist only within the site. (Some respondents even made the — clearly impossible — claim that they wear the strictly digital Goth-style brand Fallen Angel to school.) So it’s no surprise when Miksche mentions that what many users want, and what Stardoll will soon provide, is the ability to design their own digital apparel — and, if they like, sell it. Maybe what makes the Stardoll version of identity play different isn’t the role of specific brands. Maybe what today’s girls have really absorbed is the general idea of branding. And they know what they want from it: a piece of the action.





 

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