Olsen twins expand a $1 billion brand

— Already one of the most powerful brands for "tweens," Mary-Kate and Ashley are all about growing older � and bigger.

The twin girls turned 16 on Thursday, in a year that is expected to see their merchandising and entertainment empire gross $1 billion in sales.

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AP Photo

Ashley, left, and Mary-Kate Olsen speak earlier this month during a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. shareholder's meeting in Fayetteville, Ark. The twin sisters, who made their TV debut as infants on ABC's sitcom "Full House" in the late 1980s, have transformed themselves into one of the most powerful brands for the 8-to-12-year-old group.Their products, which include video games, videos, dolls, books, clothing, accessories and cosmetics, is expected to generate $1 billion in sales this year.

Since making their TV debut as infants on ABC's sitcom "Full House" in the late 1980s, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have transformed themselves into a huge name for the 8-to-12-year-old age group. Videos and games, dolls, books, clothing, accessories and cosmetics are all sold through their Dualstar Entertainment Group.

In July, they will be coming out with a line of teen apparel at Wal-Mart Inc., which already has an arrangement � exclusive, for now � to sell fashion products such as tween and toddler clothing as well as accessories under the brand.

Mary Kate and Ashley also envision adding women's, infant's and boy's clothing, as well as expanding overseas to such markets as France, Germany, Mexico and Japan. Right now, their goods are selling in Canada and Great Britain through Wal-Mart's affiliates.

The twins, who reportedly each have a net worth of at least $150 million, are also hoping to resurrect their now-defunct magazine with a new financial backer by mid-2003.

"It is really an infant brand," said Robert Thorne, the chief executive who created Dualstar in 1993 and is the brains behind the Olsens' teen-queen status.

Thorne envisions a global family brand, with 50 percent of its sales coming from outside of the United States and Canada by 2005. Those two countries now account for about 85 percent of sales.

The twins are also working on developing their movie careers. In January, they signed a deal with Warner Bros. to star in an unnamed big-budget feature film, to be released as early as 2003. Thorne even sees the twins becoming pop singers.

At the same time, the Olsens admit there are limits to their exposure.

"We don't want to be too much in their faces. We don't want people to get sick of us," Mary-Kate said in a recent phone interview.

Reeling in the guys

Merchandising experts praise the twins' brand power among young fans, but believe they may face some challenges in reaching an older crowd, including late teens, as well as males.

Constant reruns of "Full House" and their television movies could hurt efforts to create a more mature image � and do boys really want to buy Mary-Kate and Ashley clothes?

Responded Thorne: "If Donna Karan can consult to men, then Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen can consult to men."

Michael Wood, vice president of Teenage Research Unlimited, a market research firm in Northbrook, Ill., wonders if a brand that now sells fashion and accessories at Wal-Mart can lure very trend-conscious teens away from Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle and Express.

As for attracting young men, Wood said: "Guys are very cautious about the brands they embrace. The last thing they want to do is wear a brand that's a girl's brand."

James Bell, senior partner of Lippincott & Margulies, a brand consulting company, pointed out, "The twins have done a great job in perpetuating their image together as a pair that's wholesome, spunky, athletic, but as they grow up, they become more independent. The challenge is keeping them as a pair."

He added, "They could also turn into people who you find in the National Enquirer."

'We're normal teen-agers'

For now, the Olsens, who split their time between their divorced parents' homes, both in the Los Angeles area, appear to be staying out of trouble. They will be high school juniors next year and have plans to go to college somewhere in the Northeast. Their dream is to someday direct, continue acting and "somehow keep what we have," Ashley said.

The twins closely work with Dualstar's head of design Judith Swartz on new products.

"We get to choose what we want to do," said Ashley.

The twins now carry the titles of co-founders, and will become company presidents when they reach 18.

"We're normal teen-agers � except we travel more and we run a company," Mary-Kate said.

And, of course, they seem to be the only teens who have such magic at retail, with their brand topping sales in the girls' category in many areas, from books to video games.

"All of our stuff is pretty affordable, and kids can relate to us," reasoned Ashley.

Their books, first launched about 10 years ago, have generated more than $130 million in retail sales and sold more than 30 million copies in print among four book series.

Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen dolls, made by Mattel Inc., are the nation's No. 1 selling celebrity doll, surpassing names like Britney Spears, and are the toy maker's no. 2 fashion doll behind Barbie, according to Julia Jensen, a Mattel spokeswoman.

Mary Kate and Ashley's marketing power can be clearly seen at Wal-Mart, where sales of their products are expected to generate $750 million this year. The chain is counting on the brand to help reach out to younger consumers.

The twins first launched a line of sportswear and accessories for tweens in January 2001 at Wal-Mart, and have now added hair care, cosmetics and toddler clothing.

Wal-Mart is creating 600-square-foot shops within some stores to display all the merchandise.

As Lee Scott, chief executive officer and president of Wal-Mart told shareholders last week, the twins are "fashion magnets."

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