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The doll that has everything - almost

Fulla is giving Barbie a run for her money. She has brisk sales, an enormous product line and the admiration of her young fans. But there's one thing she'll never have: Ken.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN
Published May 15, 2005


DAMASCUS, Syria - When we last saw Fulla, the Arab answer to Barbie, the poor girl had a limited wardrobe and uncertain parentage. To be sure, she came in a box stamped "China," but what were the real origins of this doe-eyed lovely?

Mystery solved! Fulla, it turns out, was conceived right here in Syria, but in just 18 months she has become the hottest-selling doll in the Middle East.

There's now a Singing Fulla and a Walking Fulla, pushing a luggage cart with suitcases to hold the dozens of seasonal outfits that crowd her closet. For company, Fulla has two new friends, Yasmeen and Nada, and will soon be joined by a little brother and sister.

And there's more. From Beirut to Bahrain, girls carry Fulla umbrellas, wear Fulla watches, ride Fulla bicycles and eat Fulla corn flakes. The product catalog runs to almost 80 pages and includes 150 Fulla licensed items, ranging from cameras to CD players to inflatable chairs and swimming pools.

"Fulla has reached a great success," says Fawaz Abidin, Fulla brand manager for New Boy, the parent company. "You can put Fulla on anything these days and it will sell."

When a line of Fulla backpacks was introduced last year, the entire stock sold out within 15 days of the first television ad. And despite a $40 price tag - the highest in the Fulla line - customers snapped up every Fulla Prayer Rug set (it also includes a skirt and head scarf, in patented Fulla Pink).

Named for a fragrant flower found only in the Middle East, Fulla is the serendipitous result of a good idea and shrewd marketing. Although she didn't hit the stores until late 2003, the concept began to evolve in 1999 and was carefully honed.

"We wanted to bring a doll for the Arab market, not to compete with Barbie but to reflect Arab values," says Abidin, a boyish-looking 29-year-old who joined New Boy after getting his master's degree in the United States.

"She's not only a sexy lady, but she's honest, loving and caring and respects her mother and father - things Arab parents would like for their kids."

The product development team considered 10 different faces before settling on the Fulla look: large brown eyes and long, coal-black hair streaked with auburn. To make her more acceptable in Saudi Arabia, one of the richest and most conservative Arab countries, she initially was dressed in a black abaya and head scarf, but minus the veil that most Saudi women wear.

"We thought that would be too much for a little girl," Abidin says. "In Islam, you are not obliged to cover your face. We didn't want to go to extremes."

For more liberal countries like Syria and Lebanon, Fulla comes in a white scarf and pastel coat. New Boy also introduced dolls with lighter hair and eyes, assuming they would be popular in Mediterranean regions where blue-eyed blonds are not unknown. But even Syrian and Lebanese girls prefer the black-haired dolls, Abidin says. (So does he.)

Fulla's wardrobe has grown larger and more colorful, though it would still strike Americans as downright dowdy. Skirts fall modestly below the knee, and shoulders are always covered.

"Everything is conservative," Abidin says. "Here you have a brand identity, and unless you stick to it, you're going to fail. People will see you just as a doll trying to reflect Barbie."

Nonetheless, many Fulla items are made in the same Chinese factories that turn out Barbie and her related products. That's partly because the items are almost identical, and partly because the factories already meet safety standards set by the United Arab Emirates, the rich gulf nation through which the Fulla line is distributed to other countries.

At $10 or so for the basic doll, Fulla is on the pricey side for most girls in Syria, where the average income is $3,100. So this month, New Boy is introducing a less expensive version called Fulla Style. Stores already contain the inevitable knockoffs, like Fulona. "This tells you the success we've got," Abidin says.

Unlike Barbie, a perennial job-hopper who has been everything from an astronaut to U.S. president in her 46 years, Fulla remains a traditional Arab woman whose life revolves around home and family. Next year, though, New Boy plans to introduce a Teacher Fulla and a Doctor Fulla, two career choices that "we like to encourage for girls because then they can contribute," Abidin says.

Plans also call for Fulla to move into Pakistan, Russia, Korea and other non-Arab countries, with wardrobes reflecting local styles. But she'll go unattached.

"Arab culture refuses boyfriends and girlfriends," Abidin says, "and we don't want to damage the image we already have."

Sorry, Fulla - no Mohammed or Ali for you.

- Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at susan@sptimes.com