Los Angeles -- If Barbie were a song, what would she sound like?
The question sat in Tena Clark's mind as she drove through downtown Los Angeles last fall.
The answer was no small matter. With Barbie's sales sagging, toy maker Mattel Inc. had turned to Clark, a pioneer in the emerging field of "sonic branding," to give the icon of American beauty a marketing face-lift.
Recent scientific research had suggested that distinct combinations of a few musical notes - known in the advertising world as a "sonic brand" - could have more influence on consumers than the longer, frequently changing jingles Mattel had used for years.
Clark's mission was to develop a sonic brand that would define Barbie and become as recognizable as McDonald's golden arches, the five tones that conclude Intel's television ads or NBC's three-bell chime.
Dozens of the world's largest companies are developing sonic advertising campaigns to compete with those that have emerged in the past few years, such as Yahoo's yodel and McDonald's "I'm Lovin' It." A Motorola musical burst - "Hello, Moto" - has been remade into a ring tone and a hit song in Asia.
Most sonic brands are versatile enough to expand into full songs. But typically, they are played alone as a three- or four-note melody so memorable, marketers hope, that they cut through the media clutter and lodge indelibly in consumers' brains.
"There are so many more media options now that it's important to have a song that can link television commercials, Web sites and the tunes that play on a kid's cell phone," said Richard Dickson, a senior vice president at Mattel Brands. "We're constantly looking for new ways to communicate with consumers that involve all the senses."
Few sonic campaigns will be more closely watched than Barbie's, if Mattel moves ahead with it this year. With more than $1 billion in worldwide sales last year, the doll is one of the biggest products yet to get a sonic makeover.
Mattel began searching for a fresh marketing approach after Barbie's sales slipped 13 percent last year in the face of new competitors such as the saucy Bratz dolls.
For the Mattel assignment, Clark interviewed executives and surveyed previous Barbie advertising campaigns. Her conclusion: Barbie owners were smart, strong girls who were members of a special club. While Bratz dolls bared their midriffs, Barbie didn't need to grow up too fast or obsess over boys or clothes.
"I wanted to find a way to say to little girls, 'This is your time to play and be young,'" Clark said. "This brand is a cause. I wanted something that would make a difference."
That required finding just the right notes.
To get in touch with her inner Barbie, Clark started paying attention to pink, despite her preference for dark clothing. She made lists of Barbie's attributes and searched for words that rhymed with "magical" and "super-glam."
With the deadline drawing near, Clark was at a loss. Driving down the freeway last fall, she began pondering why Barbie had entranced her as a child.
She thought about her childhood in the segregated town of Waynesboro, Miss., population 2,000. Her African-American nanny had taught her about the dignity of being different. When boys teased Clark because she was a lesbian or for choosing to play drums rather than clarinet, Clark turned to her record player and Barbie dolls for solace.
She thought about her five nieces, who were all under the age of 10.
Like magic, three notes popped into her head.
She began to arrange the three-note melody into the verses, chorus and bridge of a complete song. She worked out stanzas of lyrics, and began thinking through hip-hop and rock arrangements. In minutes, she had almost everything worked out.
"Everyone talks about the science of marketing and how the brain hears music. But a three-note melody works because it touches something emotional," Clark said.
Charles Duhigg writes for the Los Angeles Times.