To Pink or Not to Pink: Negotiating the Political Minefield that is Branding for Girls (Part 2)

Girl Toys Vs. Boy Toys?: Should girls have separate products?

There has been much debate recently about the appropriateness of dividing up and labeling the toy aisle by gender. Do little girls naturally like pink princesses, or are we teaching them this behavior? Does Hasbro’s Nerf Rebelle line reinforce pink stereotypes by telling girls they can’t play with boy toys, or does it break stereotypes by sending the message that girls can join in the action too?

One company that has been smack dab in the middle of this debate is . . .

Lego

I was a big Lego fan when I was a kid. Legos are awesome! This castle was my first big set:

Epic

Epic

My parents gave me this set one year for my birthday. (I know. I have awesome parents.) I remember being kind of surprised, because I thought of Legos as being “for boys.” But once I opened the set and started playing with it, I loved it. I got a bunch of sets over the next few years. (They were all in the castle theme. I was very focused.)

In 1994, Lego released the Belville line, which was specifically “for girls.”

In the immortal words of Lego Batman, “You are so disappointing on so many levels.”

In the immortal words of Lego Batman, “You are so disappointing on so many levels.”

At the time, I remember thinking that the Belville sets looked over-simplistic and kind of insulting, so I kept playing with my castles. The only issue was none of my sets came with girl minifigures, so I had to make my own.

While Lego does advertise their generic bricks as gender neutral, the themed sets are primarily aimed at boys. They have released a few “girl” themes like Belville over the years, but apparently other girls agreed with me, and none of them proved very successful.

All that changed in 2012 with the release of the Lego Friends line. “We want to reach the other 50 percent of the world’s children,” declared Lego CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp.

Much Better

Much Better

The line was the result of four years of intense research studying the differences in girls’ play and boys’ play. The design of Lego Friends is based off the idea that compared to boys, girls incorporate more role play, characters, and storytelling into their play patterns. To address these findings, the Friends line introduced bigger minifigs with more detailing and individual names and backstories. They are still compatible with all other Lego pieces. (No reason they can’t hang out with the regular-sized minifigs!) For instance, this is Mia. She’s an animal lover.

 
Mia
 

Another difference in the Friends line is the packaging. Through its interviews, Lego determined that girls like to start playing while they are still building. In the box, the pieces are organized and bagged differently so that the child can begin playing even before the entire set is complete. The line features mostly real world City-type sets like a beach house and a stable, and the color pallet is mainly pastels.

The Lego Friends line has been the subject of A LOT of debate about gender stereotyping in toys. Some see the line as a great way to attract girls to building and construction toys. Legos have great educational benefits, like improved math, spatial, and fine motor skills, and they encourage open-ended creativity and imagination. Others see the Friends line as a pink and purple beauty-pushing stereotype. For example, the Heartlake News Van (cool, an adventurous girl reporter!) features a makeup chair with a brush and lipstick (oh).

Heartlake News Van Set

Despite all the criticism, the Lego Friends line has been hugely successful. And tying into my previous post, some girls like being girly, and it’s nice that there is a Lego line for them too. Personally, I’d still rather play with a castle, but the whole point of the different Lego themes (like City, Star Wars, and Bionicle) is to appeal to different kids with different interests.

GoldieBlox

I can hardly talk about building toys for girls and not bring up newcomer GoldieBlox. For the uninitiated, GoldieBlox was started through a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign in 2012. Its founder, Debbie Sterling, is a Stanford-educated engineer. Her goal with the company is to get more girls interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers by “disrupting the pink aisle.” The GoldieBlox line consists of construction sets, but instead of simple building instructions, they come with a storybook. Each book features Goldie trying to solve an engineering-related problem, and kids can help Goldie by building the corresponding set with their construction kit. The idea behind the books is to appeal to girls by tapping into their interest in storytelling. Here is the debut kit:

Yeah, this looks awesome

Yeah, this looks awesome

The marketing for the company has been very interesting. The whole campaign for GoldieBlox is more or less entirely aimed at explaining the company mission to adults. For example, their 2013 video “Princess Machine” went viral and has over 2 million views. (Yes, that’s the one that got sued over their use of the Beastie Boys song.) All my friends posted it on Facebook. If you haven’t seen it, watch it. It’s awesome! But that’s the point. I’m clearly the target audience for this video.

In contrast, Lego marketing focuses on fun, play, and imagination, not the educational benefits of the product. Their marketing targets kids first, and adults second. Lego has built up so much brand trust over the years that the kids who used to play with the sets are now easily convinced to buy them for their kids. (However, Lego did recently release a very inspirational, kind of vague ad that is clearly an answer to some of the recent criticism of their girl line.)

GoldieBlox, on the other hand, is trying to get noticed and establish its points of difference from other similar construction toys. I would actually say that its biggest point of difference right now is its empowering marketing. The toy itself seems fun and engaging, but the design is not that earth-shattering. And as a new company, GoldieBlox certainly can’t match Lego in movie licensing deals or in plastic quality. (Lego has extremely high plastics standards. As anyone who has ever stepped on one can tell you, those things are built to last.) Nevertheless, GoldieBlox has succeeded in getting a fair amount of media attention over its girl power message. As has been shown with all the controversy over Lego Friends, there is clearly a desire among parents for empowering construction toys for girls. So far, the GoldieBlox line seems to be doing pretty well, I am curious to see what will happen with the future success of this new company.

And yes, I still have that castle. Don’t be jealous.

Next time:
Dolls!: Generations of cultural and historical sensitivities poured into one little vinyl toy