Dolls!: Generations of cultural and historical sensitivities poured into one little vinyl toy
For the final entry in my 3-part series, I’d like to turn to dolls. Dolls are an interesting category, because they add a whole other level of complication to girls’ branding. Unlike fluffy teddy bears, yellow plastic Lego minifigures, or blue racially-ambiguous Muppets, most dolls are designed to be direct representations of girls. Due to this realism, parents are extremely sensitive to the beauty and lifestyle messages that little girls get from their dolls. And complicating matters further is the fact that there have been many controversial examples over the years. Whether it’s unrealistic body proportions, lack of diversity, offensive racial stereotypes, or gender stereotypes, dolls have historically not always been particularlypolitically correct.
Many adult women have very fond memories of their childhood dolls, but at the same time are concerned about giving their daughters the wrong messages. For moms, dolls represent both a chance for cherished childhood experiences and teachable moments about beauty and empowerment.
These issues represent a real challenge for toy companies to appeal both to the little girls and their vigilant parents. One company that has faced this issue head-on is American Girl. (Side note: I used to work at one of the American Girl retail stores, so I have a lot of experience with the brand and its strategies, and a unique perspective on the needs and desires of its customers.)
American Girl is a direct-to-consumer doll company that was started in 1986 as a mail order catalogue with three dolls. While the company has grown considerably over the years to include over fifty dolls, retail stores, and movies, its mission and core products have remained relatively the same. American Girl has always been proud of its “chocolate cake and vitamins” approach, meaning that there is an educational, parental-approved component mixed into all of the beautiful products.
The dolls are an easy sell to kids. Girls love American Girl dolls because they are beautiful, detailed, and huggable. There are a lot of different, fun accessories to appeal to all different interests. The detail and variety open up a whole world of play possibilities. The dolls may be expensive (right now, most are priced at $115), but there really is a big quality difference in American Girl dolls and similar but lower-priced alternatives.
So the girls are convinced. American Girl products are beautiful and appealing, and the paper catalogue suggestively shows up right at your door. Parents, on the other hand, take a little more convincing, mostly because of the high price point. American Girl has built up such a strong, positive brand message that it ultimately ends up winning over adults as well. Parents respond to the sweetness of the brand, diversity of the dolls, educational aspects of the products, and positive experience of the retail stores.
Sweet and Wholesome:
The marketing for American Girl is purposely very sweet and wholesome, bordering on sappy. The pictures in the catalogue and on the website show sweet little girls playing with sweet little products. There are always empowering tag-lines like “Make her smile today, help her shine tomorrow,” “Follow your inner star,” and “We celebrate girls.” Unlike many fashion dolls like Barbie who are aspirational (I want to grow up to be an astronaut too!), American Girl dolls are meant to be kids. Take one look at any of the marketing, and you can tell that this isn’t Bratz or Monster High. Parents may poke fun at the sappiness, but right away, they see that the brand is going to be age-appropriate. And this sweet, little girl image is appealing to the kids as well.
Beauty and Diversity:
Another extremely important area that parents notice immediately is doll diversity. People want diversity (of course), but they also are very sensitive about stereotypes (of course). This issue can get sticky with dolls and their physical representations of different ethnicities and cultures. There are certain representations that most everyone can agree are offensive (I’m not going to show examples, you know what I’m talking about), but it is much harder to get everyone to agree on nice and respectful attributes. And people take this stuff very personally (of course). Saturday Night Live recently had a sketch that addresses this exact issue. The clip is a commercial for an Asian-American doll that has no name, accessories, or personality because the creators are paranoid of offending anyone. Creating culturally and ethnically sensitive dolls is challenging, but extremely important for a brand.
American Girl has a diverse array of dolls in its collection. They all have a standard body (except for the baby dolls) that is little-girl-shaped and not super skinny. There are 6 standard face molds, and a myriad of skin tones, eye colors, and hair color and texture combinations. The company is very proud of its diversity and periodically releases new dolls and accessories to respond to perceived gaps in its offerings. It puts a lot of resources into developing dolls that are representative of different groups, and it clearly wants these groups to be pleased with the dolls (and of course buy them). But there are a lot of different opinions about this stuff, and again, people take these issues very personally.
One example is Addy. The Addy doll was released in 1993 as part of the historical collection. She was the company’s first African-American doll and the first to receive a new face mold. She is a runaway slave living in Philadelphia in 1864. Some people love Addy. They love her distinct features and love that her story deals sensitively with such an important time in African-American history. Oprah even had Addy on her show. Other people feel that Addy’s features are too stereotypical and dislike her story’s focus on slavery.
Another example is Rebecca. American Girl launched the Rebecca doll in 2009. She is a Jewish girl living in New York City in 1914. Her release was accompanied by media coverage explaining how much research went into the doll and how serious the company was about making sure that her Jewish heritage was treated with respect. For example, an article about Rebecca that ran in the New York Times opens with a positive review from the director of the Anti-Defamation League. The article goes on to describe the debate over Rebecca’s hair color. The company wanted to make her representative of her culture, but was concerned about making her too typical. They ultimately decided on a mid-tone brown. American Girl put a lot of effort into making sure Rebecca wasn’t an offensive stereotype, and they wanted to make sure everyone knew it.
A few years ago, American Girl debuted a number of inclusive products such as doll hearing aids, braces (removable stickers), and Dolls without Hair to go along with previous items such as a wheelchair and glasses. An item like the hearing aids doesn’t sell that well, and clearly isn’t making a lot of money, but it does a lot for the brand. Kids who wear hearing aids love getting them for their doll, their parents are thrilled, and other parents see the doll hearing aids and are impressed by the inclusiveness of the brand.
The beauty and diversity issue is very sensitive with parents, and American Girl has spent years trying to carefully negotiate this space successfully. Diversity is an important part of the company ethos, and is a big part of parents’ comfort with the brand.
There are a number of parentally-approved doll accessories. There are pink sparkly dresses of course, but also doll-sized science kits and musical instruments.
Of course, American Girl also has an extensive line of award-winning books. The historical fiction series go along with the historical line of dolls, and have been a core part of the brand since the beginning. Through the series, kids learn about different times in American history from the perspective of 9-year-old girls. American Girl also makes popular non-fiction self-help books, craft guides, and mysteries. Their best selling title is a book on puberty called The Care and Keeping of You. Its popularity is a testament to the trust that parents place in the brand. The book line is an important part of the American Girl product line. At the store where I worked, the book section is on the first floor, visible through the most prominent window. The company wants the parents to see that section first, particularly the parents who are a little apprehensive about walking into this sparkly, expensive, and overwhelming place. Which leads to my next point . . .
The American Girl retail stores obviously sell all the products, but they are also designed for the experience. Shoppers can eat at the cafe (with their doll of course), make girl and doll t-shirts, and get their dolls’ hair styled at the salon. Like Disney World, the stores are about selling the brand experience as much as they are about making money.
The ads for the stores focus on spending time together and making memories. The message is clear: American Girl Place is not just about buying stuff; it’s about sharing special moments together while she is still a little girl. Many of the images promoting the stores feature a girl and her mom, with the girl engaged with her doll, and the mom looking at the girl.
Awww . . .
My experience was that some of the parents were initially quite skeptical about visiting the store, but were ultimately won over by the positive, memory-making experience.
Conclusion: American Girl has succeeded in marketing an expensive, focused product line in part by appealing to parents as well as kids. In the sensitive market of girls’ dolls, this strategy has contributed to the company’s longevity.