Today's guest post is by Laura Mills, Account Executive, Peppercom’s Brand² Squared Licensing Division.
Growing up, Samantha was my American Girl doll of choice. She had brown hair and eyes (just like me!), with a back-story that was an allegory of having good character. As a premise behind the original American Girl dolls, the company created strong, female characters, incorporating toys with a series of books and matching accessories. The dolls are role models, exhibiting positive traits that modern girls can relate to, regardless of the historical context they are presented in.
This role model position became a method by which American Girl has built a thriving franchise across many years, and business has expanded to include a new generation of role models from a variety of ethnicities and historical eras, while appealing to new audiences, collectors and Hollywood producers. Some of existing characters include Addy, a fugitive Civil War era slave, and Rebecca, a Jewish Immigrant from the turn of the century. Most of the dolls have a heartwarming story of how odds can be beaten – after all, role models are so frequently personas overcoming high obstacles. But the recently launched character Gwen Thompson certainly has the most to overcome: she’s homeless.
It suffices to say, Gwen has generated her fair share of controversy. Media outlets such as the New York Post are attacking the concept, especially the mixed message of a $95 price point for a doll aimed to educate children about poverty. But, regardless of whether the doll is ‘too real’ or if it is overpriced, there is a larger branding issue at hand. Addy and Rebecca are role models. Gwen represents a social topic with polarizing points of view. There is a significant difference between inspiring good character (an outcome of role models) and inspiring debate (an outcome of educators, politicians and reporters addressing social topics.) Of course the target market for American Girl should understand the issue of homelessness. But the concept of Gwen Thompson stretches the American Girl brand beyond its foundation and emotional definition. With the article mentioned above, the brand is now part of a national debate. For a brand built on creating universally aspirational characters, that departure could negatively affect it as a whole.
American Girl carved itself a sustainable position in the saturated doll landscape, an accomplishment enjoyed by few brands beyond Barbie. It would be a shame to see the ‘Gwen’ endeavor have an adverse impact, especially when there are options that might be a better fit for the brand. With many real life role models for young girls, the company could have licensed the name and likeness of known female advocates and philanthropists such as our client Dr. Jane Goodall, Susan B. Anthony or even Oprah Winfrey. Having written their own success stories and overcoming personal challenges, these women would be a more strategic extension of the company’s mission to “help girls find their inner star by becoming kind, compassionate, and loving people who make a positive and meaningful difference in the world around them.”