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Model holding the latest American Girl doll of the year, Gabriela

How the American Girls Brand Brought at Least Two Former Customers Back Into the Fold

Kids are increasingly aware of the world around them, which isn’t always a good thing for brands

Last summer, while traveling for work, I received a phone call from one of my daughters. She needed to inform me of a bit of recent news.

“[We’re] are no longer interested in American Girl dolls,” she said. “They just released the Girl of the Year, and she looks just like every other doll of the year. They always have peach skin and blonde hair.”

[The brand, which is owned by Mattel, has had a Latina (2005) and two Japanese-American GoTY dolls, in 2006 and 2011, respectively. Girl of the Year dolls are sold for only one year and come with an elaborate back story.]


This story wouldn’t be all that significant were it not for one small detail: My daughters have blonde hair…and peach skin.

My beautiful daughters

Don’t advocate for only you

One of my main bromides is “You cannot simply advocate for yourself.” My daughters hear this often.

It’s part and parcel of the message we’ve always shared with them: Have a sincere concern for those around you, being ready and willing to help them, even if you don’t know them.

It’s not enough to be a good person; you must do good as well.

This ethic springs from a line shared in Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The homogenous GoTY dolls don’t arise to mistreatment, but they were a significant affront to my oldest daughter.

Me: “What’s up with you not liking American Girls dolls anymore?”

Her: “Every time they have a Girl of the Year, she looks the same. They almost always have peach skin and blonde hair.”

Me: “Well, you have peach skin and blonde hair.”

Her: “Yes, I know. But the whole world doesn’t look like me. I have friends with dark hair, red hair, dark skin, freckles… Not everyone looks alike.”

(I found it refreshing that race wasn’t her frame of reference; homogeny is culprit.)

This, she said, is about representing what the real world looks like.

I was proud of her.

Unlike where I grew up, in rural south Mississippi, my daughters inhabit a place (literally) where life is more than black and white. Her friends are a veritable cornucopia of race and ethnicity.

They all—even within their respective ethnic groups—look different, which is what the girls latched onto and were offended by.

What’s more, they don’t define themselves along racial lines.

In their own way, they were saying, “I don’t care who the dolls look like, but I do care that they don’t all look like the same person.”

The American Girls brand is one that wasn’t on my radar until a few years back, when my youngest daughter started collecting them. The dolls are well-made, life-like in appearance and are offered with a plethora of accessories.

The American Doll story resonated with me, in large part because the founder, Pleasant Rowland, a historian and philanthropist, endeavored to create dolls that each come with a unique story, replete with accessories to match.

Welcome home, Gabriela

Imagine my daughters’ surprise at seeing the 2017 American Girl GoTY doll, Gabriela, on the cover of the latest magazine. (She’s the first African American GoTY.)

American Girl doll Gabriela is the 2017 Girl of the Year Doll

Not surprisingly, there is already a Gabriela doll and a boatload of accessories in our house.

As is the case with all dolls depicting people of color, it’s unlikely that Gabriela flies off the shelves.

However, brands too often and too easily misread this as a sign they should make fewer such products.

That’s a mistake.

As marketers, we must continually be on the hunt for new markets. Dolls such as this have the potential to put AG on the radar for folks who hadn’t and wouldn’t previously have considered them.

That’s valuable growth from new customers.

It’s not smart for businesses to focus only on over-serving their existing customers.

To thrive in the ever-changing current business climate, brands must ask themselves “What are the (typically new) markets that represent growth and that we are uniquely qualified to thrive in?”

That requires a leap of faith, yes.

But from my experience, more small businesses starve from refusing to jump out of the nest than perish after jumping from it.

I’m proud of the American Girl doll brand for continuing to give all girls someone they can see themselves in and root for.

How is your brand looking to new markets for growth?



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