Despite the advances achieved in the past 100 years, we are still on the journey towards gender equality as a society and the road ahead remains long and winding. However, I think there have been a number of beacons of hope within the past five years when it comes to the “girls” toy market, and this movement is not going to stop.
In this post, I will examine a number of toys directed at girls and the way they have been marketed, and sketch out what the future could hold for toy manufacturers adventurous enough to fully venture into the still relatively unexplored realm of educational and empowering stories and toys.
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic
My Little Pony is a well-established pony toy franchise from the 1980s that had not been that successful in the 2000s, and in the early years of the 2000s Hasbro was looking into introducing its 4th generation and reversing its fortunes – something they would achieve by accident and without even really realizing why.
Hasbro had a couple of clear drivers for the 4th generation of the franchise: A TV show that should appeal to a larger demographic, especially one that would be suitable for co-viewing with parents and their children, would be one of the major marketing tools they would use. Furthermore, Hasbro’s market research had determined that friendship and working together are two themes girls are interested in that should be at the center of the franchise.
Hasbro then struck gold as Lauren Faust pitched her ideas on a girls’ animated series to Hasbro, and agreed to take a look at the My Little Pony franchise instead. Lauren’s vision, while compatible with what Hasbro originally had in mind, vastly surpassed it. As she explained it herself back in 2010, the year when the series debuted:
The messages I’m really trying to get across with the show are these:
There are lots of different ways to be a girl. You can be sweet and shy, or bold and physical. You can be silly and friendly, or reserved and studious. You can be strong and hard working, or artistic and beautiful. This show is wonderfully free of “token girl” syndrome, so there is no pressure to shove all the ideals of what we want our daughters to be into one package. There is a diversity of personalities, ambitions, talents, strengths and even flaws in our characters–it’s not an army of cookie-cutter nice-girls or cookie-cutter beauty queens like you see in most shows for girls.
Find out what makes you you. Follow your passions and ambitions, not what others expect of you. For instance, if you like sports don’t let someone’s suggestion that that is unfeminine stop you from doing what you love. Be considerate of others’ feelings, but not at the expense of your own goals and dreams.
You can be friends with people who are vastly different from you. And even though all friendships have their share of disagreements and moments when you don’t get along, that does not mean that your friendship has to end.
Cartoons for girls don’t have to be a puddle of smooshy, cutesy-wootsy, goody-two-shoeness. Girls like stories with real conflict; girls are smart enough to understand complex plots; girls aren’t as easily frightened as everyone seems to think. Girls are complex human beings, and they can be brave, strong, kind and independent–but they can also be uncertain, awkward, silly, arrogant or stubborn. They shouldn’t have to succumb to pressure to be perfect.
Those goals are far beyond just friendship and working together (and strictly speaking, not tied to gender at all), but Lauren had perfect timing as they were compatible with Hasbro’s goals, and the co-viewing idea made Hasbro more open to advanced themes. She even managed to sell the idea of one of the villains, Discord, to Hasbro with the argument that he is like Q from Star Trek – which really excited the executives as they immediately wanted to get John de Lancie, the actor who played Q, to voice him.
So, the new show, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, debuted in 2010, and the world has not been quite the same since. The show rapidly gained more and more viewers, and Hasbro saw its My Little Pony sales skyrocket as well, from a brand on a long downward run up to 2010 to a staggering rise since – to sales of $650 million in 2013 and to $1 billion in 2014 (of which 13% come from licensing – significantly outperforming Hasbro brand average of 5%). (More exact figures are not available from Hasbro’s annual reports, it can only be deduced that MLP sales in 2010 were below $400 million as all brands except NERF Rebelle were below that in 2010 – and MLP was not likely to be close to any top spots either, so a figure considerably below that is probable)
Even though the figures improved, Hasbro had a hard time understanding the reasons for this success (or they got greedier, depends on your point of view), and they pushed for more toy promotion into the animated series, which was one of the reasons Lauren Faust left the production team. (Ironically, apparently the Friendship is Magic team got some more freedom back after Lauren’s departure)
Hasbro went on to get the ponies in more direct competition with the likes of Monster High and High School Musical with the Equestria Girls spin-off movie of 2013, where the ponies are magically transformed into humans and become students in a high school. The tagline of the 2014 sequel, Equestria Girls – Rainbow Rocks, is “To restore harmony, the bands must battle!”
What made My Little Pony a success?
There can be little doubt that the Friendship is Magic TV show was instrumental to the resurgence of My Little Pony. For such a long-term brand, that was the only thing that changed in a major way.
The thing that made Friendship is Magic different is that it was not dumbed down. Lauren Faust had an ambitious vision of a series that was approachable but still deep and meaningful, and one that would strive to illustrate life lessons that are significant not just to children but to all people. She succeeded. Not only do kids enjoy deep content, but the show also attracted a growing number of adult fans, commonly known as bronies – a phenomenon not altogether strange for toys with deep meaning, simply compare this with the adult fans of LEGO (AFOLs).
The toys themselves did not change in any significant way, at least not at first. What changed was that the TV show embedded these fairly simple toys with deeper meanings and storylines, something that in principle was possible with them all along (the show is partially based on the ways Lauren herself played with ponies as a child), but that really came to flourish after a gentle nudge.
Hasbro even embraced this line of thinking somewhat with the introduction of My Little Pony arts and craft kits and customizable pony figures in 2014. They had built a highly creative community, but as that community was working on its own, Hasbro was not seeing all the potential returns on that, so releasing means for more people to easily join the creative community does not seem like a big leap in thinking.
However, the high school spin-off goes in a completely different direction than the origins that made My Little Pony a success again. While Friendship is Magic was about something original, joining the existing high-school-type market with their own brand is not about being original or creative, but about using a rising brand to fix gaps within Hasbro’s portfolio as compared to the competition. It might turn out to be a good business decision if it enables Hasbro to leverage the power My Little Pony has gained over the past few years, but it also risks diluting the brand. Either way, the considerations on which such decisions are based are in no way related to telling a story or empowering little girls, but on treating your brands as nothing more than quantifiable assets for the company to generate revenues. (Hint: This usually does not create high levels of enthusiasm among your customers in the end)
There are two kinds of ways to strive for financial success: to create something original and lasting, or to create temporary hype and herd behavior and cash out while it lasts, preparing the launch of the next similar attempt while you’re at it. From a purely financial perspective, it is not at all obvious which route is more successful: a company that is good at creating hype can live quite comfortably from short-term successes, and the toy market is a good place to execute such a strategy.
LEGO Friends and Elves
At around the same time as Hasbro was working on the 4th generation of My Little Pony, another company was also busy conducting market research into the girls segment. LEGO had a realization that 90% of their customers were boys, and yet they believed that the whole idea of their System of Play, and of construction toys in general, was not inherently male.
After looking into how girls play, and what could be done to entice them to play with LEGO, the company came up with a new product line, LEGO Friends, that launched in 2011 – and it became the company’s first successful attempt to approach the girls’ market.
When it launched a girls-oriented theme, LEGO got a lot of flak for it. Why should girls have different color schemes? Why is the new minidoll so unlike the old minifigure? Why are the sets so based on gender stereotypes? (One apt observation I remember reading was along the lines that in LEGO City, people go hungry, whereas in Heartlake City, people are helpless in face of crime or fire)
Many of these objections have dwindled over the years: the new colors have found their way into many AFOL creations, also in extremely non-girly applications, and, crucially, the sets themselves have been really good building experiences that challenge the child. Girls who are LEGO fans have also been able to introduce LEGOs to their friends thanks to girly themes and pink colors – a sort of undercover operation to build up their STEM skills.
LEGO offers an interesting contrast to My Little Pony. Whereas My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic embedded a seemingly simple toy with empowering meaning, LEGO Friends has done quite the opposite: it has dressed up an inherently educational toy into clothing that matches basic gender stereotypes. You can read all over the internet how more gender-conscious parents reluctantly buy LEGO products because they want their children to be building, and at the same time detest the stereotypical marketing and themes that LEGO is using. In the words of one such parent: LEGO gets it and seems to not care.
A cynical view would be that this is correct: after all, by using stereotypical marketing with an inherently educational product, LEGO can maximize sales! They can sell the educational product undercover to people who are affected by their marketing, and the more conscious parents buy it regardless of the marketing. Win-win!
Thing is, I’m not fully buying that argument. In fact, the Friends lineup has (slowly) become less blatantly stereotypical, and the newly launched LEGO Elves is even more so: with a milder color palette, more even gender distribution of characters, and even less stereotypical set themes (this is a fantasy world, after all, so that helps), LEGO Elves is currently the closest thing LEGO has to gender-neutral sets.
Then again, LEGO also manages to pull off stuff such as the already notorious beauty tips for girls that exploded the internet in March 2015 and the new pop stars theme in Friends, where the girls have suddenly formed a band and become the opening act for a famous pop star Livi (hey, you need to compete with Rainbow Rocks, right?). Keeping in line with the shallow story and great sets, I already bought my daughter the fabulous 41105 Friends Pop Star Show Stage with its great rotation mechanism – LEGO building at its finest.
On market research
A common feature in decision-making when it comes to both product design and marketing in these cases is market research. Unfortunately, market research is hard. It is relatively easy to find out things to copy that will ensure at least some attention, but it is much more difficult to arrive at completely new insights.
The research that LEGO conducted included both qualitative discussion and observation of behavior, which is a critical component of market research that can reveal something really new – it is by observing what people actually do that you get insights that go beyond what people tell you that they do.
Still, both LEGO and Hasbro drew similar insights into what kind of marketing would work on the girls segment. Hasbro lucked out in that they got Lauren Faust on board whose vision far surpassed their market research: watching a few episodes of My Little Pony followed by LEGO Friends and LEGO Elves clearly shows the difference in depth between the series, and whereas the series is what made My Little Pony a success, it is unlikely for the few episodes or even the many webisodes to have had nearly such a significant effect on making LEGO Friends a success.
When it comes to discovering new things that work, the trend in general in recent years has been towards more agile development methods that conduct market research via hypothesis validation through actual products (one form of such development is the Lean Startup). However, this does not seem to have landed in the toy industry yet. However, there might be interesting opportunities ahead for the agile..
Combining deep stories and production agility
LEGO in particular has some amazing potential when it comes to production agility: their whole product is already modular, so creating new models using existing pieces (and thus, molds) should be relatively straightforward. In practice, the discussions around LEGO Ideas have shown that LEGO does not yet possess very flexible production capabilities, but this is merely a matter of production processes, as the machines, molds, and basic packaging types already exist. Contrast this with the production of, say, a new pony model, where the entire production capability needs to be customized in order to produce the new model and its packaging.
What could this production agility be useful for? Well, nowadays movies, TV shows, and toys are always interconnected. The standard process currently is to use movies and TV shows to sell the toy – the toy comes first, and then the creative crew needs to work out how to build a storyline where the toy fits in.
What if the storyline could come first, and the toy company could be so responsive that it built toys based on the where the storyline goes and not the other way around? What if the toy company could be so responsive that they could build toys on a very tight schedule based on what parts of the story resonate with the audience? Because the LEGO System of Play is based on a standard set of modular pieces, LEGO is in a position where it could create unique capabilities to act on these principles.
This type of approach could turn the whole current paradigm around in favor of deeper, more educational, and more empowering stories. Oh, and what about the girls segment and boys segment? I am not fully convinced the two are inherent in human nature, and the success of the products mentioned in this post over the past few years, My Little Pony, NERF Rebelle, and LEGO Friends, emphasize that at the very least, the contents of the girls segment are changing rapidly. The age of dumbing down content for children – girls and boys – is coming to an end, and the potential for companies that are willing to create challenging content for children is immense – and this includes both product design and marketing.