It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and we’ve still got a month to go. An e-mail from my bank reminds me they’ll have a drop-off box for Toys for Tots.

Definitely not on my list: an American Girl doll.

These dolls are pricey ($110 and up), but that’s not why I won’t buy them. American Girl used to be an amazing brand. Now it’s just an industry—and a pretty unsettling one.

Once upon a time

In 1986, Pleasant Rowland started a mail order firm, Pleasant Company, selling dolls from different periods of American history. A former elementary school teacher, Rowland sought “to give girls an understanding of America’s past and a sense of pride in the traditions they share with girls of yesterday.”

Each American Girl doll had a series of six books. And, of course, clothes. Bonnets, pinafores, pantaloons and other merchandise were key to major girl appeal. Amid the craft kits and accessories, though, were some interesting stories in which the girls dealt with real issues of the times: poverty, war, slavery, and prejudice, among others.

In A Lesson for Samantha, for example, wealthy Victorian-era Samantha Parkington learns about the harsh realities of sweatshops from Nellie, a poor servant girl she’s befriended, whose younger siblings work in a factory. At an award ceremony at her elite school, Samantha speaks out against child labor before an audience of society ladies whose wealth may come from those factories.

It was a remarkable brand. High quality, high priced, high margin items were marketed well (smartly targeting grandparents, for example). But it also offered engagement on deeper levels, connecting with themes of social and political history, and with values of empathy, courage, tolerance, resourcefulness and more. It was a brand you could root for.

40 Shades of bland

In 1998 Mattel bought the brand, netting Pleasant Rowland a cool $700 million. Since then, the company has taken all the edges off. The original dolls have been sidelined as “Historical Characters.” Outspoken Samantha and her peers Kirsten, the hard-working Scandinavian homesteader, and headstrong Colonial-era Felicity have been “archived.” World War II patriot Molly disappears Dec. 31st.

Center stage is reserved for the customizable “My American Girl” line with 40 configurations, offered Starbucks-style. Skin: Light, medium or dark? Eyes? Hair? Would you like layers or waves with that?

Another highlight is Girl of the Year. This year’s model, Saige, hosts a bake sale for an arts program (and rides her pony in the arts parade, pony sold separately). Next year we’ll have Isabelle, a blonde ballerina. Prior Girls of the Year are also mostly white, upper-middle class, with very local concerns. One is literally a backyard issue, when nature-loving Lanie frets about her neighbor using pesticides.

Accessorizing for Aspen

The current 100+ page holiday catalogue offers accoutrements of a life most children can only dream of: music lessons, gymnastics, a spa chair—complete with footbath for a relaxing pedi. What to wear to the Winter Chalet with flickering fireplace and fake hot cocoa ($110)? The Pretty Pink Coat Set with faux fur ($34) and Snowy Earmuffs ($10)? Or the Snowboard Outfit ($34) with Snowboard and Gear ($34)?

American Girl today is an unqualified business success. Sales are second only to Barbie. But something has been lost. The brand used to be more than an ordinary toy to those who bought the dolls and those who played with them. Today it’s a stylish accessory, an upscale Barbie.

New girl in town

Last week a viral video hit my inbox. (The two-minute introductory video for GoldieBlox based on the Beastie Boys song “Princess Machine” is now in copyright dispute, so I can no longer link to it, alas.) Founded by Debbie Sterling, a Stanford engineering grad, and funded through a Kickstarter campaign, the startup aims to “get girls building.” Noting that 89% of engineers worldwide are men, the website states the company’s mission explicitly:

In a world where men largely outnumber women in science, technology, engineering and math…and girls lose interest in these subjects as early as age 8, GoldieBlox is determined to change the equation…By designing a construction toy from the female perspective, we aim to disrupt the pink aisle and inspire the future generation of female engineers.

According to GoldieBlox, the construction set + story format is designed to tap girls’ strong verbal skills and bolster confidence in spatial skills. The kits sell for around $30. Also available: t-shirts, hoodies, and even onesies emblazoned with “More than just a princess.” Clearly, GoldieBlox would like to make money—ideally, a lot of it.

Building Brand America

Countless stories weave together across many levels to create the America we experience here and the America others perceive abroad.

On a business level, Pleasant Rowland offers an archetypal American success story. Mattel’s evolution of the American Girl brand is another classic business tale we recognize instantly. GoldieBlox’s story is just unfolding: it’s a strong idea that looks well executed, but will kids like the toys? Does the brand have legs? It’s too early to tell.

On a mission level, American Girl’s aim is bland and vague: “celebrating girls and all they can be.” As a division of Mattel, though, it has a classic objective: maximizing shareholder value. Larger, specific visions characterize both Pleasant Company and GoldieBlox. GoldieBlox also hopes to affect society as a whole.

On a cultural level, there is a huge difference between the stories offered by the original American Girl dolls and today’s dolls, quite literally. Their paraphernalia, settings and concerns teach children different things—and help create a different America. As does GoldieBlox.

When we buy gifts for children, we want to delight them. But we also want them to lead delightful lives. As entrepreneurs, employees, and consumers, our choices have an impact on both our immediate worlds and on the larger story of America. At every turn we have the opportunity to answer the question: Who do we want to be?

It’s been just over a week. No one in the Boston area is untouched by the bombings and their aftermath. Certainly we, my husband and I, were lucky. At the time, we were watching runners pass our house as they geared up for the start of Heartbreak Hill six blocks ahead. We had friends—and friends’ kids—finishing near the time of the blasts, but after a brief, frantic interval we learned they were all safe. Hallelujah. Alas, not for all.

Waking Friday to a call announcing a lockdown in Newton, we spent the day indoors, much of it glued to the TV. It was surreal to realize the firefight took place a few blocks behind the Target in Watertown where I shop too often, that Black Hawk helicopters had landed by our Home Depot.

I’ve called Boston home for nearly ten years. For better or worse, I’ve been in marketing nearly three times as long.  So as the past week unfolded, I couldn’t help but process some of it as a marketing observer.  In that capacity, I share the following thoughts.

We are better than we’re given credit for

The world witnessed an outpouring of humanity here: Spectators and first responders rushed immediately toward danger to help. Medical personnel, primed for sprains, rallied to handle war-zone injuries. Exhausted runners headed to hospitals to give blood. Locals offered blankets, shelter, whatever they could. Companies jumped in instantly to donate both talent and treasure.  Individuals throughout the country and the world shared their generosity.

How often do marketers think about this larger sense of humanity?  Not often, from what I can tell, when they fill our airwaves with stupidity, snark, sexism and stereotypes, just recalling a few of this year’s Super Bowl ads. We are better than this. Where is a sense of our goodness? That goodness is present, not just after disasters.  The better angels of our nature go virtually unnoticed (or occasionally drip with treacle). I’m embarrassed for my profession at the smallness and meanness that characterizes too much of our work.

Deep stories matter

When the Boston Bruins returned to the ice two days after the bombings, the crowd took over singing “The Star Spangled Banner.” Watching the video, I was deeply moved.  I teared up. And I realized, for the first time, what our national anthem is about: Resilience. Jubilant crowds sang it again in the streets Friday after the suspect was captured.  Resilience is a deeply American value, part of our national story, just as Tradition, reflected in “God Save the King/Queen,” is part of Britain’s national story.

These deep stories matter. In the 2011 Super Bowl, that’s what gave Eminem’s Chrysler ad (“Imported from Detroit”) such power—it was a story of Resilience.

We have other national stories. Robert Reich identified four of them: the Mob at the Gates, the Triumphant Individual, Rot at the Top, and the Benevolent Community. In the 2012 Presidential campaign, each candidate used three of these four stories extensively and differently. Romney saw rot in government; Obama saw it in private wealth and power.  While Obama didn’t invoke the Mob at the Gates, Romney failed to articulate a sense of the Benevolent Community. Deep stories are powerful. (And we are better than we’re given credit for.)

You can shine in darkness

When disaster strikes, companies start wondering: What should we do? What can we do? It can be hard to craft the right organizational response, much less execute it swiftly.  A traditional response has been the large ad of condolence, and these began to appear in the front section of the Boston Globe. Other responses stood out:

Smart: Barely 24 hours after the blasts I received an email from vacation-rental company HomeAway. They combed their database for everyone in the Boston area, asking if we could offer shelter to people stranded, passing along the link Google had set up.

Passionate: Full-page ads appeared two days straight with a giant, impassioned headline: “DON”T #@$% WITH BOSTON.” The discounter Cabinets-to-Go! would give 100% of sales in their four New England stores on April 20th to One Fund Boston, the charity established to help people most affected. Yes, they capped it at $100,000. But it’s still a generous, heartfelt offer, especially since kitchen cabinets are not exactly an impulse buy. You get no sense of closed-door meetings and fine-tuning. The spirit is: #@$% this, We Gotta Help.

Caring: In Watertown the day after the manhunt, I went to the wonderful Russo’s (food store) and saw Red Cross workers out front. I immediately assumed they were seeking donations and got out my wallet. No, they were there to give, out in the community to see how we were doing. Were we okay? Did we need someone to talk to? I nearly sobbed, touched by their generosity and compassion. The Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno once penned: “It is not enough to cure the plague. We must also weep for it.”  So true, but it goes unnoticed. We Americans are great at resilience, pluck, and action. We’re not so great at grief. The Red Cross understands this and was there.

And then there was Brainless: We don’t mind business-as-usual at a time of crisis. Macy’s continued their multi-page One Day Sale! ads. Other advertisers ran their standard fare. Fine. But six days after the bombings AT&T blared full-page: “AT&T is #1 in Boston” touting their local network performance. In small type at the bottom: “AT&T is proud to be the official wireless sponsor of the Boston Marathon.®” Did they think this was just dandy? Did they think at all? This was a local ad—easily changed. Even Verizon, not exactly known for nimbleness and sensitivity, ran ads with “#BostonStrong. Together we will run again. FiOS” Unfortunately for AT&T, acting like a mindless corporate dolt here simply reinforces what we already believe.

Some brand roots run very deep

On Friday, the lockdown order covered six suburban towns and the city of Boston. It was a ghost town. Residents were to “shelter-in-place.” Businesses were to close—with one exception. In downtown Boston, a handful of Dunkin’ Donuts were asked by the city to remain open, to provide police with coffee and food.  New England holds a powerful affection for Dunkin’ Donuts. As a late transplant to the area (and major coffee enthusiast), I don’t quite get this personally. As a marketer, though, I can only stand in awe.

A tender time

In the past week blossoms have appeared on the flowering trees. We wait for this moment through long, cold months. It is a tender time, full of promise and new growth.  This week, with four deaths and over 250 people injured, thousands of lives have been changed forever. For the rest of us, the lucky ones, it’s a time to offer help, to hug our loved ones tighter, and to bring fresh thoughts to what we do every day. There is more room to bring depth, caring, and greatness to our work. The potential is in all of us. Let’s let it flower.

Here’s an unconventional book that should be required reading in business school: Wild Company: The Untold Story of Banana Republic by Mel and Patricia Ziegler. It’s both a fun read and a wonderfully instructive tale of what happens when right-brain marketing genius meets traditional left-brain business thinking.

Banana Republic founders Mel and Patricia Ziegler, a journalist and artist/illustrator, had no business training whatever.  As they founded and grew their safari-inspired clothing company, they got many things wrong.  But they got the most important things very, very right.  Their creative instincts and uncanny understanding of human nature led them to establish one of the most exciting, thriving and profitable clothing companies ever.  Their undoing—and that of the company—came from the collision of their (wildly successful) approach with the linear, left-brained world of business “professionals.”

This is a cautionary tale for every b-school student and hotshot MBA who probably knows today’s Banana Republic only as the mall-based high-end brand in The Gap’s company portfolio.  Today, it’s a bit like Ann Taylor, a bit like J. Crew, a bit like…lots of other companies.  But it used to be something remarkable.  From its chaotic origins selling exotic, often peculiar surplus clothing from other countries, it became a sensation with a wide, devoted, and celebrity-studded public.

In lively prose, with Mel and Patricia alternating as narrators, the Zieglers recount how, by following their own passions, they tapped a deep, thriving connection with consumer yearning for adventure, whimsy, and style.  Unlike most business biographies, Wild Company is filled with humility, remarkable self-insight and great humor.  With scrupulous evenhandedness they describe how acquisition by The Gap allowed the company to expand and flourish under initially loose reins.  Ultimately, the founders lost control as their inventiveness and business innocence clashed with a commercial and financial world preferring standardization and process over originality and instinct, even though these drove the company’s success.  This clash, abetted by insecurities among top managers and a weakening economy, ultimately killed the golden goose.

Business schools teach the very formulas, values and processes that choked and ultimately killed the real Banana Republic.  In fairness, some businesses knowledge would surely have helped the Zieglers avoid some of the bumps they encountered along the way.  In addition, funding and functional expertise supplied by The Gap helped fuel and smooth their expansion.  But their extraordinary success was primarily attributable to their vision, passion, and creativity—right-brain skills no business school can teach and which few value.  Today’s Banana Republic may well add to The Gap’s bottom line, but the world is a poorer place with just another perfectly fine mall store.

The Zieglers went on to found the Republic of Tea, another richly imagined and beautifully executed brand which they sold after a couple of years—this time to someone who seems to have had the sense to maintain its integrity.  I’m eager to know what they’ll do next—and you will be, too, after reading Wild Company.  We need the Zieglers, and many more like them.

 

 

 

Once as a brand manager I was shown the same storyboard twice, a couple of years apart.  The twist?  This “new ad concept” was presented for two entirely different product categories at two different companies.  Detergent and food.  Same agency. (BBDO, if you must know.)  I don’t recall the storyboard, but I’m certain it was the same generic, gratuitous entertainment I’d come to expect.  Nary a distinctive brand truth in sight.

Ditto for Sunday’s Super Bowl ads.  The game was exciting and wasn’t Beyoncé terrific?  But the ads were almost entirely stale, even when outfitted with new effects and cultural references, because they fit into predictable categories.  There were a (very) few notable exceptions, and only one stunner.  I’ll cover these in my next post.

May I present the Three Categories of Super Bowl ads?

1. AnyBrand Entertainment

Like the aforementioned storyboard, these are stand-alone bits that could be tweaked to work for nearly any brand, in nearly any category of product.  A few have requirements like an irresistibility story (Doritos) or Big American Brand (Jeep, Ram Truck), but any number of brands could sub in for the brand featured in these ads.

The biggest category by far, AnyBrand Entertainment came in assorted flavors:

Of course, some of these are fun to watch.  But it’s such a waste, especially when you think of the outlandish production and media expenses.  Not a single one of these ads is likely to have lasting impact on the brand, no matter how entertaining or heartwarming, because the brand funding it all isn’t intrinsic to the show. The show’s the thing.

2. Screeching Stereotypes

This category serves up clichés for yucks.  No need to think, when you can just put a new band on an old hat and recharge those old biases to boot!

The only conceivable value from these bottom-fishers is reminding people of the brand name.  Yet who would honestly want to be associated with such tired and offensive conventionality?

3. What Did You Expect?

This category could also be called There You Go Again.  Another incarnation of the same shtick, this time at stratospheric prices for Super Bowl airtime and, in some cases, the celebrities you’ve added.  We know you, and may even enjoy your ads (what’s the E-Trade talking baby going to say this time?), but you’re not exactly breaking new ground here.

Examples include: GoDaddy, Pepsi, Calvin Klein, E-Trade, and Bud Light.

This category may have signal value, like having a store on Fifth Avenue.   It says: “We’re still here and have money to burn.” So it’s the most sensible investment of the three categories.  And hey, it was fun to see Stevie Wonder.  But still, at nearly $4 million for 30 seconds, is it too much to ask for something a little grander than More of the Same?

Next up: The proud, the few. Notable ads from Super Bowl 2013.

 

We’re never far from junior high, it seems, even when we’ve gotten decades away from those squirm-inducing days of yore.

We still yearn for popularity.  And we so want to be cool.  Nowhere does that seem more pronounced than in marketing these days, where the pursuit of acclaim on social media feels both frenzied and, at some level, desperate and silly.

Everyone’s doing it–or trying to.  We’re exhorted to follow and Like brands including those in the deep recesses of our medicine cabinet and kitchen cupboards.  Um, why exactly would we want to do that?  It’s almost as if they’re saying: “Hey, look.  I’m wearing bell-bottoms, too!”

Over a year ago I drafted a marketing song about the pursuit of trendiness, but I had to update it now in light of all the changes in the social media landscape.  Gilbert and Sullivan fans will recognize this from HMS Pinafore.  Let me know what you think and what other topics you’d like to see turned into songs!

They Call Me a Megabrand
(to the tune of “I’m Called Little Buttercup”)

They call me a megabrand, dear little megabrand,
Though I’m so humble and shy.
But still I’m a megabrand, edgy as contraband,
Sweet little megabrand I!

On Twitter I’m trending, on Goggle ascending,
On YouTube I’ve viral acclaim!
I’m stylish and pricey, so cool that I’m icy–
Without me you’re dated and lame.

My ads are ironic, my status iconic,
My margins are plump and divine.
I’m pinned, Liked and tweeted, all metrics exceeded:
My hipness is pure bottom-line.

So get you a megabrand, this moment’s megabrand,
Retailers now standing by!
Before I’m an also-ran, marked down for clearance-land.
Keep me a megabrand–buy!