Opinion

Lessons from American Girl: How the doll empire gave me a breathtaking brand lesson

Will Harris learned a thing or two about the power and value of conviction marketing following an unfortunate incident.

Jemimia was in a bad way. After a privileged start in life, she had succumbed to a vicious and sustained attack at the hands of two young women, armed, no less, with a couple of razor-sharp hairbrushes. 

When I was approached for help she was in a dishevelled state, the only outward sign of distress her wild, untamed hair and an oddly unblinking stare. Only when she lay down did her eyes seem to close, and yet rest eluded her. At the first sign of movement her eyes sprang back open with alarm.

A model patient 

She came into my care in New York, and I was given a number to call; some sensitive people who could help and were specialised in a certain type of care. 

I couldn’t detect a snigger – not a raised eyebrow or a sideways glance

On the phone I was transferred to a nurse, and I explained the situation. She took it very calmly, as though it was something she encountered every day.

Yes, she said, the condition was perfectly treatable. If I could get the patient to a mutually agreed meeting point, she would be transferred by ambulance for treatment. Once the procedure was complete, they would arrange for the two of us to be reunited. The cost of the ambulance both ways would be covered as part of the treatment fees.

I asked how long it would take, and what the prognosis was.

Good news,and bad.

In their skilful care Jemimia would recover to live a normal life, and all physical signs of the attack would be gone. The bad news was we should expect it to be four to five weeks before she was back with us.

Ouch! I hadn’t realised things were that serious. Was there perhaps another way? Could we arrange a face-to-face consultation in Manhattan, before she was sent off the island for the procedure? A chance for a second opinion?

"I hadn’t realised things were that serious"

Our American Girl 

I was given a smart address in New York, just off Park Avenue. With some trepidation we arrived some 10 minutes before closing time. I explained our circumstances to the lady who greeted me as I passed through the door. I know it was awkward me being there, but I was the closest thing Jemimia had to family. Her real mother couldn’t make the trip; I neglected to tell the woman that she was the very reason we were there. I was worried they would take Jemimia into care.

Never before have I seen such a convincing piece of lifestyle marketing

We were directed to the second floor. The place was kitted out like a department store, with rails of clothes, accoutrements and trappings of an active, luxury lifestyle. I gazed at them, unnerved, from the escalator.

On the second floor we were met with rows of small plastic chairs along a counter, and several severe-looking ladies wearing white stylists’ coats. I pulled Jemimia out of the brown paper bag I had been transporting her in, and passed her across the counter, with a muttered apology.

"I’m sorry, but my daughter and her cousin decided to restyle her hair and went at it rather ferociously. We can’t get it back under control. The lady on the phone said we might need to send her away for a new wig, but that would take four weeks. I’m wondering if there is anything you can do."

The stylist looked at me with a definite hint of compassion. "It’s OK," she said. "We get this a lot and don’t worry. We can restyle her hair so it’s as good as new." And, this being America, she added: "That will be $15, and take 10 minutes."

As good as new

So it was that a minor domestic crisis was averted, and a breathtaking brand lesson learned. Never before had I seen such a convincing, and utterly consistent, piece of lifestyle marketing carried off with total conviction.

From the call-handlers to the gruff security guard who let me out of the closing store, and, of course, the stylist, everyone maintained the mirage that these American Girl dolls were real people, with their own personalities and foibles. As one, they treated them as though they were eating, breathing humans.

I couldn’t detect a snigger from anyone – not a raised eyebrow or even a sideways glance. American Girl is the most perfect piece of conviction brand marketing I have ever come across. 

If you are presently sitting at your desk trying to work out how to manufacture a new, improved reality, distinct from the mundane day-to-day existence of your brand, hop on a plane and hot-foot it to the new masters. You may not think you have lots to learn from an 18-inch plastic doll, but you’d be surprised. I was.

And Jemimia? This is one modern story with a happy ending. Her makeover complete, she stowed away with me on the plane, hidden from view in the overhead locker. I’m a modern man, in touch with my feminine side, but chose not to travel with her sharing my seat. The people at American Girl would not have approved.