It’s been an interesting few days in the toy world. First we learned that Barbie was to get three new body types this year with her manufacturer, Mattel, adding “tall, curvy and petite” body shapes to its Barbie line-up as well as several skin tones, eye colours and hairstyles. Then we discovered that Lego is to sell its first mini-figure in a wheelchair following online petitions and calls for toymakers to provide positive depictions of those with disabilities. Mattel said that the new Barbies would “offer girls choices that are more reflective of the world they see today”. We await with interest whether a new range of Kens is to be made available with a Dad-bod.
On one level this may little more than manufacturers minimising the risk of their products being positioned as out of step with changing society thinking and avoiding being on the wrong side of potentially damaging themes like attitudes towards body image and disability. But brands are also in business to sell and manufacturers of products with the longevity of Barbie and Lego know that reinvention from time to time is key to remaining current among a new generation of increasingly tech-influenced children.
But there could be another side to this too and that’s the constant drive towards the Holy Grail of shopper loyalty. Although as consumers we are massively influenced by price, there are sectors – sportswear, fashion, technology and alcohol, for example – were loyalty to a single brand is more common. In the tech market it is easy to see how the perceived attractiveness of a brand’s personality, how distinctive that brand might be from the crowd together with positive word-of-mouth reports and peer pressure (who buys anything now without reading the online reviews?) can create (or destroy) brand loyalty. What makes a brand attractive will be different for each of us – it might be what the brand stands for ethically, it might be its commitment to cutting edge design, it might be how the brand presents itself externally or it may simply be that we like their products better. It might also be what we believe ownership of a given brand says about us as individuals or it could be the herd mentality of having it because everyone else does.
Celebrity endorsement and the aspirational belief that this can instil can also have an impact. After all, if using Brylcreem or Gillette really made me feel like David Beckham or buying a pair of swimming shorts from M&S made me genuinely think I looked like David Gandy, then they’d probably have me captive.
What is changing, though, and becoming more sophisticated is the way brands are courting us and trying to create a genuine two-way relationship rather than a one-way service. Creating campaigns or content online that not only resonates with your target audience, but also engages them in the process is key. Whether it’s a brand like Pampers, which has created a real community of soon-to-be parents who can come together to share advice and feelings, or GoPro, which encourages those using its products to share some of their best shots, brands are increasingly looking to become part of their consumers’ lives. They want to become your next Facebook friend, engaging, involving and sharing experiences with you in a way that has value to both parties.
Consumers know when they are being sold to and they know when they are being marketed at and we know that they are increasingly cynical about and resistant to the most overt forms of both. So less maybe more in future and that’s why Barbie’s new incarnations and Lego’s move to reflect diversity may not be as cynical as one might first think. That, though, depends to a large extent on how they deploy them over the next few years.