Pleasant Company

The insistently low-tech, immersive world of our favorite dolls.

Last week, I made the mistake of asking my 9-year-old cousin what she’d like for Christmas.

“HATCHIMAL!” she shouted. She stomped around in a circle, chanting, “Hat-chi-mal! Hat-chi-mal!” and looking less like my adorable little cousin and more like an angry troll conducting a rain dance.

“Hatchi-who?!” I teased, but my confusion was sincere.

A Hatchimal, I soon learned, is this holiday’s most-wished-for toy. It’s an interactive critter that kids nurse through five stages of development, from prenatal to small child. Think of it as a more impressive Furby (aka the must-have robotic toy of 1998).

The Hatchimal walks, talks, dances and plays games. Oh, and it’s nearly impossible to find. On Amazon, the toy ranges from $190 to as high as $350. On eBay, one seller offered a single Hatchimal for $600.

I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of righteous Luddite anger. I have a smart phone and a variety of tech devices to make my life more convenient, but something about this toy annoyed me. Whatever happened to trucks, wagons and dolls? Specifically, American Girl Dolls?

A few days later, I strolled down Michigan Avenue, Chicago’s main shopping thoroughfare. I passed flying drones and bots in the window of the Disney store and felt my blood begin to boil again. Finally, I walked by American Girl Place—the brand’s flagship retail location. When I walked up to the window display, I could still see the nose prints left by young admirers. The store was packed with smiling young girls and their mothers, all carrying large red bags.

I’ve admired these dolls, with their accompanying historical books and lavish accessories, since I was young. It was a relief to me to see the brand introduced in 1986 with just three dolls—Molly, Samantha, and Kirsten?—?still thriving. American Girl dolls don’t walk or talk or pass gas. They don’t do anything for you; they did something to you—a feeling I can’t imagine today’s toys inspiring in the kids who play with them.

And despite American Girl’s stagnant product design, the brand is thriving. Mattel, which acquired American Girl’s parent Pleasant Company in 1998, reported 2016 Q3 gross sales of $125.5 million for the brand, an increase of 14% over last year.

Part of the reason for AG’s enduring popularity is that its brand strategy is unique. Most toys in development today are expected to have more bells and whistles. Barry Kudrowits, Professor of Product Design at University of Minnesota, acknowledges the effect of this shift on the toy business and toy designers:

“In the past, toy designers were likely to come from Industrial Design Bachelor of Arts programs, trained to make drawings and foam models. These are still valuable skills, but in today’s society, the industrial designer is also expected to know how things work, how things are manufactured, and how to incorporate electronics, sensors, and new technology.”

He spoke of the future of innovation in toy design:

“I am hopeful that in the near future, most academic design programs will require a class in computer programming to prepare students for the digital future they will be designing. Although the toy design industry is slow to implement emerging technology, we are always advancing and innovating.”

In an industry whose focus often seems to be imitating parents’ gadgets, how is it possible American Girl continues to flourish?

“We’re not trying to combat technology. We don’t need to,” Lisa Tienken, Chicago’s store manager, told me.

Walking through American Girl Place, one thing is clear: It’s much more than a retail space. The store is its own small world, created for the sole purpose of celebrating girldom. Tienken said that was no coincidence.

“American Girl is for and about girls,” she said. During the hour she and I spent together, I picked up on brand buzz-phrases like savoring girlhood, strong character, trustworthy, encouraging leadership and good values.

I thought, No wonder mothers invest so heavily in this brand.

“American Girl fans are emotionally invested for life,” Tienken said. She told me American Girl Place had recently hosted a bridal party for a group of grown women.

Though American Girl hasn’t integrated technology into its product design, interactive features throughout the store rely on digital mediums to facilitate memorable opportunities for guests.

For instance, upon entering the store, I saw eight life-size cubicles, each filled with memorabilia and historical cues from the eras represented by each of the classic dolls. (In 2014, these dolls were rebranded as the “BeForever” collection.) Girls can press their faces to a hole in each cubicle and see their own reflections in place of, say, Josefina’s.

Outside of each experiential box sat an iPad, which visitors can use to read more about or take quizzes on the character.

At the Truly Me Signature Studio, an in-house design department, girls create clothing, backpacks and accessories that allow them to look and dress like their dolls.

American Girl is the embodiment of the strategies on which the company was founded: experiential marketing and personal engagement. In 1986, when Pleasant Rowland founded her eponymous company, she decided to sell products by direct mail, through the now-famous American Girl catalogs.

“It was clear to me that American Girl was a thinking girl’s product line, one that would not sell at Toys ‘R’ Us,” Rowland told CNN Money. “It wasn’t meant to blare from the shelves on its packaging or visual appeal alone. It had a more important message?—?one that had to be delivered in a softer voice.”

The catalogs sold BeForever dolls alongside books intended to provide context, expanding the doll’s character and teaching American history. The New Yorker reported the brand’s sold more than 23 million dolls?—?and that was in 2013. Books sales stand at 150 million-plus.

Throughout my visit to the Michigan Avenue store, American Girl’s engagement strategy came to life?—?and boy, was it intoxicating. The store includes an appointment-only hair salon, a cafe, a doll hospital and a reservation-only restaurant—all masterfully designed to be a small kingdom where girls rule.

While I mooned over the dolls, I had the pleasure of meeting a young birthday girl named Lilly. She was sitting in the dining room at a white- linen-covered table and enjoying a four-course brunch with tea. Beside her sat her mother, grandmother and best friend, and in her lap sat her doll, Lizzy. Lizzy wore a beautiful red ice skating dress with white trim. Her skates were white with silver blades. I noticed Lilly’s best friend’s doll wore the same outfit.

Lilly told me how much she loved her doll and related all the things they’d bought for her that day. While she spoke, she clutched Lizzy tightly and grinned from ear to ear. Her jelly-stained face was more adorable than I could stand.

I wished Lilly a happy birthday and asked what she would do with the rest of her day.

“We’re going to see Santa!” she shouted. It seemed like a logical conclusion to a day of childlike magic and wonder. As I left, I suspected Lilly’s adventures at American Girl Place would inspire her wish list for Santa?—?a list that perhaps bears a strong resemblance to my own, written 20 years earlier. There was something so nostalgic and comforting in that, I couldn’t help but smile.

All images by Antonio Manaligod for Dose.