Feb 01, 2012 • By

The appeal of American Girl

Showing the passion that encompasses everything that is “American Girl,” Shawn Dennis, senior vice president of marketing for American Girl, shared today with General Mills marketers the history of the company and how the brand stays uniquely strong and successful in a world of $10 dolls.

I was very excited to get the inside scoop today, because I have a daughter who loves all things American Girl.

Dennis comes from a varied marketing background, including stints at the National Football League and Dell Inc., and arrived at American Girl four years ago.

As the senior vice president of marketing, Dennis is adamant about the need to understand what she called a brand’s “Guiding Truths.”

And, staying true to them with everything you do.

It seems to be working for American Girl. In addition to dolls, the company has a vast line of books and movies, all in support of their mission to empower young girls.

With over 123 million books sold since 1986 and more than 68 million visits annually to its website, American Girl has touched something in the hearts of parents and young girls that can’t be articulated in numbers. As Dennis described it, it is “brand tribalism.” That emotional connection is what drives their brand loyalty.

How do they describe this loyalty?

Dennis says you know you’ve got it, for example, when you see 6,000 people camp out the night before a new store opens – waiting more than seven hours just to get in. That happened at its Washington, D.C., store. There were no sales – it was just for the experience of being there.

That’s tribalism.

So what are American Girl’s Guiding Truths?

  • Relevant
  • Respectful
  • Trustworthy
  • Meaningful
  • Special

Everything is girl-centric and all about making girls feel inspired and special.

The company just celebrated its 25th year and took advantage of the anniversary to connect with their brand champions by booking a Caribbean cruise over Thanksgiving. It sold out in 48 hours.

Crazy, right?

But when you dig more into what American Girl is about, you understand that it isn’t just about the dolls – it’s about their stories and messages.

I happen to have been on that cruise with my daughter (it was her idea!), and what an amazing experience we had. Three of the American Girl authors joined us on the ship and presented not only the stories they wrote, but their journey to becoming an author.

We watched American Girl movies, learned about bullying and how to stay true to yourself – these are themes that parents get behind, and I think are the backbone of why this brand has sold over 23 million dolls.

A key challenge for American Girl seems to be how to navigate in the complex digital world. Dennis said they are committed to it because they know they need to be where the girls are – and they’re “everywhere.” But they won’t move too quickly because they insist on doing it “brand-right” and “safe” – in short staying true to their Guiding Truths.

Pleasant Company, and the American Girl collection, was founded in 1986 by Pleasant Rowland. Dennis said her vision was relatively simple – to create a doll company as an alternative to Barbie. The dolls would each have stories that would help “give young girls a sense of self.”

I’m personally intrigued with Dennis’ idea to put the new Girl of the Year, McKenna, a gymnast, on a Wheaties box. She received applause when she showed how this box would look during her presentation!

Maybe the first cross-promotion in American Girl history – now that would bring a new consumer to the brand!