One of the first female role models girls are exposed to is only 11.5 inches tall. But her stature (or lack thereof) can be deceptive in terms of her impact. She is a popular doll, a sort of “mini-me” that many girls immerse themselves in and play with day in and day out. In these moments of doll-play, girls are confronted with a physique impossible to achieve in nature, hair and eye color that occur in a fraction of the population, and ethnicity that makes no allowances for diversity. When these girls glance back in the mirror, in all probability, they do not see girls (and in the coming years, they won’t see women) who reflect the 11.5” inch role model they’ve admired since age 4 or younger.
Last fall, a little toy company with a big dream set out to change all that with the introduction of Get Real Girl (GRG), a line of 11.5 inch dolls they hoped would inspire girls to live life as their own role model. Unlike any other, the six Get Real Girl dolls encourage girls to “get off the sidelines and get in the game,” by modeling realistic physical proportions and representing diversity – of ethnicities, interests, life experiences and adventures. But how would a small start-up with no advertising budget and scant production gain the exposure necessary to convince skeptical retail buyers about its chances of competing against billion-dollar Barbie? GRG, together with PR industry veterans Kimberly Goolsby and Liana Miller, did just that with a multi-tiered national publicity campaign, event schedule and strategic sponsorship & endorsement initiative that, in total, resulted in some 100 million consumer impressions and succeeded in gaining the attention and awareness of retailers/specialty buyers, the toy trade, female opinion leaders and consumers.
THE CHALLENGES & THE OPPORTUNITY
For more than 40 years, Barbie had been a dominant and pervasive force – both in market share, depth of product line and among key toy/mass retailers. With shelf space reserved exclusively for Barbie, GRG had to work to define a new category and convince retailers that there was a market for a Barbie alternative.
NO television advertising campaign [a toy industry staple] was planned, nor was the typical multi-million dollar launch budget allocated. PR, complimented by participation in select sponsorships/events, would be the primary vehicle for launching GRG.
Continual manufacturing delays ultimately pushed the product launch into the 2000 4th quarter -- unprecedented in the toy industry, which launches PR for new products in February of each year at Toy Fair, the industry’s most important trade show.
Manufacturing delays also resulted in the decision to remain in STEALTH mode during Toy Fair 2000. There was a very real concern that early exposure would give competitors the chance to market a copied concept before GRG hit toy shelves in Q4. This meant no press previews, even though the line was scheduled for a 2000 introduction.
Outreach had to be carefully tempered to accommodate scant national distribution in 2000, yet the campaign had to reach a high enough pitch to convince retailers to carry the line in 2001.
With these challenges as the backdrop, the golden opportunity remained – to show retailers that there existed a very real demand among consumers for an alternative to Barbie.
Original research included several rounds of focus groups with girls and parents, intercept interviews and controlled product testing. This research provided the foundation for all planning, product positioning and key messages, which focused on: 1) Girls connecting to the “realness” of the dolls and their stories; 2) Moms wishing they had something like GRG when they were young; 3) appreciation for the detail and authenticity of the dolls’ accessories; and 4) sincere interest in the mission for GRG by Julz Chavez, the dolls’ creator. The phrase “get off the sidelines, get in the game,” which eventually became the office GRG tagline, was coined early on by K. Goolsby in response to girls’ reaction to the dolls during testing.
Goolsby/Miller worked hand-in-hand with GRG from the earliest conceptual stages, through product development to launch. All planning took into account a moving launch date, due to manufacturing and distribution issues. Because budget dictated PR would be the sole driver for the launch, long-lead outreach was carefully orchestrated with the most sensitive requirements to ensure coverage DID NOT appear before the latest possible date dolls hit the toy shelves. This was foremost in the planning process, to ensure important year 2000 visibility with retailers/specialty buyers, the toy trade, influencers, consumers, and media.
Objectives were threefold 1) Build credibility and viability for Get Real Girl among retailers, using media coverage as “proof of concept” to build distribution sell-in for 2001; 2) Generate interest in the “mission” of Get Real Girl among moms and girls to build support and sales for the line in 2001, with the media as conduit; 3) Establish visibility for Get Real Girl among female athletes and opinion-leaders to elicit support for the advisory board and build an investor base for the start-up.
The approach took into account the fact that a new doll was not in itself headline-generating news. Further, GRG’s limited budget ($150,000) had to be used judiciously to ensure the most “bang for the buck” at every opportunity.
Pull GRG’s chief creator Julz Chavez’ vision and passion to the forefront of the launch story. The cousin of late labor activist Cesar Chavez and one of 11 children in a migrant farm worker family, her story showcased the “need” for GRG. Profiling the real-life GRGs/models behind the dolls also strikes an empowerment chord among women.
Avoid all anti-Barbie sentiment. Focus instead on GRG’s positive attributes; leave it to the press to make the comparisons.
Establish credibility for brand concept among retailers and potential investors with a series of carefully placed, high-profile national media placements. Focus on wire services and syndicated journalists to extend impact of outreach budget.
Host sports-action themed events as sampling occasions to get dolls in girls’ hands and extend media exposure.
Affiliate with leading female athletic organizations to leverage the organizations’ credibility and secure visibility for GRG among female athletes and opinion-leaders. Seek opportunities to participate in existing events and co-ops to maximize budget.
Remerchandise PR placements to spread word of mouth – and therefore push/pull demand among retailers/consumers and other audiences. Leverage results of the publicity campaign as “proof of concept” at Toy Fair 2001 to build Year 2 distribution.
NEW YORK TIMES FIRST TO BREAK GRG STORY: Initial publicity was carefully managed. Over-exposure early in 2000 could have hurt GRG’s launch efforts and potentially allowed competitors the chance to market a copied concept. Yet, awareness among “buyer” and “toy” communities was vital to securing 2000 distribution. GRG agreed to participate in the New York Times April 1 roundup story after receiving assurances that it would have the opportunity to approve all editorial references to GRG. Even the choice of a soccer prototype for the NYT photo was strategic; Barbie already had a soccer doll and Mattel was likely to dismiss GRG as a “me-too.” The resulting story proved ideal for generating advance buzz. Placement was immediately merchandised to buyers.
LONG LEAD PRESS: While the dolls were still in development, GRG stories were targeted for fall publication in sport and doll enthusiast publications. Due to limited 2000 distribution, outreach was carefully contained to select outlets, with a focus on building a support base for the product’s mission. Interviews were conducted with Julz Chavez and doll prototypes provided. Resulting coverage was then leveraged in the launch phase of the campaign.
MEDIA LAUNCH: The launch effort centered around advancing the story to influential journalists/toy trades, with a focus on wire services and syndicated writers. The story immediately appealed to AP reporter Mike Liedtke – who has a daughter in our target demo. His story – “New Action Dolls Flex Muscle” – broke nationally and spurred a deluge of media & consumer inquiries. This momentum gave the impression of A SIGNIFICANT PRODUCT LAUNCH WITH MAJOR MUSCLE. The industry took notice.
SPONSORSHIPS & EVENTS: GRG sought the endorsement of nationally acclaimed Women’s Sports Foundation and an event partnership with the girls’ focused Sporting Chance Foundation. Both groups were hosting events that coincided with GRG’s launch and provided ideal, ready-made platforms in two major markets (Chicago & NYC) for awareness and product sampling. The events – held one week apart – allowed us to book local market media, put dolls in thousands of girls’ hands, and gave GRG exposure to some of the nation’s top athletes. The endorsements also served to facilitate meetings with female opinion-leaders.
GIFT GUIDES: The holidays were an important SELLING time. But outreach was tempered so as to not create too much demand given GRG’s limited distribution channels and scaling availability/production of the dolls. Only a handful of national long-lead publications were pursued, with distribution carefully monitored and staggered to the short-lead holiday gift guides to match market availability. Outreach to key national outlets complemented the overall holiday campaign.
The campaign exceeded objectives, achieving nearly 100 million impressions (ad equivalency of $750,000). First-year sales of $1 million sold out online, in specialty toy stores and Target. Marquee media placements spurred continuing waves of coverage and retailers lined up.
Target stores signed on to test the product in Year 2000 after GRG’s appearance in the New York Times story.
The Associated Press (Bronze #68) story fueled consumer support and demand, appearing in more than 500 newspapers nationwide. Testimonials from moms, girls, and athletes pored in with support for the concept and requests for purchase.
Marquee media placements garnered investors and retailers. GRG was featured in a Dec. 2000 USA Today round-up – retailers at Toy Fair 2001 responded. The 5-page profile in Red Herring (Bronze #67) resulted in three noted female opinion-leaders investing in the company. A 3-minute feature on Lifetime Live (Bronze #66) and news briefs on CBS Early Show, CNN and NBC affiliates spurred subsequent broadcast placements, while national outlets such as People and Ms magazine queued up to feature GRG in 2001.
A stellar GRG advisory board was formed with such notable female luminaries as Geraldine Laybourne, Cleary Simpson, Connie Duckworth and a stable of noted professional women athletes.
Credibility building endorsements/partnerships were forged with the Woman’s Sports Foundation, The Sporting Chance Foundation and Bancroft Arneson Expeditions.
In the four months since its Oct. 2000 launch, GRG has exceeded sales expectations, won the validation of the industry and business communities and has a roster of national retailers lined up to carry the doll 2001.