Live from NEMOA: There’s No Business Like Girl Business

Cambridge, MA–As American Girl president Ellen Brothers is she considers herself in the catalog business, the book publishing business, or the toy business, and she’ll tell you, “We are in the girl business.” She discussed that business, and the keys to her brand’s success, at Wednesday morning’s keynote address at the New England Mail Order Association (NEMOA) spring conference here.

Formerly known as Pleasant Co. and now a division of toys manufacturer Mattel, American Girl is best known for its wildly popular line of books, dolls, and accessories that tie into eight periods of American history. In addition to its print catalog,(1.5 million 12-month buyers, the company produced a bimonthly magazine (650,000 subscribers), publishes books (85% of which are sold by other retailers), and has two “experiential,” destination stores. The first, in Chicago, has had more than 6 million visitors since it opened in 1998. The second, in New York, had more than 15,000 on its opening day alone, this past November.

But Brothers described the company’s philosophy of “story over stuff.” Rather than dreaming up products and then tying books to them, American Girl researches and creates the storylines first, then thinks about the products. She pointed out that while customers can purchase an American Girl book without buying other products, they can’t buy a doll without a book. She compared it to “offering girls chocolate cake with vitamins.”

Among new and upcoming initiatives, American Girl has a licensing deal with Hallmark in which the latter produces a line of lower-priced gift items and cards to sell in its stores. And the first American Girl movie, focusing on its popular Samantha character, will air on the WB TV network in November. The company was approached with the idea by one of its fans–actress Julia Roberts.

One idea that didn’t pan out, Brothers said, was American Boy. The company had been working on the concept when it was purchased by Mattel in 1998. Mattel divides its brands into “girls,” “boys,” and “preschool/infants,” Brothers said, so the American Boy concept was passed along to the “boys” division.

When asked about working under the auspices of Mattel, Brothers admitted that the arrangement was somewhat ironic, given that “this brand was created 17 years ago as the antithesis of Barbie,” Mattel’s best-known brand. But Brothers, who is also an executive vice president of Mattel, said that the parent company lets American Girl operate autonomously.

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