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Tired Of Princesses? So Are Girls, According To This Toy Industry Analysis

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We Are Our Own Worst Enemy. That’s my conclusion about the toy industry’s role in driving girls away from traditional toys. Years of pushing pink and princesses resulted in a generation of girls 8-and-up that associates toys with childishness, not childhood, and innocuousness instead of innocence.

In the last year-and-a-half I have conducted 3 conferences on girls and toys, run surveys of experts and moms, had numerous conversations with professionals inside and outside of the toy industry and engaged in extensive reading and research. This gave me a perspective on the toy industry, and what I see as its failure with gender (and girls in particular).

This problem is serious for the industry. The loss of girls as toy consumers earlier and earlier (or “age compression”) is one reason toy sales have trended down over most of the last 10 years. It’s been the norm to perceive this shift as beyond our control, like farmers faced with a drought, rather than farmers who failed to rotate their crops. The first is an act of God; the second is a failure of man. I think we caused the problem; I know we can fix it and win back girls over 8.

The toy industry, by treating girls as if princesses were their sole interest, went from having boy’s toys and girl’s toys to having boy’s toys and Girly-Girl toys.

boy sitting on a bench in a park
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To solve the problem, we need to focus on how we created it. We made 2 major mistakes that seemed like good ideas at the time: We:

  • Focused on an extreme notion of what it is to be a girl.
  • Infantilized the girl’s category.

The Girly-Girls
No group of people is homogenous. There are, for example, many types of men. Manly men hunt and fish; violent men fight; studious men read and so on. Most men, to varying degrees, carry many of these traits. Therefore, if we want to market to all these men, not just some, we need to take the interests of each subgroup into consideration. It would be, for example, a disaster, if we were a men’s clothing company that wanted to appeal to all men but focused only on hunters and fishermen. If all of the styles introduced had camouflage patterns, a great number of men would cease to purchase clothes from that company.

Similarly, there are many types of girls with many types of interests. A girl may love princesses and still want to play soccer, or love soccer but want to do scientific experiments. The toy industry, by treating girls as if princesses were their sole interest, went from having boy’s toys and girl’s toys to having boy’s toys and Girly-Girl toys. But immersion in the pink aspects of young girls’ personalities finally becomes saturating and boring.

Real World Findings
Peggy Orenstein, in her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, states that today’s little girls are much “pinker” than her generation was as children. Is Orenstein correct in her assessment? We at USA Toy Experts decided to find out by conducting a survey of 1,510 mothers in 48 states. We asked moms to tell us what toys they played with as children. In a separate question, we asked what toys their daughters currently play with. Here is what we found:

A definite widening of the gender gap between boys’ and girls’ toy choices. Toys that could be construed as gender neutral (though boys play with them, there is no reason girls can’t) have eroded in interest from girls. It is fascinating that at a time in history when women are in combat roles and the majority on college campuses, the gap in toy preferences has increased. If I made construction toys, toy cars and trucks or educational products, I would be greatly concerned. Not only have these companies not increased sales across the gender divide, they have shrunk.

This is not to say there are no “Girly Girls.” Rather, there are many kinds of girls and “Girly Girls” are just one segment. What about girls who are into sports, technology or nature?

Maria Costa Ferrer and Miriam Morante Bonet AIJU chose to ignore the gender buckets of male and female when considering what interested children. Rather, they surveyed over 1,507 European children and divided them up as follows:

  • Princesses
  • Feminines
  • Sport
  • Technology
  • Naturals
  • TV Adventurers
  • Tots

They found that over 45 percent of girls surveyed were classified as neither Princesses or Feminine. How interesting can Girly-Girl toys be to girls who do not seek out the overtly feminine, but are interested in things that defy gender classification?

Infantilization
The fascination with princesses stems from a storybook view of the world. But storybooks are for very young children who still believe in magic. Children leave magic behind as they get older. By shaping a view of toy play as about princesses, we in essence make all girls’ toys a preschool category.

Any look at the NPD statistics of girl’s purchases over the last 10 years shows steady erosion in toy play by girls over 8. Bottom line, girls didn’t just get more sophisticated; the toys they have been offered have gotten less so.

It is fascinating that at a time in history when women are in combat roles and the majority on college campuses, the gap in toy preferences has increased.

There is a big opportunity here for companies willing to rethink how they approach the girl’s category. Those who do will discover new revenue sources as providers of toys for girls of all ages.

What Can The Toy Industry Do?

1. Rethink The Toy Department
Step away from a child focus and broaden the appeal so everyone thinks the toy department or store is a place they are welcome and belong. Brand messaging, department layout, merchandising, marketing and advertising needs to be aimed in part at older demographic groups. A focus on teens also attracts those who aspire to be teens.

2. Enough With Pink
Mattel made an excellent move in the ’50s when it chose to make “Barbie Pink” an iconic color. Unfortunately, every other toy company appealing to girls has gotten on the bandwagon. What started out as a sophisticated color has become associated with Girly-Girl and immaturity. Broaden the palette.

3. Enough With Princesses
I don’t blame Disney for pushing its Princesses franchise. It’s a great idea. But the entire industry jumped on board and overwhelmed toy departments with products too young for girls over six.

4. Brainstorm
Fashion and design are a form of construction. Women may not go into construction and architecture as often as men, but they do go into interior design and fashion. So rather than painting Lego pink, try creating products that give them a sense of fashion.

5. Research
The video game industry invests great amounts of money and time into R&D. We should consider breaking out of our short cycle frame of mind. Let’s invest more, take longer and not just market a new toy but change the paradigm for a great toy.

Richard is the CEO of Global Toy Experts, a global consultancy and resource for knowledge and guidance for competing in the 21st century play and children’s media businesses. He is also the publisher of Global Toy News, the industry resource for toy news, toy trends and analysis of the business of play.