Saturday, October 23, 2010

Tweens discover planned obsolescence

I grew up during the peak era of planned obsolescence in the American auto industry — tailfins and gratuitous fender changes in lieu of any real innovations.

My industry career was spent during a period of continual real obsolescence brought on by Moore’s law. At my first job after college, I was desperately scrambling to share time on a VAX-11/780, a 1 megabyte time-shared system, but when I started my own company seven years later, the two founders each brought a own desktop Mac II with 8Mb of RAM.

Now I deal with a different type of obsolescence — the “they don’t make ’em like they used to” that my dad used to grumble about. Toyota sold the illusion of high quality and low costs — until it all came crashing down — but most companies (like the HP of the Fiorina-Hurd era) made no pretense about preserving quality to compete in a commodity era. Try buying quality tools or building materials at Home Depot, let alone Walmart.

Today my daughter got a rude lesson in the good ol’ fashioned Mad Men era type of obsolescence. Appropriately, it came courtesy of Mattel, which had its most rapid growth in the 60s after one of the founders invented Barbie.

Appropriately, the lesson came at the hands of Barbie’s successor, the high-margin American Girl product line. The $100 dolls, with period-era backstories and costumes — were created in 1986 by Pleasant Rowland as the anti-Barbie. However, Rowland sold the company to Mattel in 1998 for an estimated $700 million and as with any corporate acquisition, things were never ever the same.

Reading her treasured American Girl catalog, my daughter complained this morning:

First they discontinued Samantha and her friend Natalie. Then they discontinued Kirsten. Now they're discontinuing Felicity and her friend Elizabeth; felicity was one of the most popular dolls
American Girl Kirsten Doll & Paperback BookI knew that Kirsten was her doll — representing a 19th century Swedish immigrant like her great-great-grandmother — but I needed additional help interpreting the cultural significance of this latest development.

It turns out that Samantha and Kirsten were two of the three original American Girl dolls in 1986, and Felicity was the 4th doll introduced in 1991. Attempts to phase Felicity out in 2002 met with strong customer resistance and some her period accessories were unretired.

While Mattel doesn’t disclose sales, most experts (girls 8-12, former doll owners and their moms) believe that Felicity was the most popular. Her Revolutionary War childhood had a universal appeal for girls studying American history in school, and she was the second doll to have her own movie.

Sure enough, Mattel last month proudly issued a press release last month announcing they are killing off Felicity:
American Girl officially announced plans today to say farewell to Felicity Merriman, one of the company's treasured historical characters introduced in 1991. Felicity's complete product collection, including her best friend Elizabeth Cole(TM), will soon be removed from American Girl's catalogue, Web site, and retail stores and placed in the American Girl Archives(TM). Because stories are at the heart of the company's mission to celebrate girls, the Felicity books will still be sold on, at American Girl's retail stores, and at bookstores nationwide.

Felicity's departure makes it possible for the company to introduce new characters and product offerings. Even though Felicity will be moved to the American Girl Archives, she retains her place within American Girl's family of historical characters--nine-year-old heroines who give girls today a glimpse of what life was like growing up during important times in America's past.
Pre-announcing the departure gives Mattel a chance to say “buy one before they’re gone,” and sure enough that’s what the website proclaims. My wife & I wondered if they’re playing a game like Disney’s discontinuing and re-releasing its classic animated movies, but since the R&D cost for a doll is much less than a movie, I think Mattel will just continue to release new dolls as part of its planned obsolescence strategy. (Rather than the historical period dolls, they have been emphasizing Girl of the Year annual obsolescence since 2005, which irritated both females in my house to no end.)

While Mattel has consumer marketing talent and data that puts my punditry to shame, I think their strategy has major risks. American Girl succeeded by being something different, something wholesome — and with the connection across generations, in some ways something timeless. Being so crassly commercial could very well break that connection and loyalty, or at least offer an entrée to a more authentic and sincere challenger (who will of course eventually sell out to retire wealthy). In this era of the blogosphere, it opens itself to comments like these:
Felicity, the revolutionary war doll, was the fourth American Girl doll, added in 1991. She was a shining beacon of Americana a favorite of girls who thought reenacting was cool. More importantly, she had some of the best clothing.

Felicity's removal is American Girl's third attempt to destroy the childhood memories of teens and twenty something in the last three years.

In 2008 they discontinued Samantha Parkington, the brunette from the Victorian period, effectively giving all of us with brown eyes and brown hair an inferiority complex.The next year they removed Kirsten Larson, removing some of the sting. (But seriously, Sam could kick Kirsten's ass any day, all day).

RIP Felicity. I hope glorious tea parties and multiple dress sets await you and Samantha-- and Kirsten, I guess, with her stupid pastry braids--in discontinued toy heaven.
I’m guessing that the data miners at Mattel have done the math and decided that since girls (or their moms) only buy new dolls during a four-to-six year window, they can afford to alienate an entire generation of previous customers while freshening up the product for the next generation. While they’re at it, they are attempting to destroy the hand-me-down market from big sisters, cousins and now moms.

In our household, I think the effort will backfire. I suspect that 25 years from now, my daughter will be quoting the grandfather she never met when she hands Kirsten to her daughter and says: “They don’t make ’em like they used to.”

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