Why do brands find it hard to respond to community requests? Recently, a grassroots effort started by Jane Bingham and Rebecca Sypin, each who lost daughters to cancer, manifested in the Facebook Page, Beautiful and Bald Barbie. They have earned 158K fans to date all rallied around the idea of motivating Mattel to create a bald Barbie for girls struggling from hair loss associated from cancer treatments and other situations.
Four months later, Mattel has signaled that they will create and give away “a bald friend” of Barbie in 2012. This is after the Bratz doll line announced they are delivering a series of bald dolls this June.
Deborah Weinstein over at the SocialCMO summarized the “we were going to do this anyhow” tone response from Mattel when they finally pulled the trigger,
“This week – some four months later – Mattel finally stepped up to the plate and announced the creation of a Bald Barbie Friend of Barbie for distribution to children’s hospitals and charities in 2013. Company spokesman Alan Hilowitz was quick to point out that Mattel did NOT create the doll in response to the Facebook page, but rather because “they helped us realize how important this was for us to do.”
Hard to Surrender to the Community
As much as I share Deb Weinstein’s POV that Mattel missed a bigger opportunity to acknowledge the community discussion immediately, respond and finally pull the trigger to meet the clear demand, the fact that they did at all is probably progress for a traditional business like Mattel. When companies like Threadless have an entire business model around crowdsourced and voted-on t-shirts, why is it so much harder for the Mattel’s of the world to just say, “wow, you guys are bringing up an awesome idea and we really want to make this happen…?”
The problem of ownership
Can you say legal, intellectual property(IP), and post-war industrial enterprise? Threadless is different. They are soliciting designs under a clear terms of service that protects all parties. They also weren’t born out of the culture of the fifties. As much as Mattel may have wanted to rush with a positive response, their whole infrastructure has been designed to protect IP. An idea from an outside source suddenly puts them at risk. Who would own the doll suggested by two moms behind a Facebook page? Should they manufacture and sell it, are they at risk for ownership? Does that risk dilute the protections on the golden goose core Barbie line?
The problem of management
And then there is the curse of the industrial age, creative company. Toy companies are creative businesses who are designed to deliver valuable ideas. Agencies are the same way. If it wasn’t created at Mattel then what the heck are all those employees doing in the design department? I know it’s not logical and we really aren’t talking about a creative breakthrough here (just look at the photo mock-ups people have made of Barbie with no hair – pretty simple, right). Still post-war, industrial-scale companies are where management became king. And management is meant to control and manage. Creative is meant to create. The impulse to reject outside thinking is pretty strong because that’s the way they roll.
The problem of dialogue
Some companies have a hard time talking to people in anything but that highly-protected tone of the PR department. If there is one lesson that social media has taught brands it must be that learning how to have a conversation like a human being actually does matter to customers. Barbie’s Facebook page is largely about the character’s voice. Mattel’s page, on the other hand, is about engaging and natural as the accountants who come out at every Oscar Awards show to explain the judging procedures.
It’s also where you see a doozy of “protect the IP at all costs” statement in their Info tab:
“As the world’s largest toy company, we receive thousands of product suggestions every year. Given this volume, it’s likely yours is the same or substantially similar to concepts we’ve already received or developed. While we appreciate hearing from our consumers, we rely on our large staff of designers for product ideas. Therefore, it’s our policy to not review any unsolicited concepts and we cannot retain your submission. We don’t assume any obligation in connection with your unsolicited concept. If you’d like to learn more about how to get into the toy business, you may wish to contact the Toy Industry Association at http://www.Toy-Tia.org.”
Part of the problem with Mattel’s response was how long it took. Four months is about 3 months and 29 days too long. They needn’t have assented right away. A simple “we hear you” and “we appreciate what you are all going through with your children and your love for Barbie…” would have started the ball rolling in the right direction. Part of the problem is the established tone of voice.
Perhaps Mattel still believes there is only one way to protect their position - the cardboard statement. So many other brands have found ways to talk like human beings without losing their commercial advantage. Could Mattel have done better? Certainly. I only hope they examine this situation with enough candor to see what the true opportunities for change are.