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Dr. Erica Carranza

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An Exploding Stove, Epic Hold Music, and AI that Measures Consumer Emotion

Posted by Dr. Erica Carranza

Wed, Jan 27, 2021

AI Music and Kichen Blog Opener Erica Jan 2021 (1)

Emotion is a powerful motivator—arguably THE most powerful motivator—and can make or break a consumer relationship. Case in point: Me and KitchenAid.

I recently bought a KitchenAid gas cooktop. It was a gorgeous model I loved—until one of the burners exploded. Thankfully no one was hurt, but it could have been bad. So, I called the KitchenAid helpline, which is run by their parent company, Whirlpool. Then I waited. And waited. And waited… In total, I spent nearly TWO HOURS on hold.

Waiting hours to tell a Whirlpool rep our cooktop caught fire should have been infuriating. But it wasn’t. Why? Their hold music! It cooled my hot temper and warmed my cold Gen-X heart. I heard songs like Don’t You Forget about Me, Eye of the Tiger, and Don’t Stop Believin’. It was just too hard to stay mad with Journey crooning in my ear.

Then, when a rep finally heard my story, she said I should talk to their Safety Department. In order to do that, I sat on hold. AGAIN. But this time their music was different. Take a listen—it may ring a bell: [click to listen]

My fellow Game of Thrones viewers will recognize that as the song that played when Cersei blew-up the Sept—which, in GoT laymen’s terms, involved using a fantastical kind of gasoline to blow-up a church full of people.

GOT GIF

Yes, that is what I listened to as I waited on Whirlpool’s “Safety Line” to talk about how my cooktop exploded. All I could do was laugh. To the person at Whirlpool who picks the hold playlist: I salute your musical taste and twisted sense of humor!

Music’s effect on emotions is mostly involuntary and hard to combat. In this case, it saved me from losing my mind on a rep who wouldn’t have deserved it, and trashing KitchenAid on every public platform possible. So this story speaks to the power of music to tame the angry consumer—but, more broadly, it’s a study in the importance of understanding and actively managing consumers’ emotions.

All emotions fall into one of four types that can be plotted on two axes: Negative to Positive (i.e., feeling bad to good) and Passive to Active (i.e., low to high energy). The importance of which types of emotions a brand inspires depends on the matter at hand. For example, teams tasked with new customer acquisition should focus on inspiring ACTIVE positive emotions, while teams tasked with driving customer loyalty should focus on inspiring PASSIVE positive emotions.

Negative Positive Passive and Active Emotions Chart

Industry also matters! For example, most brands should aim to minimize negative emotions, especially ACTIVE negative emotions, which inspire reactions like trolling the brand online and posting bad user reviews. But stirring some negative emotions can be good for media brands as long as they ultimately inspire more positive than negative. Game of Thrones is a good example of this. It started out with a good balance of positive-to-negative emotion, but ended-up inspiring too much active negativity.

Because of the importance of understanding consumer emotions—and the utility of this particular framework—we’ve worked hard to develop AI that reliably captures emotions in each quadrant from what consumers say about how they feel.

Our custom-built AI enables us to take text from things like survey open-ends, or transcripts of video/audio recordings, and quantify how much a brand, product, service or experience inspires each of the four core types of emotions. Plus, we have benchmarks in major industries.

Building the AI has been a long, arduous process involving an exhaustive analysis of emotions expressed by all kind of consumers, and regarding all kinds of brands and experiences. And it’s taken a lot of HI (human intelligence) to ensure that our final AI solution works well. But the effort was worth it. We have a validated approach to capturing each type of emotion using scales, but the best way to unpack emotions almost always involves asking consumers to tell us in their own words.

And, incidentally, there is no scientifically valid way of uncovering emotions that beats asking the right questions and listening in the right ways. To quote the Handbook of Research Methods in Social and Personality Psychology, a favorite from my grad school days, “In practice, objective measures in the brain and body tend to be weakly correlated with one another, and together they do not consistently and specifically distinguish between instances of anger, sadness, fear, and so on. If we want to know whether a person is experiencing an emotion, we have to ask her/him. Self-report is currently the only valid way of assessing subjective emotion.”

Consumers are people. And, today, we’re all wearing our humanity on our sleeves. Between the surging pandemic, political turmoil, social unrest, remote schooling, and an uncertain economy, we’re all like raw nerves riding a rollercoaster. People weren’t designed to be this stressed, on so many fronts, for this long. It’s never been more critical for organizations to stay in touch with how their products, marketing, and experiences are making people feel.


Erica CarranzaErica is CMB’s VP of Consumer Psychology. She holds a Ph.D. in psychology from Princeton University. Prior to CMB, she led insights research at American Express, where she was a recipient of the CMO Award for Achievement in Excellence.

Follow CMB on Facebook, InstagramLinkedIn, and Twitter for the latest news and updates.

Topics: emotional measurement, brand health and positioning, BrandFx, consumer psychology, consumer sentiment, Emotional Benefits, AI

Greatest Generation to Toilet Paper Generation?

Posted by Dr. Erica Carranza

Wed, Apr 29, 2020

Some habits will stick with us post-pandemic

My Papap—my grandfather on my mom’s side—was a child of the Great Depression. He had just turned 13 in 1929. He was an extroverted, happy-go-lucky guy—always smiling. But, to his dying day, he saved everything. Even if it was broken. When he changed the oil in his car, he’d even save the old oil. He also remained price sensitive. When my parents bought something, his first question was always: “What’d that cost ya?”

TP Generation Grandpa and Erica Photo

He wasn’t alone. The Great Depression permanently altered habits and values for most of those who lived through it.

Likewise, we’re sure to undergo significant changes as a result of what we’re living through today. Already new norms are taking hold—most as a matter of current necessity. Which consumer behaviors will revert to their original state, and which will stick around even when the pandemic is behind us? It’s a critical question for brands seeking to weather this storm and position themselves to thrive in the “new normal.”

One way to approach this question is through the lens of the Fogg Behavior Model. Originally developed in the tech and innovation space, it’s applicable to a broad range of behaviors.

In Fogg’s model, behavior is a factor of motivation and ability: When motivation is high, people will perform a behavior even when ability is low—i.e., even when it’s difficult. The strength of the motivation needed to drive the behavior goes down as ability (i.e., ease of performing the behavior) goes up. So, when ability to perform a behavior is very high (i.e., when it’s very easy to do), people will do it without much motivation.

It’s a simple framework, whereas people are a complicated network of motives, emotions, values, thoughts and beliefs. And yet it can be powerful in its simplicity. Let’s take, for example, the ongoing run on toilet paper. At CMB, we look at four key motivations: emotional, identity, social and functional:

  • FUNCTIONAL: I hear other things work—like coffee filters—but I’m pretty sure TP works better
  • SOCIAL: TP is a hot topic of conversation, and clearly other people are stocking-up
  • IDENTITY: I’m a good mom, and good moms should never run out of TP
  • EMOTIONAL: Quite frankly, I’m afraid of running out—and highly activated negative emotions, like fear and panic, are particularly motivating (per a blog I wrote just before the virus hit the fan)

Taken together, my current motivation to buy TP is VERY HIGH. But my current ability to buy TP is VERY LOW. It’s sold out online, visiting stores is a risk, and it’s usually out of stock anyway. This situation—common to many of us right now—drives hoarding:

TP Generation Hoarding Chart

It’s little surprise that “where to buy toilet paper” is a top Google search, tips on which stores got new shipments fill-up Facebook threads, images featuring TP stockpiles are trending on Instagram, and the TP subscription service Who Gives a Crap had so many enrollees that they have a waitlist. (Their homepage says: “We’re completely wiped out!”)

So Fogg’s model helps explain what’s going on with toilet paper, but how can it help us predict what will happen post-COVID-19 for the many industries facing disruption? After all, ability is currently low for most “normal” consumer behaviors (e.g., they are very difficult, or seem very risky).  

  • If we want to know which behaviors will revert to their “old” state, we should be looking at where motivation to revert is high once ability resumes.
    • For example: What do we miss most? What’s most painful or difficult right now? What’s not working well? What can’t we wait to do #WhenAllThisIsOver?
    • For me, this includes eating out, proper hair care, home renovations, vacations that involve leaving our yard, and grocery shopping in-store. (The online grocery shopping experience has failed me on multiple levels!)
  • If we want to know when these behaviors will revert—and help them along—we need to know what drives perceived ability.
    • Until a vaccine is broadly available, what will it take for people to feel comfortable doing things like shopping, traveling, or eating out? For example: What news or breakthroughs regarding the virus? What social norms? What business policies, practices, innovations, reassurances or communications?
    • Truth be told, I’d be willing to pay more for a less crowded Disney experience. (Shorter lines for rides! Easier restaurant reservations!) But I’d have to feel 100% confident in their safeguards. Nobody wants a family vacation to end in tragedy.
  • And if we want to know what new behaviors will stick around after the pandemic, we should be looking at where motivation to revert to old behaviors is low and/or ability to enact new behaviors is high.
    • For example: What do we find ourselves appreciating? What’s working well? What new brands, products or services have we discovered? What’s becoming an easy way to accomplish goals—i.e., what new habits are taking hold?
    • In my own #QuarantineLife, I’ve learned to whip-up a good lentil soup so fast I can do it while simultaneously chatting on Zoom and helping my kids “distance learn.” It will certainly be something I continue post-pandemic.

In fact, the current situation has actually led many consumers to feel better about their lives. My colleague Lori Vellucci and Insights & Innovation Leader Mack Turner had a great conversation about this phenomenon in a recent webinar.

But what will happen to consumer behaviors for which motivation appears much higher than usual due to the pandemic? For example: When panic has ebbed and TP is less scarce, will we still be driven to stock-up?

I predict the answer is yes, and that someday my grandkids will wonder what's up with crazy Nana Erica and her closet full of toilet paper. That’s because the negative emotions surrounding this ordeal will have a long-term impact on consumer motivations. Ever hear the saying, “Mistakes are how we learn”? Strong negative emotions are an effective teacher, and memories born in traumatic circumstances are easily recalled. Wishing we'd invested in a bidet is such a bizarre turn of events, I'm not likely to forget it. I’ll want to be prepared for next time, whether that’s the next peak in this pandemic, or an unforeseen pandemic down the road.

My evolved motivation—from stocking-up on TP specifically, to being prepared in a more general way—will also present an opportunity for brands to position products and services against my new “prepper”-driven needs.

TP Generation Habit Chart

Amid these sea changes in consumer behavior, businesses are under pressure to make smart decisions now in order to survive and thrive in the next normal. Viewing consumers through the lens of motivation and ability provides guidance in terms of what will help inform those key decisions.

Start by understanding emerging trends. Many industries are already seeing some form of disruption (e.g., travel, tourism, retail, restaurants, entertainment, education, and more). Other industries are sure to follow.

  1. Which “old” behaviors will revert, and which of your consumer segments will be first in line (i.e., which have the strongest motivation to revert once ability resumes)?
  2. How can you help your consumers feel safe and comfortable (i.e., what combination of business practices, policies, reassurances, communications, etc., will effectively boost ability)?
  3. What new habits are replacing “old ways” (i.e., what new solutions are enabling consumers to easily satisfy pre-existing motivations), and what will that mean for the future of the business?
  4. How are emotions in this trying time resulting in new consumer motivations, creating opportunities to meet evolving needs with new products, services, capabilities or marketing strategies?

Knowing is half the battle (as GI Joe used to say), and—given that we all benefit from a strong economy—the more businesses can successfully weather this storm, the better off we’ll all be.

Thank you & stay safe! We at CMB wish everyone well during this trying time.


Erica Carranza

Erica is CMB’s VP of Consumer Psychology. She holds a Ph.D. in psychology from Princeton University. Prior to CMB, she led insights research at American Express, where she was a recipient of the CMO Award for Achievement in Excellence.

For more insights, please follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.

Topics: strategy consulting, BrandFx, consumer psychology, COVID-19

Buyer (and Seller!) Beware: The Emotional Bias in User Reviews

Posted by Dr. Erica Carranza

Wed, Mar 04, 2020

In 2006, psychologist Daniel Gilbert published a book called Stumbling on Happiness. It posed a provocative question: “Think you know what makes you happy?”

Spoiler alert! You don’t.

SoH_book

The basic premise is that people are bad at predicting what will make them happy in the future. But they know when they’re happy now. In fact, scientists who study emotion generally agree that the best way to learn how someone is feeling at a given moment is not to scan their brain or read their face—it’s to ask.

So, according to Gilbert, the best way to predict whether something will make you happy in the future is to ask people who are experiencing it now: How does it them feel?

This speaks to the awesome utility of user reviews—some of which are also fun to read. (A special shout-out to the Amazon shoppers who’ve reviewed BiC’s Retractable Ball Pens “For Her”…)

Bic_review

But while user reviews can be quite helpful, most have a built-in bias: The people who write them tend to be experiencing emotions high in activation.

Emotional activation is one of two dimensions that underly all emotion; the other is valence.

  • Valence is the intensity of a positive or negative feeling
  • Activation is the amount of physical energy associated with it

They are often correlated, but they aren’t the same. Take, for example, feeling angry vs. feeling sad: Anger and sadness can feel equally and intensely bad in terms of valence. But anger is high in activation. It’s agitating and makes people want to act. By contrast, sadness is low in activation. It’s wearying and makes people want to withdraw.Core_emotion

Critical user reviews tend to come from customers feeling negative high activation emotions (e.g., anger, frustration or disgust) because they want to funnel that energy into something—like calling customer service, lodging a complaint, quitting the brand, or venting their feelings in other ways. Incidentally, that’s also the reason why stories about brands that spark moral outrage are particularly likely to go viral. (Don’t believe me? Just ask United Airlines.)

Negative low activation emotions (e.g., feeling disappointed or discouraged) can be damaging in their own ways—for example, when they lead customers to quietly lapse. But those customers are much less likely to raise a fuss or write a scathing review. 

The same goes for positive emotions: Inspiring high activation positive emotions (e.g., excitement, delight or pride) leads customers to do things like proactively recommend the brand or take time to write a glowing review. Positive low activation emotions can be good too—for example, in financial services, making customers feel comfortable and secure drives retention. Still, customers who feel comfortable and secure aren’t likely to shout it from the rooftops.

In short, user reviews only tend to capture extreme poles within the top two quadrants of emotional experience:  Customer_quad

But if we can’t rely on user reviews to give us the full picture, what can we do to predict how a brand will make us feel?

As luck would have it, at CMB, we just fielded a major study on the psychological benefits delivered by a range of brands. We had a nationally representative sample of over 20,000 people. And, to assess the emotional impact of using each brand, we applied our proprietary measures of valence and activation—so the results are perfect for (among other things!) identifying brands that make people feel great.

This brought to mind Stumbling on Happiness and got me wondering… What brands should I be considering? I can’t disclose all our results, but I can share a few things that I plan to do differently based on our findings:

  • First, I’m going to use PayPal more often. We found that, for most people, using PayPal inspires low activation positive emotions like security, peace and calm—and that’s exactly how I want to feel when I’m sharing my financial data. (Interestingly, Netflix also scores well on low activation positive emotions, bringing new meaning to the phrase “Netflix and chill”.)
  • I’m also going to surprise my kids with Mario Kart, which drives high activation positive emotions for players. But I’m sticking to my hard “no” on Fortnite. Fortnite makes players feel a whole host of negative emotions, and middle school is hard enough as it is…
  • It’s not just Fortnite! We identified many brands that trigger negative emotions—including specific financial institutions, tech brands, and media IPs like Game of Thrones. (The latter really resonated for me—the final season made me so mad I blogged about it.) There are even whole sub-industries that evoke negative emotions—like cable providers.
  • I can’t drop my cable provider. What I can do is spend more time managing my investments, which—under normal, non-epidemic circumstances—generates surprisingly strong positive emotions. In fact, we found that investing with companies like Fidelity and Vanguard feels as good as shopping Amazon or watching Star Wars, and better than checking Instagram—the top social media platform in terms of eliciting positive emotions. To quote my colleague Lori Vellucci, who discussed this in her blog Social Detox, Financial Retox: “If you want to feel really good in 2020, log off social media and invest with a financial services firm!”

Our research also has implications for brands regarding the critical importance of understanding the emotions expected and experienced by their target consumers in terms of both valence and activation.

  • To motivate the kinds of actions that support customer acquisition—like trying the brand or recommending it to friends—brands need strategies that inspire positive, high activation
  • To improve retention, they need strategies that cultivate the comforting sense of inertia that flows from positive, low activation Particularly in industries, like financial services and tech, where peace of mind is key to customer satisfaction.
  • To minimize fallout from negative, high activation emotions, brands need channels that enable customers’ frustrations to be expressed privately, addressed efficiently, and tracked in order to see whether the same issuers are irritating others.
  • To prevent attrition from customers feeling negative, low activation emotions, bands need strategies for flagging them—since they may not be making much noise—and fixing the issues they find disappointing or draining.
  • To attract new customers, brands must also manage prospects’ emotional expectations. Anticipating negative emotions—whether high or low activation—is a strong barrier to brand consideration.

Understanding brand performance in each emotional quadrant is one of the ways we help our clients inform strategies that are high in consumer EQ. And that’s the real reason we do this research—to help our clients.

Implications for how to live life more joyfully are just the cherry on top!


Erica CarranzaErica is CMB’s VP of Consumer Psychology. She holds a Ph.D. in psychology from Princeton University. Prior to CMB, she led insights research at American Express, where she was a recipient of the CMO Award for Achievement in Excellence.

Follow Chadwick Martin Bailey on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter for the latest news and updates.

 

Topics: marketing strategy, brand health and positioning, BrandFx, consumer psychology

It’s Not Just About Baby Yoda

Posted by Dr. Erica Carranza

Tue, Jan 14, 2020

Emotion, Identity & the Benefits of Disney+

Welcome to 2020! If you’re like me, you did at least three things over the holiday—visited family, ate too much, and read about the “decade in review.” Most articles looking back at the 2010’s mentioned the massive evolution in how we consume entertainment and the onset of the streaming wars. Disney+ and Apple TV+ have launched; HBO Max and Peacock are on the way. Analysts predict there will be too many subscription services to survive. Which will be among the last ones standing?

Netflix famously focuses on the customer, not the competition. But, if they’re going to learn to live with a major competitor, I suggest they focus on Disney+. Primarily because of how well Disney’s bastion of brands delivers emotional and identity benefits, and how important those benefits are to driving engagement—even compared to the functional benefits (like convenience) that helped Netflix upend the industry.

What are these different kinds of benefits? I’m so glad you asked! Here’s a bit of background…

At CMB, we identified four psychological benefits that drive brand engagement:

  • EMOTIONAL BENEFITS (e.g., positive feelings; enhanced joy; reduced frustration)
  • IDENTITY BENEFITS (e.g., strong self-esteem; pride; a positive self-image)
  • SOCIAL BENEFITS (e.g., conversation; social connection; a sense of belonging)
  • FUNCTIONAL BENEFITS (e.g., ability to accomplish tasks or goals; saving time or money)

Each plays a role in BrandFx, our approach to helping clients attract and retain their target audiences.

As a psychologist, I love our framework because it captures what drives people in all things—not just in how they spend their time and money. Each type of benefit fulfills a core human motivation. People strive to maximize good feelings and minimize bad ones (emotional benefits), enhance their self-image and self-esteem (identity benefits), connect and build relationships (social benefits), and efficiently achieve their goals (functional benefits).

In a recent study with over 20,000 consumers, we found that these benefits are important for brands across diverse industries. But the relative importance of each benefit does differ by industry, sub-industry, and even by brand. In the media space:  

  • For umbrella brands (e.g., Disney, Universal, Warner Bros.), emotional and identity benefits dominate importance, followed by social. So, to drive engagement, these brands must inspire positive feelings, bolster positive self-perceptions, and facilitate social bonds.
  • For franchises and IPs (e.g., The Simpsons, Harry Potter, Stranger Things), the same three benefits are key. Emotional and social are most important, followed by identity.
  • For streaming brands (e.g., Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime), functional benefits are pretty important—so streaming brands should make things easy and affordable. But emotional and identity benefits still dominate.
StreamingWars_ImpDrivingBrandEng

And, while streaming brands score well on functional benefits, they lag Disney on emotion and identity. Among the many media brands we tested:

  • Disney brand Pixar wins on delivering emotional benefits to fans (by a large margin!)
  • …and Disney itself wins on identity.

Disney’s strength on identity benefits is linked to the strength of its brands, franchises and IPs—like Marvel, which also scores well with fans on identity. And, when people think of Disney, its IPs are top-of-mind. In analyzing over 10,000 responses to a free association question, we found that streaming brands call to mind generalities (e.g., “movies,” “shows,” “videos”), while the brands that line the top of the Disney+ homepage call to mind specifics—either specific characters, movies, shows or franchises (e.g., Mickey Mouse, Frozen, Iron Man, MCU, Yoda), or specific content elements (e.g., action, animation, space, superheroes, princesses).

StreamingWars_InitialReactions

This pattern holds even among streaming customers (e.g., Netflix or Hulu subscribers)—i.e., generalities are top-of-mind, not specifics. Arguably that’s good if the goal is to entertain the masses, but it limits the ability to enhance subscribers’ identities. For example, we found that pride in being a media brand’s fan is highly correlated with liking characters from its content.

I may be an outlier—and an ideal scenario—for a streaming brand like Netflix. When I think of Netflix, the first things that come to mind are Peaky Blinders, The Crown and Stranger Things. These are shows I’m proud to watch (identity benefit!), and all three are Netflix originals. Maybe I’m a sign of things to come. But there are yet more reasons to bet on staying power for Disney+, including:

  • Disney’s vast machinery devoted to helping fans experience emotional, identity and social benefits outside the platform. It handily beat other brands we tested on the many ways in which fans interact with its content (e.g., via consumer products, theatrical releases, theme parks and more).
  • Its strength with kids and families. Our study focused on adults, but it’s safe to assume Disney brands would perform well with kids. And today’s Descendants fans are tomorrow’s subscribers.

JediLikeMyFatherUnless-CroppedOn a related note, nostalgia is an emotional benefit that pulls double-duty for media IPs. Kids who are fans grow-up to be parents who bring their own kids into the fold. (This image captures my household dynamic pretty well...)

Then there are the strong social benefits that come with family co-viewing and bonding over shared interests.

Yes, Disney+ will have to succeed in delivering the functional benefits expected in the streaming space—like convenience and value for the money. So pricing Disney+ competitively was a smart move.

But, again, success in media isn’t about functional benefits. Not even for streaming brands. It’s about content that engages; that evokes strong feelings; that resonates, inspires and empowers; that sparks conversations and connects us with larger communities… In a way, the word “entertainment” trivializes the intense emotional, identity and social benefits we get from the content we love. (Why else would so many people be arguing online about Star Wars? They can’t all be Russian bots!)

I’m a sample of one, but my experience fits these findings. I got Disney+ the day it launched. They made the sign-up process easy. So far, so good with the functional benefits. But what really impressed me were the rows of recognizable, quality content I saw when I first logged in. I literally gasped. And I mean literally literally. Not literally in the way Millennials mean literally (i.e., not literally).

Compare that with my experience on other platforms. I tab through rows of shows and movies I’ve heard nothing about, rejecting lots of options before finding something of interest.

This suggests one more way in which Disney+ enters with an advantage: Its well-known franchises create a high ratio of familiar (vs. unfamiliar) content. This matters because…

  • People like the familiar! The comfort of the familiar feels good—it’s an emotional benefit in and of itself. The tendency to prefer things just because we know them even has a name in psychology: the “mere exposure effect.”
  • The glut of peak TV has created “too much choice” for viewers which, paradoxically, generates negative emotions. In this context, the reputable content on Disney+ makes it feel like a cultivated selection. Like Trader Joe’s vs. a grocery store.

To be clear, I’m not counting other subscription services out by any stretch. But they’ll want to carefully evaluate potential strategies for attracting and retaining customers in light of this shift in the competitive landscape (i.e., the giant mouse in the room). For example, by identifying:

  • Which of their original series inspire the strongest emotional and identity benefits for the broadest populations of viewers
  • Ways to market these series—both on and off their platforms—to harness the emotional perks of familiarity
  • Opportunities to help fans of these series express themselves and connect with each other (e.g., via licensed products), which boosts emotional, identity and social benefits

Meanwhile, Disney+ will need to keep delivering fresh content without saturating fans’ appetites. (Our analysis found that boredom is a death knell for media IPs.) But any brand that can showcase so much celebrated content is in a great position to survive—and even thrive—in the streaming wars.


Erica CarranzaErica is CMB’s VP of Consumer Psychology. She holds a Ph.D. in psychology from Princeton University. Prior to CMB, she led insights research at American Express, where she was a recipient of the CMO Award for Achievement in Excellence.

Follow Chadwick Martin Bailey on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter for the latest news and updates.

Topics: digital media and entertainment research, BrandFx

Was a Gender-Neutral Doll the Right Move for Mattel?

Posted by Dr. Erica Carranza

Fri, Oct 04, 2019

MattelCreatableWorldSized

Did I ever tell you about my dissertation…? Wait, don’t go! I promise it’s interesting.

It was 2002. My advisor and I had been studying gender stereotypes, which we found were still depressingly pervasive. Then, for my dissertation, I examined reactions to men and women who broke the mold. I thought that people would dislike stereotypically masculine (e.g., ambitious) women and feminine (e.g., sensitive) men, but try to hide it—so I measured their emotional reactions using facial EMG.

Facial EMG involves placing pairs of electrodes over muscles that contract when we frown or smile, as shown on the Mona Lisa. (My apologies to any art history majors out there.) People can’t mask the immediate, involuntary emotional reactions that register in their faces. Most of that muscular activity is too fast and too subtle to be captured by human or computer/AI-based facial coding, but EMG captures it well. At CMB, we have a method of measuring emotional reactions tailored to market research—it does an excellent job and doesn’t involve electrodes. But if you expect people to actively lie about their feelings, facial EMG is the way to go.

EMGmonaCrop2

What did I find in analyzing literally millions of milliseconds of facial activity? Feminine men elicited warm smiles from women—but were laughed at by other men. And masculine women were universally reviled. Lots of eyebrow furrowing. People didn’t even try to hide it.

Add this to the many other forces that encourage adherence to gender norms—like the manly men and womanly women portrayed in everything from blockbuster movies to local ads—and it’s no shock that kids learn gender roles early. Kids are perceptive. They see stereotypical male and female characters held-up as ideals in toys and on TV, and can easily infer what’s expected of them.

In this way, gender stereotypes are both pervasive and constraining, like invisible straightjackets we wear everyday—we don’t have to let them confine us, but the pressure is always there.

That leads me to Mattel and Creatable World, their new gender-neutral doll. According to their official tagline, it’s “designed to keep labels out and invite everyone in—giving kids the freedom to create their own customizable characters again and again.”

Here is a major toymaker refusing to communicate an expectation that “boys will be boys” and “girls will be girls.” This is huge. Especially when we consider the crucial role of play for kids in imagining possibilities, exploring interests, connecting with others, and discovering oneself.

So did Mattel do the right thing from a moral perspective?

Yes. No doubt in my mind. When kids don’t feel the need to live-up to masculine and feminine ideals, they get to be who they are without pressure or fear of reprisal. They can be smart, compassionate, strong, expressive, ambitious, fashionable, funny—or all of the above. It’s up to them!

But Mattel is a publicly traded company looking for healthy profits. Particularly nowadays, when so many things—online and off—compete for kids’ time and attention. So it’s also worth asking:

Was a gender-neutral doll the right move from a brand perspective?

Again, I’d say yes. It’s exactly the right move. Why? Because of the crucial role identity benefits play in driving brand appeal.

At CMB, we’ve identified four key psychological benefits brands need to deliver in order to drive appeal:

  • Functional Benefits (e.g., “checking-off” goals or to-dos; saving time; saving money)
  • Social Benefits (e.g., sense of community; conversation; social connection)
  • Emotional Benefits (e.g., positive feelings; enhanced joy; reduced pain)
  • Identity Benefits (e.g., pride and self-esteem; self-expression; a positive self-image)

We leverage all four in BrandFx, our proprietary approach to helping clients achieve brand growth. In fact, we recently fielded a BrandFx study with over 20,000 U.S. consumers. In total, they provided nearly 40,000 evaluations of major brands across multiple industries. We’re still knee-deep in analysis (more blogs to come as we roll-out our results!), but so far this much is clear:

Identity benefits are particularly important.

That holds true across brands and industries—even “rational” industries like financial services. But it’s especially true for brands in the entertainment space, like Mattel. With Creatable World, Mattel is helping kids explore, express, and embrace their unique identities with a doll that offers more possibilities and imposes fewer constraints. This will pay off in kids’ interest and engagement.

Yes, many parents may be against it. But I have two things to say about that based on what we’ve seen across multiple studies:

First: Kids tend to drive toy purchase trends. They see, they like, they ask… and ask… and ask… And parents want their kids to be happy, so kids often get what they want—even when their parents feel ambivalent about it.

Second: Most parents aren’t morally opposed to their kids playing with toys associated with the opposite gender. It’s that they’re afraid of other kids’ reactions. As a parent, I can relate. There are times I’ve steered my boys away from things that I thought might lead to the spirit-crushing, innocence-busting experience of being ridiculed by peers. But when parents see evidence of shifting norms and acceptance among kids, their fears will diminish—and the fact the Mattel has released a gender-neutral doll is evidence in itself. After all, Mattel knows kids, and they put a lot of money on the line. So, if my boys want a Creatable World doll, it’s theirs. Because what I really want is for them to be able to choose their paths—and feel valued for the amazing, unique individuals they are—without having to squeeze themselves into a narrow vision of what it means to be a man.

If change is on our doorstep, I’m ready to welcome it in, and I’m likely not the only parent who feels this way.

 


Erica CarranzaErica has a B.A. from Wellesley College and a Ph.D. in psychology from Princeton University. Prior to CMB, she led insights research at American Express, where she was a recipient of the CMO Award for Achievement in Excellence.

Topics: marketing strategy, brand health and positioning, digital media and entertainment research, growth and innovation, Identity, emotion, BrandFx, consumer psychology