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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

This Blog is Dark and Full of Emotional Turmoil

Posted by Dr. Erica Carranza

Thu, May 16, 2019

Includes spoilers through season 8/episode 5.

My love affair with Game of Thrones developed gradually and, by season four, I’d fallen head-over-heels. Like most fans, I enjoyed watching it buck narrative conventions, leaving them littered along the way like so many torched wights. But what really captured my heart was its subtle feminism.

Finally, here was a show where the women were just as varied, complex, and important to the story as the men. They had goals of their own, well-developed personalities, and together they represented an impressive range of attributes—vulnerability, compassion, strategic thinking, naivete, cynicism, resilience, physical strength, and more. They fought the patriarchy, but each in her own way. And, by the time Daenerys met her war council in Westeros, her strongest allies were women. That could have felt like a heavy-handed attempt by the writers to give women roles traditionally held by men. Instead, it felt like the natural result of all that had happened up to that point.

What’s more, even the men of Game of Thrones subverted expectations. My favorites among them were smart and funny—but also kind and compassionate. And few of them had the pretty face or chiseled physique worn by typical epic heroes. In its first season, Game of Thrones inspired the term “sexposition”—yet somehow it had delivered a smorgasbord of compelling male and female characters. And the world was watching.

With all these reasons to love the show, I was worried about how it might end. A happily-ever-after would betray what had made it great. But, truth be told, I didn’t want a villain to win. I was sympathetic to the conundrum the showrunners must be in, and pessimistic about their finding a good way out.

Turns out I wasn’t alone.

Right before “The Long Night” aired (season 8/episode 3), we ran a survey among friends and colleagues. We asked them their predictions for how the series would end, and how they expected to feel about it. While the survey was just for fun—and hardly a representative sample—the results were revealing:

  • Less than a third (30%) thought they’d feel mostly good about how the series ended.
  • A third (34%) thought they’d feel ambivalent (i.e., good and bad in equal measure).
  • Nearly a quarter (23%) thought they’d feel mostly bad.

In total, over half (57%) predicted having strong negative emotional reactions to whatever would unfold in the final episodes (i.e., the 23% expecting to feel bad, plus the 34% expecting to feel ambivalent). Only 13% of viewers—whose lack of emotional investment in the show I’ve come to envy—thought they would end up feeling neutral.

got pie chart

Furthermore, viewers thought they would feel highly activated, energetic emotions.

A bit of background… At CMB, we use a method of measuring emotion (EMPACT) that we developed to capture its two core dimensions: valence (i.e., intensity of the positive or negative feelings) and activation (i.e., their level of energy).

For example, sadness and anger can feel equally negative in terms of valence. But sadness is low in activation, while anger is high. Sadness is low energy and makes people want to withdraw. Anger is agitating—it makes people want to act. Not surprisingly, online content is particularly likely to go viral when it evokes high activation emotions.

When viewers predicted how they’d feel about the way the series ends:

  • Half (49%) predicted highly activated negative reactions. Specifics included feeling frustrated, annoyed, anxious, stressed, angry, and even disgusted.
  • About half (46%) predicted highly activated positive reactions. Specifics included feeling entertained, amused, amazed, happy, and excited.
  • Relatively few (27%) predicted low activation negative reactions (e.g., feeling drained, depressed, disappointed, and discouraged).
  • Even fewer (11%) predicted low activation positive reactions (e.g., feeling pleased, satisfied, and nostalgic).

So nearly everyone expects to feel highly activated—but viewers were split in terms of positive vs. negative valence. That’s a precarious situation for a show as it approaches its series finale.

got valenceLinking viewers’ expected emotion to their predictions for the show also uncovered some interesting trends. For example, those expecting to feel activated positive emotions (e.g., happiness and excitement) were particularly likely to think the “good guys” would survive—including Jon, Arya, Sansa, Tyrion, Samwell, and even little Sam. Other viewers were less optimistic. But, regardless of their predictions, most shared an intensely emotional relationship to the show.

I can relate. In fact, the anxiety I felt about whether Game of Thrones could stick the landing is nothing compared to how I feel now, having watched it ruin most of its best characters:

  • Sansa expressed gratitude (!) for her worst abusers and is now (according to showrunner Dan Benioff) stealing moves from Littlefinger’s playbook. Plus she continually snipes at Dany despite Dany’s essential help in saving the North.
  • Last we saw Brienne—the first and only female Knight of the Seven Kingdoms—she was pathetically bawling in her bathrobe as Jaime rode out of her life.
  • Then Cersei, having finally proven herself her father’s equal, died crying in Jaime’s arms.
  • Varys is burned alive thanks to Tyrion, who continues his two-season track-record of making inexplicably poor decisions. (He used to drink and know things. Now I guess he just drinks.)
  • Grey Worm led the remaining allied forces into a wave of war crimes.
  • And Dany, who locked-up her dragons when Drogon killed a single innocent child, has brutally murdered a whole city full of innocent children. Why? Because she feels threatened by a man, hurt by his rejection, frustrated by the skepticism she met in Westeros, and enraged at the beheading of a friend.

Yes, Dany losing her mind may have been in the cards from the start. But to have flipped in that moment—and for those reasons—didn’t fit with most of what we’d learned about her. Game of Thrones never made excuses for the ascent of powerful women. Now it’s making-up excuses to tear them down.

So it looks like the show that reveled in subverting narrative conventions will end by validating the oldest tropes in the book…

  • The hero where all our sympathies and hopes should lie is a white man. He’s a stoic warrior with a noble heart—and, lo and behold, he’s of noble blood.
  • Women, on the other hand, are weak, petty, manipulative, and overly emotional.
  • Women who seek power are particularly bad. Two women vying for the Iron Throne is apparently worse for Westeros than the Night King and his army of undead.

How does this turn of events make me feel? Discouraged, disappointed, angry, aggrieved… The last Game of Thrones episode has yet to arrive, but my love affair with the show is already over.

And, again, I bet I’m not alone.

__

Erica is VP of Consumer Psychology at Chadwick Martin Bailey. She has over ten years of experience leading market research for major brands across a range of categories—including clients such as Disney, Viacom, Mattel, Instagram, Prudential and American Express. A PhD social psychologist, Erica applies this expertise to give her clients a unique edge in understanding and engaging their target audiences.


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.

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

Topics: EMPACT, emotional measurement, emotion

Live Sports: Fans' Last Connection to Cable is Fraying

Posted by McKenzie Mann

Wed, Jul 18, 2018

friends watching tv

Earlier this year, I was trying to watch my beloved Patriots play in the AFC East Divisional Championship game while standing in the airport security line. After numerous failed attempts at downloading streaming apps that promised an uninterrupted game, I resorted to real-time game updates in the form of a line with how many yards the ball went each down and a description of the play.

I was frustrated, to say the least—a missed opportunity as we know fostering the right positive emotions is key to building and maintaining loyal and engaged customers.

When I finally made it through security, I went straight to a restaurant where Tom Brady was on every screen. This time, cable television saved the day.

Live sports is one of the last threads tethering people to traditional cable packages. For most other content, consumers have a plethora of services to choose from—traditional streaming like Netflix, premium network streaming like HBO Now, and even broadcast network streaming like CBS All Access. And with Netflix recently becoming the number one choice for television viewing, it’s no surprise an estimated 22.2 million people cut the cord in 2017—a whopping 33% increase from 2016. 

As more consumers leave the traditional model for “à la carte” style, nontraditional services like Yahoo, Facebook, and ESPN are challenging cable providers’ last bastion of sports. While there have been hiccups in some of these services, like poor streaming quality and cutting out of games altogether, the technology is improving and eventually will offer sports fans a legitimate alternative to watch games on.  

To combat this rising competition, CBS and the NFL recently extended their agreement to stream all games on CBS All Access through the 2022 season—safeguarding their rights to the coveted (and profitable) football games, at least for now. 

New technology is disrupting the industry and cable providers will need to adapt and embrace innovation to stay competitive. This is already happening for some. Charter Communications’ Spectrum now offers à la carte channels instead of the traditional comprehensive packages, Comcast has expanded their on-demand library (including full seasons), and DirecTV now offers DirecTV Now, a streaming service separate from their satellite plan. Some major providers are even exploring new verticals to add to their portfolios, as is the case with Comcast’s Xfinity Mobile.

There’s tremendous opportunity for traditional providers as the competition in the digital streaming market heats up. But companies must carefully consider these opportunities—with so many options (and more to come) available to consumers, solutions must impress off the bat, or lose fans to a competitor for good.

We’ve seen this play out in other emerging tech categories, like virtual assistants. As big players like Apple, Google, and Amazon pour millions into making their virtual assistant tech smarter, they need to embrace a new kind of customer-centricity—one that’s built on an understanding of the functional, emotional, and social identity benefits that drive adoption, engagement, and loyalty. To learn more, watch our quick 20-minute webinar and learn how brands can win the virtual assistant war—lessons for any brand experiencing disruption in their category:

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McKenzie Mann is a Project Manager II at CMB. She spends most of her spare time trying to convince her friends that it’s funny to replace the word “man” with “mann.” It's a work in progress, but mann will it be great when it catches on.

Topics: technology research, television, digital media and entertainment research, growth and innovation, emotion

Scoring with Emotion: A lesson for brands

Posted by Daniel Alderstad

Wed, Jun 27, 2018

soccer fans

If it’s Sunday morning in the Alderstad household, I’m engrossed in a football match on my tablet. I’m not talking about American football, I mean the real kind.

I’m from Sweden but live in the US, so I like to keep up with my home team—even if it’s an unimportant match against a non-threatening opponent. Following my team keeps me connected with fellow fans, especially when I’m watching alone from thousands of miles away.

I may be watching from my house, but I feel the same cocktail of nervousness and excitement as the other fans who are actually in the stadium. During a match, nothing else matters except for what’s happening on the screen.

Most matches take me on an emotional rollercoaster and leave me feeling high or low. I try to not let those feelings linger and dictate the rest of my mood for the day. 

I like to think that I can separate my feelings from the match, but I know that’s not entirely true. When it comes to my favorite team, eleven players chasing a ball can definitely impact how I’ll feel for the rest of the day.

Why is that?

Because I’m human and humans aren’t 100% rational.

And this is an important lesson for brands. Too often are we assuming a rational consumer—one who is motivated by the seemingly “obvious” and “rational” factors, like the functional features of a product. And yes, the functional benefits a brand or product provides is important. But, we can’t dismiss the power of emotion.

The link between emotions and decision-making has gained considerable attention in psychology, marketing, and even economics. But, I believe how emotions impact our decision-making process is still underestimated and underleveraged.  

At CMB, our solutions are grounded in consumer psychology and we know that consumers are motivated by three types of benefits, including emotional, functional, and identity. We’ve developed proprietary tools that measure how brands and touchpoints make people feel—understanding the emotional payoffs consumers experience, want, and expect from a brand.

Instead of focusing solely on what a product (or in my case, a team) can “do” for the consumer, brands must understand what emotions they should be evoking from target consumers, then create messaging and experiences that elicit such feelings. 

My emotional connection to my team may be a little mad, but isn't the duality of the human psyche—where our thoughts and decision-making are strongly driven by an unending conflict between logic vs. emotions and thinking vs. feeling—something to cherish?

I certainly think so.

Daniel Alderstad is a senior associate researcher who has tried (and failed) to get his peers to acknowledge that "football" is played with one’s feet and a round ball, while "American football" (which he very much appreciates) should be called "throwy-hand-ball-with infrequent-but- guaranteed-to-score-kicks-occasionally".

Topics: emotional measurement, emotion

How L.L. Bean Weathers Customer Loyalty

Posted by Nicole Battaglia

Wed, Apr 11, 2018

 LL Bean Boots_cropped

Sorry outdoor apparel fans, L.L. Bean isn’t accepting your beat-up duck boots anymore. The Maine-based outdoor retailer recently ended its flagship Lifetime Return Policy.

 L.L. Bean founder Leon Leonwood Bean introduced this policy over 100 years ago to prove their commitment to quality products and ensure customer satisfaction. And since then, generations of Bean-loving customers have enjoyed the forgiving policy.

But not everyone’s been so kind. A growing number of customers have taken advantage of L.L. Bean’s generosity by treating it more like a free exchange policy. According to the Associated Press, the company has lost $250 million on returned items that cannot be salvaged or resoled in the last five years alone!

From a financial perspective, this move makes sense. But the loyal Bean boot enthusiast and market researcher in me is curious about potential branding implications—will this alienate lifelong customers who might view this as L.L. Bean as “breaking its promise”?

For more than 100 years, L.L. Bean has built its brand image around “designing products that make it easier for families of all kinds to spend time outside together”. Enduring Northeast winters as a kid, I can vouch for the quality of their products—they are truly second to none. L.L. Bean isn’t ‘cheap’, but I don’t balk at their prices because I know I’m getting something proven to withstand harsh winters.

But, my loyalty for L.L. Bean runs deeper than the quality of my boots. Growing up in a Bean-loving home, I have a strong emotional connection to the brand.  I have memories of flipping through the catalog (back when that was the popular way to shop) and getting excited about when it was time to order a new backpack and matching lunchbox—monogrammed, of course.

When I’m home for the holidays, I head out to the local L.L. Bean store to make my holiday gift purchases. In 2015, L.L. Bean featured a golden retriever puppy on the cover of its holiday catalogue. As someone who grew up with goldens, this ad resonated with me on an emotional level.

I also strongly identify with other L.L. Bean enthusiasts. Most kids I grew up with had the monogrammed backpacks, and when I went to college, everyone wore Bean boots. My image of the typical customer is clear, relatable and socially desirable—the three aspects of social and self-identity that drive purchase and loyalty.

 When it comes to analyzing a brand’s performance, it’s critical to look at the complete picture and account for the identity, emotional, and functional benefits it provides. For me, the functional benefits (e.g. keeps my feet dry during a Nor’easter) L.L. Bean provides me are undeniably important; however, the emotional and identity benefits ultimately rank higher.

 I can’t speak for every customer, but the move to end their Lifetime Return Policy won’t keep me from shopping at L.L. Bean. Yes, it’s a shame the retailer had to rescind its signature guarantee—one that underscores their commitment to the quality of their products. 

But, it’s a powerful lesson for brands in an increasingly disrupted age: the strength of the benefits you provide your customer—social, emotional, and functional—can mean the difference between weathering the storm and keeping and growing your customers.

Nicole Battaglia is a Sr. Associate Researcher who isn’t pleased she’s had to wear her Bean boots into April this year.

Topics: customer experience and loyalty, Identity, AffinID, emotion, BrandFx