What Can American Girl Dolls Teach Property Management Companies About Emotional Engagement?


American Girl Doll Company

Editor’s note: Filling in this month for Joanna Ellis is guest blogger Maria C. Lawson, Vice President of Training and Development at Ellis Partners is Mystery Shopping.

The American Girl Doll Company takes the cake, literally, when it comes to earning customer loyalty through emotional engagement.

In April, my niece celebrated her 5th birthday at the American Girl Boutique and Bistro in Dallas, Texas. It seemed a little odd to me when my sister told me that several of her friends (over 40) would be joining the party with their own dolls. My first response was, “Really?” Since I am the mother of two boys, the idea of taking a doll to lunch seemed a little odd to me. It wasn’t until my “marketing mind” kicked in that I realized what a brilliant idea it was.

The American Girl Boutique and Bistro sells experiences, not dolls. Their average store visits are three hours long, party sales are booked months in advance and in-store events are sold out without promotion. The Dallas store has had such success that their doll hair salon was expanded to meet overwhelming demand. How do they emotionally engage their customers?

Tell a Story

A brand is much more than a name and logo. It’s the experience the customer feels when doing business with the product/company, it’s what the customer expects from the product/company and most importantly it’s the feeling the customer takes with them when the experience is over. It makes them happy, it’s wonderfully consistent and the anticipation of the experience matches the outcome.

The American Girl was created in 1986 by Pleasant T. Rowland. Here is some background for those of you who are unclear on what exactly these things are. American Girl Dolls began as historical dolls based on fictional girls that existed during various times in American history. Each girl has a set of books that serve as their personal biography and a mini American history lesson. In addition to all the historical dolls, there are also “My American Girl” dolls that can be customized to look exactly like you (with matching outfits), which I think is kind of creepy—but again, I am a member of the boymom® club.

American Girl Doll Molly McIntire
Molly McIntire. Image source: Wikipedia

The American Girl brand is a masterful blend of education and entertainment, all rooted in storytelling:

Molly McIntire (1944) was one of the first three Historical Characters of the American Girl Dolls, representing the World War II Era. Molly is prone to daydreaming and fanciful ideas. She is not very good at math and is afraid to swim underwater. Molly is a great tap dancer and misses her father very much—he is far away caring for wounded soldiers. She is a big schemer, often the ring leader when she and her friends make plans. Molly’s mom calls her a “chatterbox”. American Girl characterizes her as “lively” and “lovable.” –AmericanGirl.Wikia.com

Everyone wants to hear a story and to be part of an experience. A great story adds value and personality to a brand. It makes the product more approachable, friendly, real, and can make your brand stand out. Today’s customers aren’t just purchasing your product; they are purchasing an experience and the story behind the product.

What’s your brand story? Is it consistent? How do your residents and customers feel when doing business with your brand?

Set the Stage for Customer Participation

Designing brand experiences isn’t about writing a script. It’s about setting the stage and allowing customers to participate in the story. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by creating emotionally engaging experiences that customers can discover for themselves and retell over and over again. The American Girl Boutique and Bistro has designed such a stage.

Disclaimer: I’m not making this stuff up!

The American Girl Salon
The American Girl Salon

As you enter the American Girl store, there are customized bistros with signature Treat Seats for visitors and their dolls. Yes, dolls are given a seat at the table, too. If anyone forgets her doll or doesn’t have one, they will provide them a loaner doll. They have thought of everything! You can receive a portrait of you with your doll and even take her to the salon for a haircut. And, if that wasn’t enough, they have a “hospital” that admits dolls in need of new limbs, a head, new eyes, or just a “wellness visit.” The patient is returned in a hospital gown with get-well balloons. Again, I am not making this stuff up!

So, let’s total up the experience. A $50 lunch, $15 hair styling, $25 photo session, a few new outfits at an average of $40 each, $150 for a new bedroom set, a $6.00 book, $50 for a new head, and just in-case you want to add a new doll to your collection, throw in $100 and you’re talking about a tab of several hundred dollars. The best part—you’ll gladly pay it and look forward to coming back. It is fun, entertaining, memorable, and emotionally engaging—just like an amusement park. Barbie has no chance here.

What does your stage look like? Are you setting yourself apart from the rest? Do your customers leave happy and fulfilled?

Pay Attention to Detail

The American Girl brand anticipates the underlying, subconscious needs and wants of its consumers better than any competitor. It offers girls of all ages meaning, value, entertainment, friendly and caring service, and a sense of belonging. Every detail reinforces the brand—the colors, the patterns, even the words. All five senses are engaged during the experience and there is no disconnect along the way. They have even placed fixtures in the stores at varying heights so customers of all ages can interact with the products—birthday girl, mommy, grandma, and little sister. Even those easily spotted red American Girl shopping bags have their purpose—to create a longing in your heart to be toting the very same bag.

Customers that give a brand experience an extremely high satisfaction rating are 2.5 times more likely to repurchase from that brand than customers rating their overall satisfaction as average, according to new research from Accenture.

Are you paying attention to every detail? Are there any disconnects in your customer’s experience? Are your customers extremely satisfied?

Start Creating Memorable Experiences for Your Brand

No matter what business you’re in, including the multifamily industry, you can create experiences that are emotionally engaging, drive repeat business, and ultimately lifetime value. Experiences can take place at a physical location, via your website, social media, email, over the phone, etc. By rethinking how you emotionally engage your customers, you can create memorable experiences that are worth talking about.

Check out this short American Girl video to see the experience with your own eyes.

Do you have a story to share about emotional engagement? Do you have an American Girl-like customer experience to share? We would love to hear from you!


President and Owner, Ellis Partners in Mystery Shopping

author photo two

Joanna Ellis is CEO and Owner of Ellis Partners in Management Solutions (EPMS) and Co-owner of Renter’s Voice. Under her direction, Ellis has established itself as the premier apartment mystery shopping company in the nation, as well as a respected provider of multi-touch point resident surveys, as part of their retention-focused customer experience program. Current clients include most major apartment developers, management companies, and REITs. Through Renter’s Voice, Ellis helps clients promote and respond to authentic and objective apartment reviews. Having earned a Bachelor of Arts in Business from Texas A&M, Ms. Ellis has spent more than 25 years in the multifamily industry, and she now holds both the Certified Apartment Manager (CAM) and Certified Apartment Property Supervisor (CAPS). She is also a licensed Texas Real Estate Agent. In honor of EPMS’ reputation for integrity, the Dallas Chapter of the Society of Financial Service Professionals awarded Joanna, on behalf of the company, the 2008 Greater Dallas Business Ethics Award for mid-size companies.

9 responses to “What Can American Girl Dolls Teach Property Management Companies About Emotional Engagement?”

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  4. This is also the way to train your associates too… associates learn more when engaged in a story that teaches them about your product, how to sell, or how to lead.

    Make that story interesting, relevant, and resonate…and they’ll learn. Bore them with details of software, forget the “why” and throw in no manager support…and they’ll forget instantly. American Girl Dolls remind us also that our trainees need an “experience” and they need stories and back stories to help training stick too. Does your training deliver stories and picture-perfect customer service or your ASSOCIATES?

    • Michael Cunningham says:

      Great point, Krista. Resonate is a key word, I think. A story can be interesting and relevant, but if it doesn’t resonate, the story and its intended effect may be quickly forgotten.

    • Maria Lawson says:

      Krista, I agree 100% with your points. In fact, you have inspired me to write a blog on how to emotionally engage employees during the training process–especially Gen Y. As companies begin to focus in on emotional engagement–they can’t afford to forget the internal ones, too. Thank you for bringing up this great point!

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