Packaging Pain, Rewarding Play: A Case Study

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Since I started this toolkit, I've wanted to do more case studies on what great brands do. While I've tried to include brief examples in other posts, this is mainly focused on one company: The American Girl doll company

What do you do when your customers ruin your product? They’ve beaten the crap out of it and it needs to be repaired or replaced. What now? This is a lesson in growing a life-long relationship with your customers, making the best out of a potentially devastating experience, - lemonade, if you will.  

American Girl is one of my all-time favourite companies. Growing up, I was a very proud owner of a “Kirsten” doll, part of their now “Be Forever” collection of historically-themed dolls. The premise was to create a whole universe for each doll, based on a historical time in America.

 The original "Be Forever" collection from the '90s

The original "Be Forever" collection from the '90s

Kirsten was based on the character of a Swedish immigrant living in the midwest and as with each doll, came with a series of books exploring different themes, going on different adventures and selling all the props to go along. A brilliant, addictive business model, the American Girl company put into practice a strategic gold mine of line extensions, with accessories for every story.

At some point in the 90s they introduced personalised dolls, decades before the advent of Makies and other look-alike toy companies. Encouraging little girls to create imaginative stories for their dolls, American Girl understood that to their customers, these dolls were not just toys: they were projections of themselves. And they needed to be treated as such. 

Little girls being little girls, doll hair gets cut short, bodies are drawn on with permanent marker, limbs dismembered... all accidents (I swear). But instead of punishing “play”, American Girl provide a masterclass in what I call ‘packaging the pain’.

I introduce to you The American Girl Doll Hospital.

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Dolls with broken limbs, ruined hair and illustrated bodies can be sent to the “Doll Hospital” for care and repair, for a relatively small price. 

As a young girl, it’s quite daunting to send this living, breathing projection of yourself off to hospital. The dolls get sent back a few weeks later complete with a certificate of ‘treatment’, a hospital band, gown and other accessories. With a little bit of clever framing, a potentially shitty situation is transformed into a special experience customers are not only willing, but excited, to pay for. These "souvenirs" become a badge of honour, and for such a high-ticket item (most dolls cost about $120), a practical solution. Customers can even turn the experience into a fully-immersive one by visiting the Manhattan flagship store where there is actually a physical "hospital", "hair dresser" and tea room for girls and their dolls. 

The Doll Hospital experience shifts from belonging in the realm of customer service and becomes a territory for both marketing and product development: people will want to tell their friends of this experience. They'll take photos and share it. 

Many brands fail to recognise the emotional attachment people have to their prized possessions: a favourite jacket or running shoes, a beautifully crafted bag, a uniquely worn-in pair of jeans... cars, toys, electronics. A product with a high price or with powerful memories associated with its use is ripe for a packaged-up "after-care" experience like the Doll Hospital. If you care enough to want to be "loved" as a brand, you should treat the life of your product as worth cherishing and extending as long as possible. 

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When I joined Rapha in 2010 to help them improve their relationship with female customers, they were already offering their Rapha Repairs service, but it was still positioned as a customer service issue. I shared with the team the Doll Hospital example and suggested sending the repairs back in a pink Swiss cross box with a certificate of repair as a way to celebrate the hard-wearing athletes who needed their well-loved kit re-stitched and re-laminated. Celebrate the crash, don’t punish people for it! You can now find photos the like this one all over Instagram #rapharepairs

Patagonia Worn Wear and Hiut Denim are two other brilliant brands who’ve re-framed damaged products by encouraging hard-wearing and repair as something to be celebrated. Not only is this approach probably better for the environment, but it's some of the most cost-effective marketing you will ever do. 

Imagine how other high-ticket item brands can reposition the pain of a damaged product by celebrating its use! Cars, furniture, fashion, shoes, sport or fishing equipment, technology hardware (Apple should be the first to do this but they don’t… which seems lunacy to me).

How can your brand reward playing hard to the point of destruction? Do you have any other good examples of brands doing interesting things re-framing their "after-market" experience?