GI Josephine

If only all Hasbro’s toys had the  gender balance of the Potato Head family.

In 1923, Henry, Hilal and Herman Hassenfeld formed Hassenfeld Brothers in Providence, Rhode Island. In 1940 they diversified somewhat, from just pencils and pencil cases, into doctor and nurses kits for children (and modelling clay) becoming predominantly a toy company by 1942. (Its Empire Pencils business didn’t stop there though. It went on to dominate the pencil industry in the US by the time it was spun-off in 1980.) The toy business embraced plastic during the war years before its first global toy success:  in 1952, four years before I was born, it launched Mr Potato Head. It was the first toy advertised on TV. What a toy that! It is still in production today but, alas, the use of real “spuds”, like I played with as a kid, has somewhat gone out of fashion: are they just too dirty and unprocessed for the modern world or do McDonalds consume too many to make that a realistic possibility anymore? It’s a mystery.

You probably recognise the modern name of the makers of this rather iconic toy, Hasbro, short for Hassenfeld Brothers. Mr Potato Head is not the only iconic toy on its list now though, no, in 1964 it came up with GI Joe, but it parked it during the Vietnam War, only to see it reborn as a mega-cinema-tied-in brand in recent years.  After some truly awful product launches in the 70/80s and failed diversifications into childrens’ nurseries and cookware, of all things, it found its commercial sweet spot in the 1980s and grew on the back of successful long-term product lines like My Little Pony, GI Joe, Twister, Mr Potato Head, Transformers and in the 90s it acquired Monopoly. For a while it even became the biggest toy company in the world, overtaking Mattel.

Hasbro’s long term rival, Mattel, has just reported soaring first quarter profits, on the back of its American Girl and Monster High dolls; it reported higher gross margins too. Meanwhile Hasbro is still trying to restructure its business and reported a widening first quarter loss. It did though manage to show some revenue growth in Games, Girls and Preschool, while Boys product sales, its biggest product category, showed a 20% decline. Unlike Mattel, that has Barbie and somewhat more of a girly-doll focus, Hasbro has always been a bit of a “toys for boys” business, with more of a boy focus with its blockbuster toys. The battle between Barbie and GI Joe sadly being won by the more relationship oriented sex, the girls, happy to play with old-fashioned old-concept toys whilst their male peers have migrated online it seems.

Hasbro did have a go at revealing a little more of its feminine side, with the launch of Jem and Maxie in the 1980s, but sadly they didn’t survive very long or dent Barbie’s sales. For some reason Hasbro didn’t seem to quite “get” girls toys as well as boys toys and they are now paying the price of the masculine super-segment’s seduction by all things virtual. It is a little hard to see how this is going to be addressed at this late stage without some clever acqusition, but of what? Dolls of course! Any doll that will appeal to young girls. Surely this sexual asymmetry in demand evolution could have been predicted years ago and Hasbro could have done something about it? Well, yes, it could have, but to do that it would have needed to see itself as a generic toy company and not just a GI Joe/Transformer brand manager. If it did in fact have a strategy that said it was a broadly diversified toy company then the strategy has clearly failed. If it didn’t, it may now wish it did, or that it had made more of its My Little Pony franchise: it’s a doll and it does appear to girls, but perhaps it is a little too “Animal Farm” for the sort of deep connection with little girls that surely drives doll sales.

Although no longer a global toy megastar Mr Potato Head is a classic toy that will surely sell forever. Mr Potato Head had a wife and it clearly appeals to both sexes as a toy. If only battlefield emancipation had happened earlier in the US military, GI Josephine may have been able to develop a female audience too – who knows? The best toys, and perhaps the best products, appeal to everyone, irrespective of their race, creed, or gender.


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