Mattel’s American Girl brand is the epitome of what it means to surprise and delight fans through product and in-store.

Amanda Cioletti, Vice President, Content and Strategy

March 7, 2024

8 Min Read
The range of American Girl historical dolls.
The range of American Girl historical dolls. Mattel

Since the mid-’80s, American Girl has been pushing the boundaries of imagination with its high-quality dolls and accessories that are more than just toys – they are true collector’s items. Launched in 1986 by founder, Pleasant T. Rowland, American Girl began as a range of dolls inspired by American history. The original collection fused education, storytelling and play all in a catalog-only brand that encouraged girls to dream big and use their imagination.

By 1998, Mattel had taken notice of the original direct-to-consumer brand, adding American Girl to its roster of high-powered IP, such as Barbie and Hot Wheels, further encouraging the brand to grow as well. 

“First and foremost, American Girl, through our storytelling, highly detailed and authentic product and through immersive experiences, helps girls grow with confidence, courage and strength of character,” says Jamie Cygielman, general manager, president, American Girl. “That is our brand purpose. Our values harken back to the original DNA of the brand when it was created more than 35 years ago. We like to say of our historical characters of every era that ‘character counts.’”

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The First Retailtainer

American Girl is, first and foremost, a pioneer in the space of children’s toy space, education and entertainment, but over the past 30-plus years, it has also become a model experiential retailer.

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“Going back to the origin, American Girl was one of the first true omnichannel marketers and retailers,” says Cygielman. “We started in direct mail as a catalog, long before we ever had retail … even before we had a website. As technology and consumer shopping behavior have evolved, we’ve evolved with it.” 

In the same year of the Mattel acquisition – 1998 – American Girl also launched its first retail location. But calling it just a store is not doing the retail location justice. In truth, the brick-and-mortar was the first iteration of the American Girl shopping and entertainment experience – maybe even the first true “retailtainment” space. 

“Our first store launched in Chicago in 1998, but, really, the idea for the store had been germinating for a number of years,” says Cygielman. “The location was about celebrating all the rites of passage of girlhood and making it a special place to build memories. The store came out of an experience that our founder, Pleasant Rowland, had as a young girl with her own mother – a lady’s day out in Chicago, walking hand-in-hand down the street. She called it ‘a day to remember,’ and we retell that story. It’s on our menus in our cafes and more. Everything we do is to create this kind of day and memory-making moment.” 

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Not only is the spirit of memory-making fostered in the atmosphere of the retail space, but it is also smart business. The shopping experience ultimately drives deeper customer engagement, creating lifelong fans that return to the brand time and time again, from generation to generation.

And, of course, now American Girl is fully modernized, including an interactive website, robust e-commerce business and multichannel distribution for its publishing, a key piece of the brand’s storytelling. 

A True Experience

Each American Girl store, of which there are 10 in the U.S. and Canada, includes exclusive experiences and products where visitors can find offerings such as a doll salon that allows girls to refresh and renew their doll’s hair while getting pampered themselves; a specialized café that plays hosts to families and their doll counterparts, hosting tea services and birthday parties alike; a doll hospital, which features on-site “doctors” that help to mend and repair dolls; personal shopping; interactive displays and much more. They are also interactive, encouraging visitors to touch, feel and play with the product, inspiring imaginative experiences and play patterns that can continue at home. 

“For us, our retail experience is really about all the other things, beyond shopping, that you can do in the store,” says Cygielman. “When you walk in and see all the dolls on display, the stories unfold.” 

In September 2023, American Girl launched its latest flagship retail location in Los Angeles’ premier shopping destination, Westfield Century City. Here, the All Dolled Up Salon comes to life for girls and their doll counterparts. The location also boasts the American Girl Café (with seatings for lunch, brunch and teatime) and the Berry Bar, which offers sweet treats to-go. 

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The location was thoughtfully curated to appeal to new generations of fans and fans of the past. 

“We are seeing a lot of millennials and Gen Z coming in and wanting to recreate their childhood experiences, so we put nods to some of the historical elements of the brand DNA and legacy into the stores,” says Cygielman. “For example, in the café on the second level, all the banquettes are upholstered in patterns and prints from the original six dolls’ dresses – it’s just magnificent! It’s also highly Instagrammable, which is great too.” 

American Girl and Licensing

While American Girl is a proprietary brand, it has continued to connect with customers through licensing and collaboration activities. 

“We are a proprietary retailer, and that is a bit unique, but we also do look at opportunities to expand our footprint where it’s appropriate with like-minded partners,” says Cygielman. “Certainly, partnering with other brands has been a way to open up and build our customer base with borrowed equity.” 

Partnerships for American Girl include with children’s clothing retailer, Janie and Jack, which has paired with the brand multiple times over recent years; clothing brand, Love Shack Fancy, for a range of doll, girls’ and women’s apparel; Warner Bros. for a multiyear partnership for Harry Potter-inspired doll apparel and accessories; Cloudco Entertainment for doll apparel and accessories; the NFL for a range of branded doll apparel and others. 

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And for American Girl, whose doll ranges are deeply rooted in the magic and storytelling of special eras in time, licensing can help further solidify the experience. “Brands are so intertwined with that sense of nostalgia,” says Cygielman. “To tell the full story, it makes so much sense to marry brands with our own. It helps increase authenticity, which we pride ourselves on. It’s important to have some of that detail from the era, and bringing in licenses provides that.” 

American Girl is currently launching its biggest partnership yet with Disney for a special range of collectible dolls. In February, the Disney and American Girl collection debuted in American Girl retail locations and on AmericanGirl.com and with the first three core dolls that include Disney Princess characters – Ariel, Tiana and Cinderella. The collection also includes highly detailed outfits and several pieces of special accessories.

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“American Girl is strongly rooted in storytelling and inspirational characters, two key pillars of the Disney legacy, making this collaboration a natural fit,” says Rob Michaelis, vice president, North America brand commercialization, hardlines and consumables, Disney. “Their commitment to creating smart, confident and courageous heroines provides their fans with a sense of empowerment that resonates with Disney fans, young and old. The collection will allow fans of both brands to be able to bring a little bit of Disney magic into their own life, inspiring them to take charge of their own destinies, much like our Disney Princess characters.” 

Continued Expansion 

With Mattel behind the brand, the sky’s the limit for American Girl. Next, the dolls will make their way to the silver screen on the heels of that other Mattel doll success (Barbie). 

Produced by Mattel Films, Paramount Pictures, Temple Hill Entertainment and from writer, Lindsey Anderson Beer, “American Girl” will be a live-action film based on the doll range. 

“We have a couple of announcements regarding other collaborations that we’ll be doing coming up, both inside our store and also into other retailers, so that’ll be very exciting,” says Cygielman. “And then the other piece that is incredibly exciting is in early December we announced our new entertainment partnership with Paramount for the feature film. We’re very excited about it. That will bring a whole host of new activations for us across retail, our website and the whole omni experience.”

The article was taken from March's issue of License Global. Read the issue in full here.

About the Author(s)

Amanda Cioletti

Vice President, Content and Strategy, Informa Markets Global Licensing Group

Amanda Cioletti is the Vice President, Content and Strategy, for Informa Markets' licensing group.

Cioletti has more than two decades of experience in the business of news and publishing, and 13+ years in the licensed consumer products/B2B content space, having spent a bulk of her career nurturing the License Global and Global Licensing Group at Informa brands.

When not writing, reading or researching the many verticals that encompass the wonderful world of licensing, Cioletti spends her time with her family and friends in the wilds of Colorado.

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