Doll-driven learning for your brand


It’s the anthropologist’s task to catch glimmers of insight amongst the everyday, or the extraordinary in the ordinary. An ethnographic mindset is really all about opening yourself up to rethinking what you thought you already knew. And my cogs turned one weekend when, at a family do, I spotted an older lady playing with a set of children’s dolls.

Uncomfortable with her granddaughters playing with oversexualised toys, this creative grandmother had given them a make-under. She proudly showed off how she’d stripped off their over-the-top makeup, re-painted their faces, and knitted new outfits, all in a bid to give them an altogether more wholesome look. This granny literally hacked a bunch of Bratz to be in line with her own values.

As it turns out, she’s not alone. I discovered that there’s an international community of older women who share before and after doll photos online, and even sell them.  In essence, Bratz has an unacknowledged, untargeted, audience of angry women who actually shop their brand, but put it to new and unexpected use.

The feminist motivations for the Bratz make-under reminded me of another toy that fell from favour and lost huge sales volume as new generations of mothers saw the brand and its products as superficial and oversexualised. As well as unrepresentative of real body shapes and out of step with modern diversity. Barbie wasn’t considered empowering – at worst she was oppressive. However, her founding story actually takes us back to another everyday consumer hack that inspired innovation. 

The tale goes that Barbie founder Ruth Handler was watching her daughter and friends at play. At the time, dolls were usually designed as children or babies. However, Ruth noticed that these girls weren’t at all babying their toys but actually pretending they were adults. They reframed the intended use of these dolls and imagined new scenarios for themselves, such as being cheerleaders at high school, students at college, office workers. Mundane, observational ethnography lead Handler to an insight – through play, a girl could project into her future self. Ruth shared that with her husband, the founder of the Mattel toy company, and her idea was to invent the first doll in an adult body, one that would facilitate the way young girls actually played with dolls. It would be a symbol of freedom and possibility for young women.

Bratz and Barbie bring home the power of ethnography as part of our research toolkit to reveal the surprising and inspiring in everyday product interaction.  

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz said, “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun”. What are those webs of significance that your consumers are spinning for themselves? How do consumers already re-appropriate your products and messages to create new or more powerful meaning, beyond the one the brand prescribes today? 

Granny hacked her granddaughter’s tarty Bratz. Ruth Handler’s daughter hacked her baby dolls. Bepanthen Nappy Rash cream found use in tattoo parlours on newly inked, sensitive skin. Lucozade, conceived as a diarrhea replenishment drink, was imbibed by sportsmen to rehydrate. Many people love breakfast cereal, at dinner time. Odd, everyday behaviours are actually examples of consumers crying out for our attention. They represent opportunity. And right under our noses may be where the clues lie to the next best innovation, communications or brand strategies. 

At Thinktank we believe in discursive methods but we also love to discover the unexpected in the mundane through live observation of the consumer’s world, be it online or face-to-face. We’ve been there in teenagers’ bedrooms in Jeddah, DIY stores in Warsaw, petrol stations in Chendung and kitchens in Cologne and Sutton Coldfield. Our ethnographic mindset has helped us to reveal behaviours that have given birth to surprising new ideas. You could call them brand or product make-overs, if you like.

Vanessa Lea is Senior Research Manager at Thinktank International Research