How Potato Head’s half-baked gender overhaul could hurt the brand
Hasbro caused a lot of head-scratching this week with its rollout of a renamed Mr. Potato Head product that no longer included the “mister.”
The news of the gender-neutral toy initially won praise from groups such as GLAAD. But shortly after it was announced Thursday at the toymaker’s investor day, the company appeared to backtrack, noting that Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head would remain on toy shelves but be joined by a “Create your Potato Head Family” gender-neutral kit. All would live under the Potato Head, rather than the “Mr. Potato Head” brand umbrella.
Media, consumers on social media, and late-night talk show hosts were all confused about the back-and-forth, which included a lighthearted tweet that did not seem to clear things up that much.
When asked for clarity, a spokeswoman for Pawtucket, Rhode Island-based Hasbro issued this statement: “While we’re renaming the Mr. Potato Head brand to Potato Head to better reflect the full line, the iconic Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head characters aren’t going anywhere and will remain Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head. The new product we announced today, Create your Potato Head Family, is a kit that includes enough potatoes and accessories for kids to create all types of families.”
But experts say that such a mix-up could have been avoided from the start with better planning.
“It seems like they didn’t have a fully-baked communication to the outside world about what they’re doing, so we’re all trying to play catchup to what they’re trying to say and do,” says Michael Wilke, a lesbian and gay marketing specialist who is founder of AdRespect.org and a senior US consultant at OutNow.
The matter illustrates how companies must allign their corporate and consumer communications.
Karen Doyne, president of Doyne Strategies, a crisis communications firm, says Hasbro should have anticipated all types of questions and confusion and planned accordingly with a formal announcement, rather than an aside at an investor conference. She noted that many brands misunderstand that investor conferences and calls are often also attended by mainstream media outlets.
“This is definitely a lesson for the formal launch—to tell the story better and more clearly,” she says, noting that “making sure the language and the intent of the announcement was clear to all of [Hasbro’s] audiences would have helped avoid confusion, consumer pushback and even some amount of ridicule.”
Hasbro is not the only company rethinking its branding for today’s modern consumer. In recent months, the brands formerly known as Uncle Ben’s and Aunt Jemima have undergone rebranding in order to distance themselves from racial stereotypes. Several toy and apparel companies are rethinking their gender expressions, in some cases removing in-store signage designating “girl” or “boy” sections. Two years ago, Hasbro rival Mattel debuted a gender-free doll, similar to Potato Head Family, where children can make their own creations without gender assignments.
“The trends have shown us for a while that gender is moving in a new direction,” says Wilke, pointing to a recent poll from Bigeye Agency that found that younger generations believe gender binary is outdated.
“They could be harming themselves with the young consumer groups in that study,” Wilke says. “Millennials and Gen Z are already there, in their minds, if they see a company doing a rollout like this poorly, that doesn’t feel authentic and the brand could suffer.”
The Hasbro spokeswoman did not respond to a request for further comment about any additional clarification or marketing of the new product line, which is expected to launch in the fall.