In February of 2021, Hasbro decided to make one of its most iconic and beloved toy lines, Mr. Potato Head, more inclusive and gender-neutral by dropping ‘Mr.” from the brand name. This announcement came at a time when other companies, like Mattel, were looking to expand brands and franchises to build new audiences, some of whom didn’t necessarily identify with the female-male persona, and allow children to play with toys that are simply toys, without a gender bias or identity.
Of course, the toys themselves still have the “Mr.” and “Mrs.” in their title, but the brand needed to reflect the diminishing gender specificity in the toy market. Historically, gender specificity in children’s toys and marketing didn’t make an obvious statement until 1945, when the Sears catalog targeted girls with dolls and homemaking toys. Mr. Potato Head entered the market in 1952 when Hasbro bought it from the original inventor, George Lerner. Toys aimed at boys didn’t start appearing until the 1960s in response to science and building careers primarily staffed by men at the time.
Gender marketing changed again in the 1970s and early 80s where marketing frequently challenged gender types instead of affirming one or the other. This type of inclusivity has a boom and bust cycle, thanks to cultural and political backlash, not to mention socioeconomic response. In recent years, toymaker Mattel has risen to the challenge of inclusivity and created African-American Barbie dolls and American Girl Doll—Logan, the first boy doll they made in 2017, with several more in 2018.
In 2020, Mattel Barbie took a step further by adding dolls with 35 different skin tones, dolls with disabilities, diseases, and careers to create a more inclusive experience and expand their audience. Expanding to address as many audience segments as possible, means toymakers see more revenue than they would have by pushing gendered toys that are less appealing in today’s cultural climate.
Hasbro waited a few years before changing its branding stance on the former Mr. Potato Head brand. What was once supposed to be a lump to put funny faces on became a national crisis of gender identity over children’s creative play without enforced binary sexual stereotypes. Toymakers and advertisers embrace an inclusive marketplace because they see the commercial potential and value of toys that allow children to play with the toy as just a toy—not gender or racial or social affirmation.
Mr. Potato Head is STILL Mr. Potato Head as the product. The brand Potato Head shows Hasbro’s ability to adapt to the ever-changing commercial marketplace that looks beyond gender assignments so that children can play creatively with what it really is—a toy. A child’s imagination can run wild when not worried about gender or political roles.
For example, Barbie released a gender-neutral doll in 2019 as a “doll for everyone,” which other toy companies have already released or are developing more inclusive toys. One of Mattel’s responses to these toys with Generation Alpha (2010-today) is they wanted to play more with something that didn’t dictate gender or race. The children of this age group wanted to create their own story for the toy and reject labels with gender-specific toys.
One of the biggest takeaways from Mr. Potato Head becoming Potato Head is that gendered toys are a very subjective marketing issue. By choosing a gender for a toy, you risk alienating an entire audience and leaving money on the table because that audience won’t play with it. By becoming a modern toy for everyone, more parents and children will embrace the brand and their family of products into an inclusive family that wants their children to play with toys creatively and without fear.
Want to bring more gender inclusivity into your business? Start by watching this Brand Outlaw video featuring Leslie Xia of Millie Magazine?