Hasbro's Baby Alive Turns 50, Representation Defines and Drives Iconic Toy Brand
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Hasbro’s Baby Alive Turns 50, Representation Defines and Drives Iconic Toy Brand

(Courtesy of Hasbro)

A child forms a unique bond with their doll. Dolls offer youngsters a source of comfort and inspiration for imaginative play, but most toys function this way. It’s their job. But dolls, especially “realistic” ones, are more than that — they reflect identity. The connection is personal.

“The first doll is that first hug; it’s where empathy begins. Children need to look at that doll and see a face that looks like them.”

The words belong to Dori Santos, senior director of IP Development and Toy Integration for Hasbro. The creative executive’s passion for representation is one of the primary reasons why the company’s iconic Baby Alive brand will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year with its most expansive and culturally diverse product line to date.

Santos joined Hasbro in 2009 and almost immediately zeroed in on one of the company’s most popular and influential brands. Introduced in 1973, the first Baby Alive was a game changer on multiple levels — a lifelike doll that could eat, drink and go potty, allowing users to simulate infant care with unprecedented specificity and realism. Many will remember those early TV commercials showcasing the moving mouth you could feed and soiled diapers you could change.

Baby Alive was the era’s must-have toy for millions of girls, including millions of girls of color. The inaugural product line included an African American Baby Alive — a timely acknowledgment of the importance of Black consumers and the heightened racial pride and awareness that marked the post-Civil Rights era. Other race-specific Baby Alive models followed, but when Santos joined Hasbro 13 years ago, she felt the brand had not kept pace with a rapidly evolving, increasingly diverse marketplace.

“We are a multi-cultured, multi-faceted population representing many skin tones, eye colors, hairstyles and cultures,” she says. Like other African Americans of her generation, Santos grew up during a time when commercially produced Black dolls were still the exception, and those that were available lacked authenticity or were physiologically inaccurate.

“I knew we could do more.”

(Image: Courtesy)

Santos’ passion and ideas for greater ethnic and racial variation in the Baby Alive brand moved the brand forward towards greater inclusivity. So did the vivid picture she painted of the scale and diversity of its target audience, Generation ALPHA — ages three to five — and the most culturally diverse population ever, not to mention their parents. The latest research confirms that parents are making identity-based buying decisions. A 2019 Adobe survey found that 63 percent of millennials feel their racial/ethnic identities are more important than ever. According to a 2021 Deloitte report on marketing trends, 62 percent of U.S adults say diversity in brand advertising impacts their perception of the brand’s products and services.

Keeley Tobin, Hasbro’s senior global brand and marketing manager, puts it succinctly.

“In today’s business environment, if you’re not doing inclusive marketing, you’re not doing marketing.”

Hasbro committed to a broader, more inclusive vision for Baby Alive, assembling a culturally diverse team of internal creatives and external partners to deliver that vision, including Fredericka McQueen, Hasbro’s vice president of Inclusive Product Design. Fifty years after one Black doll stood in for every non-white consumer, there are 70 distinct and active Baby Alive dolls on the market. Beyond various skin tones and hair types, the brand’s inclusivity extends to different abilities and life circumstances. There’s a Baby Alive that wears glasses, another without hair that a child undergoing cancer therapy might identify and bond with.

“A doll like me” means something specific to every child.

McQueen said the detailed creation of each iteration of Baby Alive represents an engaged collaboration of professionals striving for lifelike authenticity. This process extends from the initial spark of inspiration to the retail shelf.

“There’s more to representation than choosing the color of the materials,” McQueen says.

“Is the skin tone warm and vibrant? How will the product look on the shelf under store lighting? From the facial expression to hair texture, we’re hoping to connect to the child looking at ‘the doll that looks like me.'”

Today, Baby Alive is more than a doll; it’s a global franchise and the number one-selling nurturing doll in the world supported by innovative marketing, including YouTube-streamed animated storytelling content that features baby characters sharing lessons about different cultures and draws 100 million views each month. Phil Johnston, senior copywriter for Left Foot Blue, Hasbro’s internal creative agency, helps craft Baby Alive’s brand and product marketing content.

“Hasbro works like no company I’ve ever worked with,” says Johnston, who is largely responsible for syncing content with the company’s representation goals through storytelling and world building.

“I have the opportunity to be on-set and involved with casting child and adult models of different races, body types and skin tones. I have input on how the campaigns look and other production choices. It’s exciting and rewarding.”

The company’s drive to represent modern, diverse families in its packaging and marketing content extends to the model casting process for Baby Alive. The brand team partners with HumanKind Casting, a woman-owned talent agency that uses social and digital avenues to find authentic faces, abilities and body types that break the traditional mold.

Not lost on Johnston, Santos and Hasbro’s entire development team from design and packaging to branding and marketing and everything in between, is how their work to fill consumer demand for authenticity and representation impacts more than the company’s bottom line. It is opening opportunities for diverse creatives across the industry.

The team is happy with the progress to date, but they’re not done. New doll development continues, as does collaborative brainstorming of ways to better engage consumers.

“The culture is evolving, and our audience will continue to grow more diverse,” Tobin says.

“We want Baby Alive to reflect and represent everyone.”