A momentary pause, a look into the middle distance for some kind of recollection, and a brief panic on our end of the Zoom call that the WiFi had dropped out again, and Ian Harkin, co-founder of the Irish doll brand Arklu returns to the question, answerless.
No, as far he recalls – or as far as he is divulging – there never has been a defining moment that set his course to bring inclusivity, gender neutrality, and representation into the toy industry through the Lottie doll brand. For Harkin, it’s always simply been a progression of the doll sector that needed to happen.
“It was a culmination of so much research and developmental studies into the impact of doll play upon children that set us off,” muses Harkin. “It felt obvious to us. If there was a moment, it was that…”
It’s likely down to the Irish brogue with which he speaks, but there’s a general calmness to the conversation as talk covers the obligatory tick boxes before getting into the meatier topics. The coronavirus pandemic has made its presence felt among the Arklu business that, having started the year strong with the launch of ten new dolls, has seen orders fall off a cliff edge across its distribution network.
Hampered by the closure of factories across China from the start of the year until April, followed by the ensuing lockdown of the rest of the world shortly afterwards, it was to be expected that this year’s spreadsheets would be looking vastly different to any before.
“Our distribution business is going to be down significantly this year,” Harkin tells ToyNews. “But we have made up for it in the other 50 per cent of our business revenue, which is from online selling ourselves.”
Dolls it would appear, like board games and many of the other traditional toy categories – provided you have the means of getting them to the consumers – has been one of those sectors to have fared relatively well from the impact of lockdown.
“It’s toys with play value, not the one-off little toys you give as a reward, that have done very well out of this,” Harkin continues. “There’s more thought put into it, and parents are playing with the toys as well when they give them as gifts; and they are putting a lot more thought into what they are buying.”
It’s a phenomenon that’s played to the advantage of the Lottie and Finn dolls portfolio.
This is a portfolio, after all, comprising Stargazer Lottie dolls launched in partnership with the European Space Agency, fossil hunting Lottie play-sets, a kite-flying Finn doll, as well as disability representative characters with cochlear implants; each and every one of them designed to challenge stereotypes and break down entry barriers to the perceived rules of doll play. You don’t get a much more considered purchase than that.
“We started from a position of wanting to deliver core pillars to children’s playtime in child development, empowerment, and inclusivity,” says Harkin. “What lockdown has done is allow parents and families to see first hand how those messages get played out through doll play. They’ve been witness to the value of doll play first hand.”
It was around the time of the Royal Wedding back in 2012 that Arklu sprang onto the scene when it launched a special Kate Middleton doll and Prince William doll. Following the success, the team dove headfirst into eight months of industry research – speaking with development experts and professors – before re-emerging with its boundary-pushing Lottie doll brand.
“We were reading shocking research about children playing with doll brands and developing body issues as a consequence,” says Harkin. “And talking to psychologists studying in this area, we came across a few revelations, down to the matter of sexualisation and gender stereotyping that originated from the mass production of dolls 60 to 70 years ago.
“The average age of the user back then was 12 years of age. And 60 or 70 years ago, that 12 year old child was inspired to be like their mother, so a lot of the characters from the last 60 years have been based on adults.
“But,” says Harkin, “childhood has compressed so much over the years, yet the character age hasn’t really changed. Therefore, you’d end up with five or six years olds dressing or playing with the body shape of a mother.”
It was this that informed Arklu’s pivotal movement to develop its Lottie doll character based on the proportions of a nine year old.
“With that, we were able to get around all of those adult agendas. It gave us the ability to remove ourselves from that and just focus on childhood.”
Fast-forward six or seven years, and the doll sector looks very different to back then. Manufacturers and doll brands have taken leaps forwards in the name of progression and accessibility. Body shapes have been diversified, aspirational play has been modernised, and representation is gradually finding more space on the toy shelves. But still, issues remain to be addressed.
“In 2019 there was a report from UNESCO on bullying among children and students,” says Harkin. “The key stat from the research was that 30 per cent of all kids have been bullied within the last 30 days, worldwide. It analysed what type of bullying occurs and revealed that 60 per cent of that is based upon visual differences.
“That could be cultural, something visual, how people talk, how they walk, just something they are able to see. What we discovered in our own research is that by the time kids are five or six, culture and society actually informs your understanding of ‘difference.’
“So, we thought, If you can reach kids at a younger age, they can develop an understanding themselves, before culture or society tells them that this is the way they should react.”
It’s this kind of responsibility – to help address the statistics by enabling kids to learn empathy through play, specifically through doll play, and even more specifically, through doll play that highlights diversity – that Harkin refuses to shy away from.
“It is really, really powerful and amazing,” he says, “that you can do that through a toy, and quite rewarding that way. That’s why we make the decision, daily, to invest in that.”
And it’s not an investment that comes cheap. While the world is waking up to the messages of inclusivity that Arklu has promoted from the beginning, its Lottie Doll brand still doesn’t have the reassurance of large-scale, nation-wide forward orders with major retailers like Smyths Toys or Argos to take the risk of production out of the company’s hands.
“We have to take it ourselves and hope that we sell it,” says Harkin. “For me, the justification in doing that is that I think that all kids – not just the kids that have perceived differences – should have toys with differences in their toy box, simply because of how it develops empathy. And if developing empathy early on can contribute to less bullying happening, that’s a great impact to make.”
Harkin admits, however, that securing that breakthrough is a frustrating task at times and speaks candidly about the level of the competition in the dolls market. In 2016, Lottie missed out on two Toy of the Year awards to the sector’s market leader, a name that has become synonymous with the market.
“The only way to cut through that is to pay for it yourself,” Harkin explains. “Any innovation is credited pretty much to the market leaders, and because they have become synonymous with the category, you have to pay for that breakthrough.
“But reward comes in different forms. For me, it’s seeing content being sent in with kids celebrating that their ‘doll looks like me,’ when they’ve never had that before. There’s a lot of really good feedback that we get, and that guides you.
“When you get that reception – just from individuals – you just know that you’re going in the right direction. It’s a gut feeling.”