Forming the Lottie Doll Company
Arklu the name of the company that makes Lottie Dolls was incorporated in December 2010 by Lucie Follet and myself Ian Harkin, (the name taken from a mix of our names). When looking to buy gifts for extended family members we didn’t feel comfortable buying any of the doll options available in stores, some seemed adult themed in nature, some over sexualised, some were horror/vampire themed, all of which we thought were inappropriate for kids. When speaking to friends the word "wholesome doll" seemed to be what was repeating most as something people desired but was not available.
Addressing Skinny Dolls
When we started doing desktop research, we discovered academic publications which linked the harm caused by playing with skinny dolls to kids developing body image issues. Inspired by an article written in The Times in 2006 which quoted expert Dr Margaret Ashwell who was then head of the British Nutrition Foundation, we decided to get in touch and ask for help. Dr Ashwell provided us with a number of contacts that were focused in the field from child psychologists to play experts and included Professor David McCarthy from the London Metropolitan University.
History of Dolls & Choosing a Small Doll
In researching the history of commercially manufactured dolls we discovered that over 60 years ago the average age of the doll user was 12 years of age and a 12-year-old aspired to be like their mother so since then dolls have been primarily based on adults, adult occupations, adult body shapes and adult themes. The average age now was 5 to 6 years of age from the research we performed through questionaries. We decided to base Lottie on a 9-year-old child, i.e. the aspirational age of a 6 year old.
Lottie was developed with some core values and principles, relating to the issue of body image and a positive take on childhood. Lottie is first and foremost a child of nine with a child-like body. Prof McCarthy’s research on the prevention and treatment of childhood obesity informed our design of Lottie. We worked with Prof McCarthy and Dr. Margaret Ashwell to create a doll body that is realistic and based on the actual proportions of those of a nine-year-old child. We spent months sampling the doll body with Prof McCarthy to produce the specific dimensions to create a scaled doll body (with the exception of the head) that reflects the childlike body. The doll is designed on the average proportions of a 9-year-old child, there are other dolls that have sub brands that are based on kids, but they are not developed with average proportions. Other brands have evolved and developed different body shapes, but they still remain unachievable and not representative of the human form.
Other doll brands since have addressed body image and the problems that it causes. Shortly after the launch of Lottie, a doll brand called Lammily was launched, which received huge media coverage in the USA and a further 3 or 4 years later Barbie addressed the issue and launched their own range to address different body shapes in 2016. However the issue remains and 95% of the dolls available in stores today would still be considered skinny, given all of the research available it is extremely disappointing to see Ultra Thin dolls still being offered.
Prof McCarthy’s work together with Dr Ashwell’s and a number of academics since has highlighted how playing with a disproportionate doll body can leave kids with body image issues later in life, now people have choices where before they did not.
Expert Feedback on Launching Lottie
I welcome this venture which will enable parents to provide their kids with dolls created with positive body image in mind, and the message that it’s not all about looks.
Jo Swinson MP
Co-founder of the Campaign for Body Confidence
It's great to see a doll for this age range who is appropriate in terms of body shape and clothing, and who looks active and fun!
Nicky Hutchinson and Chris Calland
Authors of “Body Image in the Primary School”
I applaud the celebration of ‘childhood’ and the associated activity and creativity which ‘Lottie’ dolls provide; so often this stage is seen as an uninteresting and there is too much pressure to hurry into glamour and sexualisation. It is time we valued girls and their true interests again and ‘Lottie’ dolls and their accessories allow an attractive focus for this satisfying type of play.
Dr Brenda Todd
Senior Lecturer - Developmental Psychology
City University London
I love this healthy, fun, doll option that fits so nicely with child developmental interests and needs.
Dr Jennifer Shewmaker
Assistant Professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University and leading US campaigner against premature sexualisation
Toy Retailers Challenges with Stereotypes
As part of our research we contacted large toy retailers, we noticed they had pink girls’ aisles and blue boy aisles, with female buyers for the girl’s section and male for the boys with very gender stereo typed play patterns. We contacted them and asked for advice on what gaps were in our market and how might we make a success of our doll brand. They all said the same thing, our doll needed to be 12 inches in height, it needed to be blister packed and shout out all of the features on the packaging, we needed to follow the colour styles that were popular (saccharine pink), we basically needed to look like all of the other dolls that had gone before. We choose to ignore all of their advice and follow what our research was saying, what parent and kids wanted.
In August when we launched, we approached the large toy retailers and were knocked back they didn’t want to take the risk on Lottie. Without orders from large retailers we struggled to get either investor interest or bank funding, we believed in what we were doing so we choose instead to invest our life savings to fund production. We managed to get a significant amount of press coverage, it all started with a piece in The Guardian, Dove Soap then ran it on their social channels and engagement online rocketed, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Irish Times, Forbes Magazine, The Huffington Post and The Daily Mail all did pieces in 2012, the upshot of which was that we were contacted by a lot of independent retailers from around the world, 95% of which were female owned.
Initially we sent our product from the UK taking a hit on the postage but fortunately a few months later we appointed distributors right around the world who now do all of that work for us. We now have 20 distributors covering 35 countries for us, online is also a key market for us selling direct from our store and on amazon.
Sustainability in Toys
We developed Lottie as a premium doll, we wanted her to be an heirloom, something passed from generation to generation. In choosing the size we opted for a more portable doll that had a smaller environmental footprint. Where possible we choose natural cottons as opposed to synthetic, when most dolls were going down the digital printed route with minimal stitching etc we went the opposite directed and added more attention to detail. We try to use tactile fabrics, do contrast colour stitching and we inner line and provide detail which costs more but hopefully adds to the play value and appreciation of the doll.
In our packaging of our dolls we use as little blister packing as possible, we change our plastic to a recyclable plastic and removed the wire ties, in 2018 we changed the windows and blister to recyclable plastic and in 2021 we are removing all plastic from our outfit packs and are looking at how we can do this too in our doll packs.
We hope to develop knitting patterns and cutter guides for Lottie for people to create their own outfits for the dolls and nothing pleases us more than seeing people create playsets from recycled goods at home. There is already a community online that shares with us their own creations, seeing people taking the time, being creative, learning how to stitch or knit and taking great pride is hugely rewarding to see.
The current craze of collectible dolls that have perfumes, unwrapping layers of plastic and leaving the child with a doll so small it has minimal play value does not sit well. Who hasn’t had that feeling on Christmas day or on a birthday when they clear all the packaging or ever a few days later when they no longer play with that toy because it's designed for the unboxing experience or a single role play value. One of the great things about dolls is that they inspire imaginative play through role playing meaning the play value is limitless when compared to a toy that has 5 minutes of entertainment so we wont be venturing down that route.
As Lottie is based on a child we made a conscious decision not to make our playsets too domesticated and instead focus on fun outdoor activities. We choose a smaller doll so that not just that the doll would have a smaller footprint but also that invariably their playsets would too. We choose to make as much of our playsets from wood as is possible in each scenario.
We choose to make our packaging giftable almost multipurpose with less plastic and with a handle. We did not shout out the features on the packaging or the number of components, instead we let people discover after purchase.
Our hair is a Saran Nylon as kids complained of hair knotting, Saran Nylon is actually a tube, so it does not knot as easily a point that was raised by kids when we interviewed them before starting Lottie. For our Kid Activist doll we must have spent two or three years trying to get it right, in China not too many people have ever seen curly hair so trying to explain how to get a curl that can hold was extremely difficult, we used a different type of Nylon and having spent so long on developing it we’re pretty happy with how it turned out.
When we started Lottie one of the first things we did was develop a brand guideline book, we looked at empowering role models, books that Lucie used to love to read as a child. Books that stood out included Ann of Green Gables, Little Women, Pippa Longstocking, Nancy Drew etc. We used these as inspiration for Lottie's character.
Lottie can literally stand on her own two feet, getting that weighting and rigidity rigidity was important to us, it may seem minor but it took us quite a bit of time, to us it was a subliminal empowerment message.
On our packaging we had a medal using the suffrage colours again its not something that was ever picked up or mentioned elsewhere but a little point that mattered to us.
In 2013 we developed a School Days Doll and partnered with the Girls Leadership Alliance in the USA who developed Leadership Tips for girls which are inserted in cards in the box.
In our 2014 we ran a worldwide competition with Brave Girls Alliance to design a superhero outfit for Lottie, with almost 3,000 entries we chose 6 year old Lilly from Kirtland, Ohio, USA. In 2014 there was a real lack of female superhero cartoons or movies, some of the entries were amazing but Lilly's was standout.
On our facebook page we promote content daily on historical biographies of famous females, we host all of these on our website in our Kids Activities section under "Strong Women".
One of my personal favourite dolls to date is a doll inspired by Mari Copeny called Kid Activist, Mari has been campaigning and raising money for years now trying to address the water quality issue in her home town of Flint in Michigan.
Since day one our team has been at least 50% female and from our original Creative Director Lucie to Isla and now Sofia our brand positioning and development has been largely down to them. Our graphic designers, illustrators and product developers have evolved our brand guidelines and products developed whilst remaining consistent to where we started out in 2012. Starting a toy company in Donegal where there hasn't been a toy company for a number of decades meant we trained everyone up from scratch. Seeing some of our team members leave and set up businesses on their own is one of greatest rewards I get from running a business. The team have been amazing and no more so in 2020 when our office closed because of COVID and everyone worked from home.
In 2013, our second year, we developed a Hispanic doll called Butterfly Protector which taught kids about the lifecycle of a butterfly in the cards that came with the doll, we also provided online educational content on migrating butterflies.
We also wanted to create a STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Maths) doll and part of our research we came across a video on Youtube of a 5 year old making a robot from a cardboard box, Robbie the Robot was made by an enthusiastic girl called Allie Webber. We partnered with Allie and developed Robot Girl and a small accessory robot called Buzy Lizzie. On our website we provided content by two robotics experts called Erin Kennedy and Cathy Ceceri, award winning author of “Robotics’.
In 2017 Allie was named by Teen Vogue as 21 under 21, in 2018 she won the Global Paradigm Challenge Division 2 (ages 9-13) and was recognised by 3M and Discovery as one of the top 10 scientists in the country for a design of a spirometer which she has now received a patent for. Allie is now a presenter on Myth Busters Junior and has her own channel on youtube called Technic Allie Speaking.
In 2015 we were contacted by a mom from Canada who wrote us an amazing letter thanking us for bring Lottie to market, she had been looking for a doll and had been unable to find something she was comfortable with. We called her and from that conversation we learned that her daughter was a huge fan of astronomy and space travel. Together we developed Stargazer and in a partnership with the European Space Agency our doll accompanied British Astronaut Sir Tim Peake to the International Space Station, the doll went up in a Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo ship and returned in a Space X Dragon Cargo ship after spending 265 days in space.
Womens Engineering Society
Each year during Engineers week which is held the first week of November Lottie visits up to 200 workplaces in the UK for a week where people bring her to work and take photos with Lottie throughout the week showing kids what their normal week of works entails. It's a fun engaging way of showing career options available by sharing on twitter, instagram and Linkedin using the Hastag #WESLottieTour.
Construction Industry Federation
In 2018 we did a program in Ireland with the Construction Industry Federation where we aimed to raise the profile of women and LTBTQ community working in the construction industry under the campaign hastag #BuildingEquality. It received national TV and print coverage as well as significant social media interaction from all of the main construction companies and providers in Ireland.
This is Lottie who just completed a runway inspection on the new overlay project. We welcomed Lottie to the daa Engineering team as part of the CIF Building Equality Initiative which encourages girls to consider a career in engineering & construction. #CIF #LottieTour pic.twitter.com/udVoaY98n6— Dublin Airport (@DublinAirport) July 27, 2018
STEM Education in Schools
Dr Niamh Shaw was another amazing person we met through Inspirefest and has been a huge advocate of ours bringing Stargazer Lottie with her on her mission. In schools we provide Niamh with worksheets and content to provide a fun and engaging program which she delivers to students on astronomy and space exploration. Niamh hopes one day to one day soon do some space travel of her own and has recently moved to Salzburg Austria to further her goals.
One year ago today, I did this: https://t.co/OIjJSFJtyd my first #zerogravity experience in a parabolic flight-terrifying, exhilarating & utterly unique. Covered in bruises & exhausted afterwards, all I wanted to do was go back up for more! #niamhwenttoStarCity #getniamhtospace pic.twitter.com/31ZqwmVOTZ— Dr. Niamh Shaw 🪐🌎☘️ (@Dr_Niamh_Shaw) August 14, 2018
Toy of The Year Awards
To date Lottie has won 39 international awards, including 6 highly prestigious Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Platinum Awards
Moving the business to Donegal, Ireland
Having started the business in London from our Kitchen tables it came to the point where we needed to scale up, because we didn’t have forward orders from retailers we again needed to front up with the risk funding, in Ireland we were fortunate to receive matching investment from Enterprise Ireland a state funded body in 2014 in two stages. Lucie remortgaged her home and I sold mine to fund the move. We created a number of jobs in an area that was badly affected from the economic crash in 2008, an employment blackspot, where over 24% of the working population were unemployed.
At the point of the second tranche of investment Lucie decided to set up her own business in London, I repaid her loan and she remains a shareholder in the business to this day.
In Donegal there is a history in making dolls going back almost 100 years, Crolly dolls were manufactured in Donegal and exported right around the world, it would be great to be be able to return production to Ireland but at present we rely on our friends in the far east to manage production for us.
Donegal is on the North West coast of Ireland and is rich in history in fabric production, design, its arts, music and performers. It was voted the Coolest place on the Planet by National Geographic Traveller Magazine in 2017.
In 2019 we did a campaign working with some of the amazing designers and fabric makers here highlighting their creativity by designing an outfit for Lottie. That was an incredible buzz for me, travelling around seeing their production facilities and hearing their stories and the pride they have in their brands.
At Lottie we are proud of our #Donegal roots, as part of #DonegalConnect we've partnered with our local designers and makers with some one off pieces for Lottie and Finn which we will showcase over the next 10 days! #LoveDonegal #WearingIrish pic.twitter.com/WHFdbMhG1L— Lottie (@Lottie_dolls) September 27, 2019
In our second year, we launched a boy doll called Finn (named after my local football team), we returned to Prof McCarthy for the measurements for a boy aged nine. It was discovered that the proportions were virtually identical to a girl aged nine, which meant that we did not have to tool up a second doll body which saved us significantly in tooling costs. By using the same doll body we were able to address gender stereotypes as the clothes would fit either doll. We changed the naming of our outfit and accessory packs from Lottie to ‘Lottie and Finn’.
We decided we wanted to address gender stereotypes and to do this it wasn’t just about empowering girls we wanted to show that boys too could play with dolls. In boys’ toys, all of the action figure dolls all had unachievable body shapes too and were focused on toxic masculinity of violence and aggression. For our boy doll we wanted to do the activities and adventures that boys actually do.
Over 50 dolls have been developed to date. We now have an Indian, an African American and a Latino/Mediterranean dolls in our range, we are working on Asian doll at the moment too.
Dolls Diverse In Ability
In 2016 journalist Rebecca Atkinson appeared on the BBC making a call out to toy manufactures to develop toys with more inclusion for people with disabilities. We responded to Rebecca’s request and developed a doll with a cochlear implant called Mia The Wildlife Photographer. We don’t say on the packaging that the doll has a cochlear implant, we let the buyer discover after purchase and inside the pack there is a leaflet describing what a cochlear implant is, we want all kids to have diverse dolls in their range and to learn about differences, whilst its important that kids can buy dolls that look like them its also important that all kids have dolls that don’t look like them and that they can learn about differences.
Each year we develop a range of bald dolls for a children’s cancer charity in Scotland called Its Good To Give, we have an Autism and ADHD focused doll, a doll with a cochlear implant and a small person doll, this year we are working on a type 21 Down Syndrome doll.
Ethical Standards and Compliance
All of the factories that we work with are audited annually by ICTI (International Council of Toy Industries) both in a structured format and in unannounced visits. We also test our products for toy Testing Standards in Europe, Canada and the USA (EN71, ASTM, CPSC, Prop 65 etc), in some countries our dolls are also tested by our distributors where they have additional requirements. From day one we only use tier 1 testing laboratories (Intertek/SGS etc).
At our first trade show we were approached by one of, if not the biggest fastfood retailers in the USA about a marketing partnership because of the press coverage we had received a few months beforehand when we had launched. It's something that would have put us in over 18,000 fast food retail outlets in the USA and opened doors to retailers, we turned down the offer because it didn't fit with our values and some of the research we discovered on childhood obesity levels. It would have been a game changer but also selling ourselves out in one deal.
Developing Empathy through Playing with Dolls
It’s important for all kids to play with dolls with differences, so they can ask questions and play with them, that I guess was my gut feel when we started working with Rebecca from Toy Like Me. Rebecca put me in touch with Dr Sian Jones from Queen Margaret’s University in Edinburgh (Senior Lecturer in the Psychology, Sociology and Education Division and a full member of the Centre for Applied Social Sciences). We were able to prove that playing with dolls with difference helps develop empathy in kids. In January 2019 UNESCO published a report saying that in the last 30 days 30% of all kids have been bullied and 60% of all bullying happens because of visible differences. Developing empathy in kids at a young age before society and culture influences kids has never been more important.
Inspirefest (now called Future Human)
I came across an advert advertising what was then the 1st ever Inspirefest festival in Dublin Ireland. It was a festival unlike any other I had ever attended and each year we provided all of the speakers at the event with a goodie bag from Lottie. One of the speakers at the first event was filmmaker Elena Rossini who is best known for her film project is The Illusionists, a feature-length documentary about the marketing of unattainable beauty ideals around the world. Elena posted on twitter post the event and i contacted her and since then Elena has made most of our videos for Lottie. Through Inspirefest I have made so many friends for life and people who have influenced and inspired me on this journey.
One such person was Sinead Burke, Sinead is one of the most amazing people I have ever met, we met at Inspirefest and from there we planned to launch the worlds first small person doll inspired by Sinead. What i have learnt from Sinead is the importance of inclusive design and how it's such a win/win for everyone, inclusive design isn't just for the 1% that relate to it or need it the most, everyone benefits from it, retro fitting is great but why not spend time at the beginning and have inclusive design from the start.
Best Selling Dolls
We aim to do a broad range of dolls, the traditional best sellers in the doll category are dolls in big dresses, ballerina dolls, or pony riding, we have these in our range but we also do inventors, pirates, football players, builders, fossil hunters etc. We are still a small family owned company with limited resources but with unlimited imagination. Annually we invest in projects that we know will not deliver a return, we don't have the comfort of getting pre orders from big retailers and a lot of our lines aren't picked up by distributors so we generally take the full risk and cost or the projects don't happen. Unfortunately we are not able to everything we want to do but each year we are chipping away at it.
As I mentioned we have a huge support in independent retail, its one of the things i love most about this industry, at the shows you get to meet the retailers at each show, familiar faces as passionate about your product as you are. In the USA there is a toy Association called ASTRA and their annual fair is one of the highlights of the year for me, its the social aspect of meeting people, attending discussions, meeting for coffee or in the evenings at one of the many organised events. We sell to around 3000 independent toy retailers around the world and id say Ive met at least a third of them.
Where to Next
The attrition rate of doll brands is extremely high 90%+ of them don't make it past 24 months so we are extremely grateful to everyone who have helped us since our launch in 2012 (and to the advisors before our launch). We want to stay true to our values and concentrate on each value annually in terms of product development and content. We have lots to do and improvements to make in each area, we like to think that we listen and appreciate feedback whether good or bad. It would be great one day to be able to compete with some of the bigger brands, word of mouth has got us to where we are so far, thanks again to our team and you all for your support in achieving that, onwards and upwards!
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- Tags: Ian Harkin