May 11, 2015 With superheroes crushing box office numbers with Hulk style force and toy merchandisers frantically scrambling to address market demand for sheroes deleted from mass media like an invisibly evil comic book spell, hashtags like #IncludeTheGirls are trumpeting a Herculean reminder that the new era of girls dubbed “Generation K” for Katniss will NOT be dissed and dumped into a sparkle silo of ornamental princess perfection. Time for a market correction indeed. No more dumbing down Merida in Brave, or cranking out cruddy cues with toys with sexualized sameness, girls today want (and deserve) to be superheroes in their own stories…We’re already starting to see positive progress in upending gender stereotypes, and if I were Marvel, Disney, DC Comics, Hasbro, and all the toy giants, I’d sit up and pay close attention to who’s doing it right.
The indie startup that got the superhero toy tenor pitch perfect from the get go?
“IAmElemental” storytelling immediately conveys “You Matter” and bumps up against a culture defining kids before they can even define themselves.
The name alone evokes a superhero shield of confidence and fortitude sorely lacking in the comic book genre of hyper sexualized male fantasy depictions of women, placing girls in charge of their own destiny with character and conviction.
Smart branding statements like “Play with power” and “If you give a girl a different toy, she will tell a different story” signal to me that the IAmElemental founders not only ‘get it’ with full knowledge of the impact of media on the psyche, brain plasticity, and behavioral cues presented to girls creating public health problems with distorted beauty ideals and a limited scope of options for achievement, but are ready to act upon it to reverse these toxic trends.
In their early video lambasting female action figures designed for “adult male collectors” and toys being “decidedly more Hooters than Heroine” I found myself fist-pumping ‘YES!’ cheering their confidence building positioning lines like, “…It’s not about superheroes, it’s about superpowers…” and “All the superpowers we could ever want or need are already inside each one of us.” Yes. Yes. And yes.
Cue wild applause.
IAmElemental toys helps kids chart their own moral compass with internal vs external validation and worth, giving children the building blocks to thrive with superpower levels of social emotional learning that will protect and defend to the core.
As children’s identity is shaped and molded with ‘what we put out there’ it’s a clarion call for industry to stop mucking around with complicity in the formation of vapid values and ornamental tropes and start tapping into the hearts and minds of healthier, positive passions creating media…and marketing that matters. I hope the substantive lens of IAmElemental scales far and wide, with or without the help of toy industry giants. Their daunting David and Goliath toy task to break through the pop culture zeitgeist of growing girlpower offerings will be an ‘epic battle’ as they say in the comic books.
Judging by the first look at DC comics foray into immersive worlds, complete with doe-eyed, tiny-waisted sheroes that might as well be a princess posse costumed differently, (we shall see, I’ll be open minded about the “Super Hero Girls” universe slated for fall 2015 with Warner Brothers, Mattel, and DC Entertainment partnering) I’m hoping IAmElemental serves as a ‘go to guide’ for industry and for those of us in pursuit of products with integrity that build multi-layers of depth and imaginative, open play.
May their powerhouse team building ‘character, not characters’ be shielded from the pilfering of IP imitators and mass market madness that fills the shelves with knock offs and lesser beings…It’s time for a market correction, and IAmElemental has the superpowers to lead the way with self-reliant girls trusting their own inner selves to write their own script and tell a markedly different story.
Here’s more from Julie Kerwin, Chief Elemental Officer who slays the core creative questions about the genre and new product development targeting ‘all things girl’…
Amy Jussel in Conversation with Julie Kerwin, “IAmElemental”
Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth:
What’s your take on Marvel creating the first ever all-female Avengers team? How will you differentiate IAmElemental in a marketplace that suddenly seems infused with ‘girlpower’ messages?
Julie Kerwin, IAmElemental: IAmElemental is doing something completely different from Marvel and the other big toy/comic companies. A major component of the IAmElemental concept centers around the fact that we are marketing more than just an action figure, and more than just a movie tie-in.
Rather, we are marketing a message about character and empowerment. We think that kids are far more capable of understanding the idea of power and character than most grown-ups realize.
At the same time, we believe magic and fantasy are important part of the power of play and, so, we have also taken care to give each figure its own superpower to draw upon.
For instance, Bravery has the ability to create a protective force field around herself and others, Honesty can make others tell the truth, Energy has the ability to control electrical impulses, and Persistence can push through any object with super strength.
Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: Your quadrupled goal earned with Kickstarter success to create a non-sexualized, body positive, empowering toy seems to signal a ‘tipping point’ of market demand…Do you see your brand scaling beyond the online arena and indie collectives to breakthrough barriers in the mass market retail space with big box traction like ToysRus, Target, Amazon & such? If so, what is the biggest barrier to entry and how can your fans help?
Julie Kerwin, IAmElemental: Because IAmElemental has made story creation a central fixture of the brand, we don’t have the typical movie/television tie-in capability that the big toy companies have made a marketing priority over the last two decades. However, as the numerous emails we’ve already received from enthusiastic, story-creating fans (both young and old) have also proven, there are lots of new stories just waiting to be told.
IAmElemental hopes to raise the next generation of Superhero storytellers: girls and boys who may one day turn their imaginative play into careers where they re-imagine the Superhero myth. I truly believe that we can and will compete to change the cultural zeitgeist by staying true to our message.
Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: How has 3D printing impacted the toy business collectively, and your figurines specifically?
Where do you see the maker movement conundrum of ‘printing toys’ and IP issues intersecting?
Where does the size as a smallish action figure vs ‘fashion doll’ fit into the toy sphere and how did you choose same?
Julie Kerwin, IAmElemental: 3D printing has been a significant help to IAmElemental in terms of product development. One of the most challenging aspects of the design was to create athletic, healthy female bodies with a distinguishable amount of articulation points at this scale. Being able to print a rough sculpt using a 3D printer has been a tremendous aid in testing and confirming functional advanced articulation points. Seeing the actual product in a high resolution print is always better than reviewing it through a computer screen.
As for the design of the actual figure with regard to the breast-to-hip ratio, you kind of know it when you see it. We were looking for a figure that was female in form – it doesn’t serve anyone well if it’s not identifiably female – while being sensitive to the troubling aspects that are very common in the industry. It took a while to get things “just right,” but we are very happy with the outcome.
We went with the traditional four inch action figure size of most Star Wars figures, and it has surprised me how much people are clamoring for bigger figures. Our Core Power Figure Series – the first will arrive in stores in the fall – is a 6.5 inch figure, but the Elements of Power will remain four inches.
Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: Amidst the new DC ‘superhero girls’ coming in Fall ’15, do you see ‘room to grow’ amidst the dominance of Mattel & Lego clout? And how will you tell your story with the rollout?
Will it take “Courage” to launch your “core power, courage” this fall, using your unique points of differentiation (inspired by historical muse/Joan of Arc) and tethered to character traits and social emotional learning amidst a sea of “me too” girlpower bandwagoning? (I have my own personal reservations in their execution, as the visuals already look like sexualized sameness to me and the Mattel and Lego respective Monster High/Lego Friends fandangos have disappointed us all greatly)
Also, now that Mattel is teaming with Quirky, the crowdsourcing pitch hub for amateur inventors in search of the next big hit, would you ever pair up to scale your big ideas faster?
Julie Kerwin, IAmElemental: We are going in a very different direction than DC/Mattel. As you so astutely point out, their initial image (disappointingly) seems like more of the same. I definitely subscribe to the “rising tide carries all ships” philosophy, so I welcome them to the party. I definitely see plenty of “room to grow” alongside the big boys. Because we are a privately funded company, strategic partnerships are going to play a very important role in the development of the IAmElemental universe.
Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: LOVE your tagline “If you give a girl a different toy, she will tell a different story.™ and know you see ‘crossover’ between gendered play as IAmElemental is a message CLEARLY not ‘just for girls’ (akin to the way DocMcStuffins created change by cyclebreaking stereotypes) Where do you see toy productization going from a trend-tracking standpoint? What are your goals and dreams for the line?
Julie Kerwin, IAmElemental: I have a lot of concerns about the way that toys are marketed to girls but, as I see it, the biggest issue is the way that the media’s overt and persistent hyper-sexualization of the female has invaded the children’s advertising arena in the past few years.
As a parent, I am concerned about the research that shows that portraying women in the media and, by extension, the toy world in an unrealistic way negatively affects the way that girls perceive themselves, can lead to lower self-esteem and body-image problems, affect social behavior, and even discourage young women from entering certain professions. So, IAmElemental set out to do something about it.
As the mother of two boys, I think that it is equally important that boys have the opportunity to play with a strong, powerful healthy image of a female action figure as it is for girls. How can we hope to promote the notion of gender equality if we only teach girls what it means to be a powerful woman?
Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: Who are your primary customers and how will you be expand to secondary markets?
I notice you now have a kids’ page with a creation area, activities, and facts on real life heroes…Are you targeting educator distribution (Scholastic, science and STEM play stores, discovery museums, maker communities) or other alternative distribution systems, catalogs, organizations with your online site?
Julie Kerwin, IAmElemental: Our first group of customers were parents buying for their children. They responded to the message about choice in play. Next, we were embraced by women who liked the healthier breast to hip ratio, and the message of female empowerment. Our third group came as a bit of a surprise…
When we went live on Kickstarter, the collector community embraced us and supported us. They reached out to tell us that they liked what we were doing, and to offer us their words of support and advice. They responded to the fact that we spent as much time designing and engineering the figures as we did developing our concept.
A few other customers that we hadn’t anticipated showed up as well. We have a growing number of educators and play therapists using our figures for both learning and therapeutic purposes. And after we were named one of Time Magazine’s Top 25 Inventions Of 2014, grandparents – mostly grandfathers – started placing orders as well.
I love that our message is resonating with a generation of men who came of age at a much different time, and that they are often the ones putting power in the hands of their granddaughters!
Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth: Thank you for your time, Julie…As one who has crusaded for a massive market shift to change the channel of media influence toward positive, productive pursuits, I am absolutely smitten by your vision, execution and widespread opportunities to turn this tanker around, starting with the toy aisle. Good luck!
“Courage”…Coming fall 2015:
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