American Girl: Pharma's New Empathy Model

Pharma and health marketers love to partner with other organizations.

Health-tech startups (especially those with the word “wearable” somewhere in/around their monikers) may be the current flavor of the week, but industry players are happy to align themselves with everyone/everything—patient communities, advocacy groups, each other, you name it. A very real spirit of collaboration pervades the business; the continuing move towards patient-centricity has prompted once provincial-minded entities to worry less about protecting their turf and more about acting in the best interest of their myriad constituencies.

And yet the coolest, most forward-minded and most empathetic health-related collaboration we've heard of in recent months is one that isn't actually a collaboration and was forged independent of traditional industry players. It comes courtesy of American Girl—which, to the best of the collective knowledge of MM&M staffers past and present, has never paraded itself or its products before the FDA.

See also: Google and Sanofi partner in diabetes

In response to years-old requests (both directly from doll owner Anja Busse, 13, and via always super-effective online petitions), the venerable dollmaker started selling an add-on Diabetes Care Kit in January. Priced to move at $24, the kit includes a blood-sugar monitor, a “lancing device” (ix-nay on the eedle-nay), an insulin pump that attaches to the doll's waistband and glucose tablets.

The Diabetes Care Kit represents American Girl's deepest foray into the world of quote-unquote real girls with real health issues. While the company proudly trumpets its goal of creating dolls that are “like” their owners, its previous efforts hadn't touched on a condition like Type 1 diabetes. There had been dolls equipped with hearing aids and add-ons like service dogs, but American Girl hadn't ventured into the realm of chronic conditions.

It goes without saying that this is a great thing—and an approach that makers of toys, tech and other tchotchkes designed for children should rush to emulate. The Diabetes Care Kits aren't likely to enhance American Girl's bottom line in any significant way, yet the flood of press coverage that coincided with the kits' retail debut painted the company as decent and compassionate in a way that few such organizations are. Anyone know another industry that could use that kind of press? We'll give you a few seconds to ponder.

See also: Fit4D expands diabetes program with Healthfirst

None of this is to suggest that pharma organizations should rush to partner with Hasbro, nor proactively negotiate a deal for shelf space at Toys ‘R' Us. Too, it's worth noting that American Girl could eventually suffer some blowback: In the wake of the arrival of the Diabetes Care Kit, a young girl born with a congenital heart defect is lobbying for the company to make available a doll with a heart-surgery scar. Obviously American Girl can't accommodate every request; some of the requesters will feel burned, and the brand will take a hit or two.

Nonetheless, pharma should pay attention to everything about the Diabetes Care Kit and its euphoric reception. Working on projects of this ilk, whether with established entities or startups or child patient groups, could do more to humanize the industry than all its mewling about patient-centricity combined.

Larry Dobrow is senior editor at MM&M.