The Girl Scout cookie phenomenon - it's got positivity, simplicity; oh yes, and Supreme-like drops. Crowd DNA New York’s Hollie Jones checks out a business model which brands can learn contemporary lessons from...

As an English (wo)man in New York, though admittedly for almost a decade, I’ve enjoyed a long time fascination with the Girl Scout cookie phenomenon. For those not familiar, in 1917, Girl Scouts in Muskogee, Oklahoma, began fundraising for their troop by selling homemade cookies in a school cafeteria. Girl Scout troops around the country continued the tradition, and they rose in popularity until commercial bakers started making cookies for the Girl Scouts to sell. More than 100 years later, Girl Scouts are still going door-to-door, selling cookies as part of a thriving business, raising roughly 800 million dollars a year (and topping the sales of Oreos).   

Tis once again the season, and this year it has been difficult to avoid the hype. My social media apps have been filled with friends desperately seeking ‘the plug.’ Those lucky enough to have an in with a Girl Scout troop proudly display their cookie bounties on their stories and thus demonstrate their social superiority. Our co-working space neighbors put their much-coveted cookie prizes on display in their glass window– in full vision where they remained until decimated; their cookies a prize too good to be shared.

Just in case you wanted to look at some more cookies...
Just in case you wanted to look at some more cookies...

But how did we get here? Like any enthusiastic cultural strategist, I leaned on trusty pop culture sources – looking to film, television and literature to establish my world view on scouting in the US. My takeaway? A perception of scouting that is hardly complimentary. Pop culture taught me that scouting comes with a stigma. It is a social pariah, demonstrated best by the gawky, immature Boy Scout and the mean, manipulative Girl Scout that are both common tropes in film, television and literature.

Take Russell of Disney/Pixar’s Up – an overweight boy never seen without his Wilderness Explorer uniform and merit badges. There’s Sam Shakusky, the protagonist of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom – a bed wetting outcast with an obsession for the outdoors. Nickelodeon’s The Mighty B presents Bessie – an ambitious (read-obsessed) Girl Scout never seen without her uniform and Penny, her clumsy, obese and taffy-obsessed best friend. Even Ross from Friends falls victim to a manipulative Girl Scout, who beats him in a cookie selling contest by giving her uniform to her much older sister.

In spite of this reputation, Girl Scout cookies are a pop culture phenomenon and a marker of social prestige. The cookies are the subject of memes, they have a hashtag on Twitter, they made an infamous appearance at the 2016 Academy Awards Ceremony and Jennifer Garner took to Instagram to advertise her own plug. Even Cardi B is in on it, retweeting Girl Scout Kiki’s remix of her single ‘Money’ to almost five million followers.

What can we learn from the success of the Girl Scout cookie? And what lessons can other brands, struggling, or looking to overcome a dowdy reputation, leverage to find a route to recovery?

MIRRORING HYPE MODELS

In many ways, the Girl Scout cookie trade mirrors the model upon which many hype brands place their success. Particularly in the New York City area, where Girl Scout cookie stands are nowhere to be seen, the model emulates the ‘drop’, where scarcity and social media hype supercharge the traditional supply and demand model. Getting your hands on a box of Samoas is almost as exciting as being first in line for the latest Supreme drop. And just like hype brands, this new model fuels a lucrative resale market. When seeking out our very own Girl Scout cookies (for research purposes, obviously) we found budding entrepreneurs selling boxes on eBay for more than double the price.

SIMPLICITY

Beyond hype culture, Girl Scout cookies appeal to much broader consumer values. In a market where consumers are often faced with a paradox of choice when it comes to products, and are overwhelmed by technology and being always on, simplicity is always valued. Links to scout culture represent simplicity, release, and a flashback to times that were simple. The packaging is uncomplicated, and ultimately, they are just cookies – humble and nostalgic, reminding many of childhood, pure and simple.

POSITIVE AMERICANA

In a tense political time, where the idea of being ‘American’ is used by competing political sides as both a badge of honor and an insult, scouting has unquestionably positive links to America and American culture. The Girl Scout cookie is beloved, an American treasure with integrity that cannot be challenged.

SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY

Social responsibility and championing women are non-negotiable for today’s consumer. As well as being a female-led organisation, Girl Scout values are focused on doing good and driving change. The purchase of Girl Scout cookies are a mode by which consumers can express civic mindfulness, supporting entrepreneurialism, worthy causes and female empowerment with each purchase.

A staple of American pop culture, and sold for over 100 years, it’s perhaps surprising how well Girl Scout cookies fit into the modern, hype-driven model of brands and products. We think it serves as a lesson – that you don’t have to be in fashion or tech to be culturally relevant.