Girl Scouts Is Modernizing, Rebranding Itself as Membership Falls

Rhema Jones, left, and Yaqseana Cotton work on art projects as part of a Girl Scouts young-leaders program at Drew Elementary School in Washington.
Rhema Jones, left, and Yaqseana Cotton work on art projects as part of a Girl Scouts young-leaders program at Drew Elementary School in Washington. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 2, 2009

Long associated with images of dorky vests and singalongs around the campfire, the 97-year-old Girl Scouts of the USA is trying to become cool. Or at least cooler.

With enrollment dropping sharply, the organization is experimenting with a total makeover of the Girl Scout experience.

What's in: books and blogs written in girls' voices on topics such as environmental awareness and engineering; troops led by college students; videoconferencing with scouts in other countries.

What's out: textbook-style lessons on the value of helping others; shunning the Internet; moms as troop leaders for teenagers.

Thin Mints are not in jeopardy, but -- OMG! -- badges will be de-emphasized.

"We took a step back and asked, 'What do girls need from us right now?' " said Eileen Doyle, the Girl Scouts' senior vice president of program development. "There is consistency in our goals throughout our history, but we can maintain that while being fun, edgy and challenging for modern-day girls."

Last year, the Girl Scouts hired its first-ever brand manager, Laurel Richie, a former senior partner at advertising powerhouse Ogilvy & Mather who oversaw campaigns for Campbell's soup and American Express. Richie said the group's image was stuck in an earlier era, the main reason for a more than 8 percent decline in membership, to 2.5 million, during the past 10 years. The organization has faced a particular struggle attempting to attract urban and minority girls.

"It's no different from preparing an ad campaign for a classic brand that needs a bit of a facelift to show that it's still relevant," Richie said.

The Girl Scouts is not alone among social groups with its declining membership trend. The Boy Scouts, which has lost members since its peak in the 1980s, has worked to balance traditional camping and knot-tying with robotics and other 21st-century pursuits. Adult organizations such as Rotary clubs and Elks lodges also have lost members.

But few have gone as far as the Girl Scouts in attempting to keep up with the times.

"The rise of a vibrant coed youth culture after World War II meant single-sex organizations felt a little old-fashioned even back then," said Susan A. Miller, a University of Pennsylvania historian who has written a book about the rise of girls' organizations. "It would be silly for them to try to run counter to the dominant culture that girls are embedded in."

The biggest change is last year's debut of Journeys, a pilot curriculum that will mostly replace the system of earning badges on specific topics. Girls still will be able to earn badges if they want, but Journeys rarely mentions them, focusing instead on broader themes, including teamwork and healthy living. Rather than scouts earning a badge for cooking a single nutritious meal, for example, the books emphasize fruits and vegetables whenever food is mentioned.

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