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Marketing and Tweens


By Alicia de Mesa

Business Week, 10/12/05

Children in their middle years keep evolving into savvier consumers. With the girls' market saturated, brands are looking to boys as well

A tween is vaguely defined as a prepubescent between the ages of 8 to 14, 9 to 12, or 8 to 12, depending on whom you believe. (Some industries, such as the wireless sector, categorize the age as an unbelievable 6 to 12 years old, prompting one to ponder, "in between" what?) Regardless of the exact age definition, most agree that the breaking point of a "child" becoming a "tween" is by the American fifth grade (approximately ten years old), when he/she rejects more childlike images and associations and aspires to be more like a teen.

Contrary to hyped-up industry reports, the economic power of most tweens is dependent on parents and other family adults through allowances and gifts, versus the independent purchasing power of teens through after-school jobs. (360Youth.com puts the teens-with-jobs number at 63 percent.) For as much industry talk as there is about tweens being the decision-maker driving purchases, ultimately it is still the parent in control. Of the reported US$ 51 billion spent by tweens themselves, an additional $170 billion was spent by parents and family members directly for them, according to 360Youth.com, which focuses on youth marketing.

Whether it's the media aging the child or that children are simply evolving faster these days, marketers have been quick to notice that the growing distinctions between childhood ages are pronounced enough to warrant products, services, retail stores and marketing tactics specific to the "bridger" age group. Build-A-Bear, Paint Your Own Pottery, and the American Girl Store are just a few US retail stores that were specifically designed for tweens -- and namely tween girls.

American Girl, based on books, dolls and accessories for girls ages 7 to 11, last year enjoyed a 25 percent increase in sales (as Barbie sales slumped), taking in $379.1 million dollars. Spurred by the success of its New York and Chicago stores, parent company Mattel (MAT ) is creating its third destination shopping store in Los Angeles featuring a whopping 40,000 square feet, including a 150-seat theater for a live Broadway-style "American Girl Revue," hair salon for dolls, bookstore, and a cafe where girls can enjoy tea and lunch with their dolls. Whereas most trips to the toy store can be as inexpensive as a few dollars, starting prices at American Girl are about $79.

Lest you think American Girl is about teen-attitude toting images a la Bratz and other similar brands, American Girl is enjoying its success with dolls and story lines based on various ethnic characters from history, such as Kaya, a Nez Perce from 1764, and Molly, an Irish immigrant growing up during World War II.

Another company that has capitalized on ethnic diversity and navigated the increasingly difficult toy market is the Manhattan Toy Company, with its successful Groovy Girls line of dolls. The unique selling point? Each doll features a girl of different skin tones, hair types and facial features reflecting the real American ethnic landscape of today.

Since its launch in 1998, Groovy Girls dolls and accessories were a category bestseller until 2003 and won "Girl Toy of the Year" and "Specialty Toy of the Year" awards from the Toy Industry Association (TIA) at the 2003 Toy Fair in New York City. With the demise of many specialty toy stores such as Zany Brainy, Noodle Kidoodle, and Store of Knowledge, the dolls were launched in Target ( TGT ) stores in early 2005 to introduce the brand to American tweens en masse.

As the girls tween market becomes saturated, attention is moving more to the boys-only area as a niche to fill. Riot Media is a website-turned-media and toy company that capitalizes on the "gross-out" humor factor that boys so love. Launched this year, Robert Thorne (the Svengali behind catapulting the Olsen twins to billion-dollar heaven) is looking to create a similar dent in the boys market.

Within the plethora of products, there are still areas where parents want direct control, especially in something like wireless phones and services. Kid giants Disney (DIS ) and Nickelodeon are already providing cellphone ringtones and content, while service providers and phone manufacturers such as Verizon (VZ ), Cingular and newcomers Tic Talk and Firefly ("starter" phones designed specifically for keeping kids easily in touch with mom or dad) are investing large dollars to reap even larger rewards. Other new tween phones about to emerge are MyScene Mobile by Mattel and Wherifone, a small start-up company out of the Bay Area, which also features GPS location tracking of the phone and, theoretically, the child. Of the 26 million tweens in 2009, iGillottResearch forecasts that 4 million will be using their own cellphones.

As with any other age group, tweens are saturated with media and Madison Avenue images each day. Given the sheer volume of brands and brand images cast out into the populous, it's hardly surprising that much really grasps the attention of a tween. In-school media boards for advertising, television, viral (a.k.a. buzz) marketing, book covers for textbooks with ads on them, traditional mall intercepts and "Day in the Life" videos and journals are just a sample of tactics used to get a better understanding of the lifestyle of a tween.

Then there are the infamous slumber parties pioneered by market research firm Girls Intelligence Agency as an intimate, if not covert, form of a focus group in tween girls' own environment: their bedrooms. GIA also features a "Best Friends Forever" (BFF) network where girls are given products to discuss among their friends, reporting back resulting comments to a GIA agent. Clients of GIA include Mattel, Disney and Warner Brothers (TWX ).

Not so surprisingly, some parents are finding these new marketing tactics for tweens more than a little Orwellian and, in some cases, are downright disturbed by the child-as-guinea pig approach. In 2004, a public interest group asked the Federal Trade Commission (FCC) to "use its subpoena power to get access to marketer research studies to help determine if online data collection actually succeeds in helping advertisers to reach kids and tweens." It also asked for a moratorium to be placed by the advertising industry on interactive tactics that "could potentially harm or negatively affect children and youth."

PBS also offers a website called "Don't Buy It," chock full of advice on how to make kids intelligent consumers. Features include "advertising tricks," "buying smart -- see through the sales pitch," and "cover model secrets."

The bottom line? Tweens may have a wealth of choices at their fingertips and are more brand finicky than ever, but despite the new marketing and product creation conundrums they present, one thing remains constant. Sociologist Juliet Schor, in her book "Born to Buy," puts it as "Authenticity...staying true to the brand."

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