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June 2001 Volume 7 Version 4


Tapping Effectively Into Teens & Tweens In The Marketplace

By Deborah Austin

Marketers are rushing to tap the fast-growing purchase power of teenage consumers -- and of "tweens," who are just on the brink of their teen years.

But if ever the principles of Marketing 101 applied, they are especially crucial here. Neglect fact-finding, listening, testing and follow-up, and you'd be better off not even trying to reach this savvy, cynical, evolving-at-light-speed market.

"It doesn't matter how much money you have; if you don't use it to find out what your target audience wants, they won't care," said Isabel Walcott, founder/president of e-magazine/catalog SmartGirl.com which targets 12-to-17-year-old girls and conducts market research.

"People talk about the huge spending power, the impact of consumer dollars from this demographic," said Sid Good, president of Good Marketing Inc. which specializes in kid-focused marketing. "But the reality is, not only are these young people earning more money and getting more access to money; there are more choices for them -- more products or services specifically targeted to them...So you have to be different, you have to be intrusive. You have to be that much more unique relative to all the other messages they're getting."

The spending power is indeed impressive.

Aggregate spending by U.S. tweens will reach nearly $41 billion in 2005 -- a jump of 33.3% over tween expenditures in the year 2000 -- estimates market research report company Packaged Facts in its recent report "The U.S. Tweens Market."

While the population of 8- to 11-year-old "younger tweens" is expected to decrease over the next five years, Packaged Facts forecasts that direct spending by this segment will grow to $14.6 billion by 2005, cumulative growth of 23.1%. Families will spend $68.5 billion all told on these younger tweens, up from $55.7 billion in 2000.

For older 12- to 14-year-old tweens, both population and spending are expected to grow. Yearly expenditures by these tweens themselves are projected to reach about $26.4 billion in 2005, up 39.7% from year-2000, says Packaged Facts. And their families' aggregate spending upon them is projected to grow 37.1%, to $6.43 billion.

Today's teens -- the leading edge of "Generation Y," as demographers prefer to call them -- already constitute a bigger market than the baby boom, USA Today has reported, citing research firm Yankelovich Partners: 77.6 million born since 1979, versus 76.8 million born between 1946 and 1964.

The 12-19 age bracket will grow from today's 31 million to a historic high of 35 million by 2010, says market research firm Teenage Research Unlimited. And teens have an average weekly expendable income of $94, says the firm; they represented a $122 billion market last year in direct expenditures, and are expected to spend $141 billion this year.

But those numbers are just the beginning, said Greg Livingston, executive vice president of WonderGroup, an advertising, product development and consulting firm specializing in youth markets. Tweens and teens have an increasing say in parents' purchases for the entire family as well. This influence ranges from color and model of vehicle purchased -- "kids know what cup holders are in it, and which model has a flip-top mobile VCR unit" -- to family vacations: "Shall we go to the beach or the mountains?"

Add this to the direct spending on tweens -- as well as their own expenditures -- and their total spending influence can reach $260 billion, calculates WonderGroup. For teens it's even higher, said Livingston. Savvy manufacturers are noting this influence and capitalizing on it, he said.

And then there's the future: another compelling reason to reach the teens-and-tweens age groups now.

While teenagers comprise a large chunk of Burton Snowboards' business -- about one-third -- the manufacturer also is ramping up efforts toward the 12-and-under group, which now totals about 8% of its business. Not just because it's a growth market in itself, with more and more kids getting into the sport; these kids are potential long-term customers throughout their lives.

"It's an opportunity to start a relationship through the teen years," said David Schriber, Burton's vice president of marketing. What's more, "there's good statistical evidence to show that the younger you start [with such sports], the more avid you remain later in life....It becomes part of your lifestyle.

"That 8% will show up again in their 30s and 40s as the only people left still doing it."

Cognitive Development

If you want to market successfully to teens and tweens, the first thing to understand is that you DON'T understand the way they see the world.

"As long as kids are in the process of developing and becoming, they are going to be driven and influenced by forces and factors that are different from those affecting adult behavior and decision-making," said Julie Halpin, CEO of The Geppetto Group, a kid and teen advertising agency. "If you are a marketer, you can't assume that a teenager will look at your product with the same eyes as an adult."

One helpful metaphor is to think about ethnic marketing, she said. "If someone is going to market something in the Outback of Australia, you wouldn't presume to run the same commercial as you would on 'E.R.' (in the US). You would go study the market and culture, to understand what motivates people."

One way to understand teen/tween culture is to study the normal developmental stages of kids moving from childhood to adulthood. Because teens' and tweens' minds are in a different stage of development from those of younger kids and adults, they will perceive messages and priorities differently.

Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget observed and categorized such stages of development. They are referenced in the book "The Great Tween Buying Machine: Marketing to Today's Tweens" scheduled for release by WonderGroup this year.

"We feel they still hold true today," said Livingston.

Kids from birth to age two are in the "sensory motor intelligence" stage, where they start to link symbols with products. In this phase, he said, "you basically talk to the mom" when marketing.

Two-to-seven-year-olds progress into the "pre-operational thought" stage, in which "everything is fairly egocentric: how it relates to me. They don't have any capability for abstract thought." So, marketers would do well to keep their message slapstick and straightforward, focusing on a single aspect of the product or service. "They can't make imaginative leaps in communication."

With tweens, aged about eight to 12, you move into the "concrete operations" stage.

Here, "kids can classify and prioritize. They have the capability for logic, for understanding...why something may be better or more valuable." These tweens may be able to outwit younger kids at trading games such as Pokemon because they understand this concept of value.

"They become very peer oriented, but they're really still not totally conceptual," said Livingston. "They can't make big, abstract leaps. If you put a blue ball (in a magazine ad) and said, 'This can be your world if you wear this cologne; you'll be in a state of euphoria,' they wouldn't get any of that."

WonderGroup categorizes eight-to-10-year-olds as "emerging tweens" and 11-to-12-year-olds as "transitioning teens."

"Transitioning is where they've developed stronger logical capabilities and start to look toward teens and young adults -- but they don't really want to be one yet...They'll look to teens for cues, but they still like being a kid, too."

When reaching the teenage years, kids tend to become egocentric again -- but in an inner-perspective way, Livingston said. They live in their bedrooms, coming out to socialize once in awhile. "They go to a level of friendships different from tweens...The teenagers go into a bonding relationship, while tween friendships are mostly focused on fun. With teenagers, fun also is a big part -- but there's also the whole sharing of experience, of the challenges of turning into an adult."

The developmental work of childhood is "to learn the rules of the human race,..trying to figure out how to coexist with these creatures," said Halpin.

Then, when people reach their teens and have most of that figured out, "I put my attention on developing me -- and how is that different from the clan? Teens' development work is about the search for identity."

And tweens?

"Tweens really have a foot in both worlds, and that's why tween behavior is so seemingly contradictory," said Halpin. "We call the tween years 'between a rock and a hard place': between the rock of childhood -- the certainty and familiarity -- and the hard place of becoming an adolescent, the unknown, the risk taking.

"For those reasons, marketing approaches must differ with each target group.

"The older kids -- teens for instance -- respond much better to understatement," she said. "The younger ones love hyperbole -- big exploding mountains.

"Teens have discovered marketing as a cool, under-the-radar thing only they know about. So you can construct (your marketing approach) that way, as opposed to a big prime-time marketing campaign that doesn't feel like it's just for them."

In marketing to young kids, "it has to be fun; there has to be a 'wow,'" said Good. "When you move to teens and tweens, clearly these elements still need to be in place -- but in a different way. They are making their own decisions, almost defiantly so. They're clearly brand conscious, but not necessarily brand loyal. Therefore, it's important for marketers to constantly reinforce and remind this consumer group why their product or service is of value -- and worth using again."

Social/Family Factors

While kids' developmental stages have remained fairly timeless, the past few decades have seen huge upheavals in the social, economic and family backdrops which also affect the way they see the world.

Socially, today's young people live in a truly multicultural and global world, said Livingston. "When you do an ad for teens and tweens, they expect it to be multicultural, even if their particular social group is not. They do see themselves in that world."

Economically, they're a generally wealthier group than previous generations. "Obviously we're going through some correction of this at the moment -- but historically as these kids have grown up, it's been a prosperous world. They're very optimistic as opposed to the Gen-Xers (those born between 1965 and 1978). Being rich is actually one of the things they think about."

Tied in with the wealthier economic model is the spending influence teens and tweens have on today's families, Livingston said. There are several sociological reasons for this.

First of all, one-third of all U.S. kids live in a single-parent household. Another one-third live in households with two working parents. And between parents' jobs and kids' activities, both are under an incredible time crunch.

This has served as catalyst for a cultural change in which kids participate much more in family decision-making than in previous generations, Livingston said.

"When I was a kid, my parents would say, 'Let's all hop into the car and go to Ponderosa.' Today you say, 'Do you kids want to go to Burger King, McDonalds et cetera' and the kids make the decision."

And today, he said, play often is purchased rather than developed imaginatively. "You'll buy a Little Tikes castle to put in the backyard instead of making one, so you can begin play instantly."

What Marketers Can Do With This Information

The trick is to apply these insights to your marketing strategy.

One powerhouse approach, said Halpin, is to provide a balance between the timeless and the timely.

"The timeless refers to the internal developmental issues that all kids are going through around the world. Kids in this country, in Asia, kids a hundred years ago and a hundred years from now are all wrestling with learning to express themselves and create relationships. That's the timeless.

"But it's not just that. It's balancing with the timely -- the culture around them -- being relevant and current...There must be a balance between the inside-work of development and the outside-work of culture -- because if the kids think you are out of step, they are not interested."

For example, one reason for the Harry Potter books' success may lie in its presentation of timeless developmental issues such as fitting in with peers and testing of friendship loyalties -- packaged in a way that's new, current, imaginative and fun.

But while timeliness is crucial, said Halpin, putting all your eggs in the fad basket is very risky. "Cool" trends come and go quickly, and most companies can't react that quickly with their marketing strategies.

"The power is in finding that emotional connection...If the brand connects fundamentally to kids, you can ride the waves of 'cool' or 'uncool' more easily."

It's similar to the ups and downs of a good-friend relationship, she said. For example if a teen has formed such a relationship with a clothing retailer, and then a new season's designs seem uncool, "I will forgive it if that brand usually comes through for me: 'It's all right, I'll see what else they've got.'"

The beginning of that relationship lies in understanding teens' and tweens' developmental need to define themselves as separate -- and then offer your product or service in a way that's tailored just for them. If it's perceived as something for the general masses, kids just won't care, said Halpin.

"That's why music has been one of the most powerful part of a teen's life -- because it is so just-for-them. It baffles their parents...and we know from developmental psychology that they have to begin to separate from their parents. Things like music and fashion are places to start."

MTV is another example, said Good. "Young people embraced it as their own...It was intrusive, provocative, and broke the rules. Young people saw it as a channel just for them."

"It's almost a developmental imperative," Halpin said. "They're not being difficult, just growing up. It's very powerful for marketers to understand this."

One brand which has done a good job honing this approach is Delia's, she said. The firm sells tween girls' clothing and accessories via its Web site, retail stores and a direct-mail catalog.

"Think of what it means if something comes in the mail to me and I'm 12 years old. It means the world knows I exist. It's an extremely empowering experience." The catalog design -- which combines product displays with poetry and other readings -- is "just-for-me" as well, Halpin said, because these are activities that tween girls can enjoy together.

Her advice to direct-mail marketers: "Make it more than mail. Make it some sort of activity with an inside-club feeling. Then, these things become precious to them."

Again, it takes balance to establish that just-for-you image, said Good. While avoiding hard-sells and patronizing approaches, you must also be provocative and intrusive. "You've got to shake things up a little bit, in-your-face, kind of break the rules....You're not only establishing a point of difference from other products and services, but also from different demographic groups."

Abercrombie & Fitch is doing a great job of this with its catalog, he said -- combining provocative approaches with magazine-style content that ensures it will be kept around longer than a traditional merchandise-only catalog. Benetton's billboard ads are another example: "Traditional advertising (media), but clearly they've pushed the envelope."

Honesty and good follow-up are crucial building blocks with these target groups, Good said. This holds true not only in truthful marketing of products and in customer service after the sale, but in data collection.

Teens and tweens, with their Internet and consumer savvy, understand that providing data to marketers can yield a payback in tailored products and services, said Good. "They see an ultimate benefit, as long as they 've understood very clearly up-front what the information is being used for, and all the specifics."

While adults are more trusting as consumers, teens and tweens are "a fairly cynical group, so it's important not to give them a reason to be more cynical...Once you've lost the trust -- especially with this demographic -- it's very difficult to get it back."

In fact brand loyalties are much more easily lost with teens and tweens than with adults, said Good. "Because there's a greater interest in exploring new things and trying to be different -- and expressing themselves in a different way -- there's also openness and acceptance to trying new products and services."

Then there's the issue of peer group loyalties, which can throw unexpected twists into the most seamless of marketing plans.

"First and foremost, peer group influence plays a significant role in what kids buy, use and prefer...The (brand) loyalties go out the window if for whatever reason, your peer group decides something is new, different, better," said Good.

"Kids at this stage define themselves by their surroundings -- what they use, what they wear -- and there's a huge influence in how that's perceived by others as well."

These young people also expect -- even demand -- constant innovation in products and messages, Good said.

"Teens' and tweens' ability to be a consumer clearly builds on what they've learned and experienced as youngsters. Give the frame of reference kids have with the toy industry, for example...If you go out and collect everything in the Barbie line in the year 2000, (kids know) the brand continues but new products are introduced in 2001. There's a built-in expectation for even basic products that they're going to change on an ongoing basis."

Importance Of Listening/Testing

"Anyone who knows kids, knows there's nothing worse than trying to be cool and failing," said Halpin. So how to maintain the balance of timeless/timely and keep up with what's cool -- when it's always changing?

Listen, listen and listen, said marketers. And keep listening.

"The main thing is to ask them what they want, and try and make that for them," said Walcott of SmartGirl.com. "That's really the only way to do it. People who try to do something other than that, are just going to fail."

Even though her firm has been doing research on 12-to-17-year-old girls for four-and-a-half years -- and could consider itself an expert, said Walcott -- "There's only one way to be sure: to ask them what they want...Every decision we've made, we've made by asking the girls instead of assuming."

On the plus side, said Halpin, kids love to be heard. On the minus side, "sometimes that means hearing things we don't want to hear. But it's important to listen to what they say, even when you don't like it."

Top-payback listening methods include advisory panels, online polls, more informal setups such as mall walk-arounds, and -- yes -- focus groups, albeit with a few different twists than for adults. A multifaceted listening approach may be best.

Good said he's observed that the companies successfully targeting teens/tweens almost always use advisory panels or some sort of continuous advisory group "just to make sure they're current and on target as far as issues and content they're addressing."

With his own clients, "we don't do anything unless we go through an advisory panel process. They don't make decisions for these businesses, but they raise red flags. We're very good at making assumptions on what we think is best -- but nothing beats talking to the kids directly."

This talk can be done in person or online. "The Internet has created a wonderful medium for very quick and easy ways to reach out to specific target audiences, to get feedback on any type of business. They don't necessarily need to be sitting in the room."

If they are "sitting in the room" -- in focus groups -- researchers should know how teen/tween group dynamics may differ from those of adults.

Some marketers caution that if you use focus groups for these young consumers, they're likely to be swayed by one or two especially vocal members. "One person may state an opinion and everyone agrees," said Halpin. With online research, "there's no peer influence factor."

With younger kids -- such as tweens -- the Geppetto Group uses groups comprised of "friendship pairs" rather than a bunch of strangers, said Halpin. That increases the comfort level for those participating, and they're more likely to express themselves.

Good believes the group dynamic has its advantages, depending on the product or service.

"There are companies who do chats, where the interaction of the respondents is just as valuable as the content of their messages. I think that's also the case for focus groups, or groups done in person...because peer pressure and influence does play a significant role. You can usually get a sense of how a young person feels about this on a personal level, but how that might be influenced by the positive or negative reinforcement of others."

Group settings also help researchers identify "lead players," said Good: young people who are especially proactive and take leadership roles in their peer groups. "Those are the ones establishing the pace and setting the bar" -- and they're very valuable on advisory panels.

When getting feedback from teens and tweens, you also must listen "with different ears" than with adults, said Halpin.

"When teens and kids are talking, you need to pay attention just as much to what they're not saying, as to what they're saying."

For example, you're pitching new product ideas to some kids and they respond, "That's weird." Your first assumption would be that they didn't like something.

"But a good moderator would have the follow-up question: 'Is that good weird or bad weird?' It could be the highest compliment! You can't just take what you hear at face value; you really have to know how to get under the surface."

Furthermore, said Good, you need to make sure you know exactly what kids are responding to. "It might be the way the product looks, the people in the ad, what they're wearing, the music: There are so many different things that do in fact impact the ultimate takeaway that the teen or tween has."

To spot teen/tween trends "at the beginning of the growth curve," said Halpin, her firm often recommends cultural observation techniques such as "mall walk-arounds."

Rather than directly talking to kids, "you watch, you observe: what they're wearing, what they're carrying, what they're looking at in stores, how they're behaving with one another. We have a lot of trend-spotters out there watching."

And hitting the beginning of that curve is crucial to the timely, "cool" part of a marketing strategy, she said -- with the fast-evolving preferences of this demographic.

"The danger of just going on what they say, is that by the time they know what is 'cool' and are telling that to you, it's probably too late to do anything about it."

When dealing with such up-to-the minute issues -- and depending on the product or service you're marketing -- "it's important to gauge how far out you need to be in terms of print ads, TV ads or what-have-you," said Good. "Ultimately, depending on how much the market might change, ... this may impact your choice of when and where you're delivering your message."

Types Of Media

Media choices will depend on products, services and timing.But here are some issues to keep in mind.

The Internet is especially useful with teens and tweens, since they've practically grown up with it. But be aware of differences.

"Girls tend to use the Internet for chat," said Good. "Boys tend to skew a bit more toward game and activity play.

"In light of that, marketers must be very focused, in how and where they advertise (online). And, because it's so segmented, it's also very important that advertising be a bit more intrusive and interactive, and much more compelling. If not, it's easy to walk away."

Event marketing also has become very important for reaching teens and tweens, he said -- at concerts, sporting events, movies, and even in school curricula. And many mainstream magazines have launched teen versions with good success.

If you're looking at TV as a medium, be aware that kids don't see network versus cable in the same way as adults. While today's adults grew up seeing cable TV as something "in addition to" network TV, "from the kids' point of view, cable IS TV. So the networks are no different from the channels you can get on other parts of the system...It's very important that TV advertising be focused on where the kids are."

Radio may emerge as a new national medium for reaching kids as well, said Good -- with the coming advent of XM Satellite Radio Inc. Starting this fall, XM plans to inaugurate its coast-to-coast, digital-quality satellite radio service, with up to 100 channels of music, news, talk, sports, comedy and children's programming. "They'll be doing to radio what cable did to TV," he said.

Then there's direct marketing.

"Any direct marketer, first off, should test the material," said Walcott. But, she said, not many do. "For some reason they feel totally fine spending $300,000 printing things and sending them to girls -- but they don't want to spend $10,000 asking the girls which of these six designs would make them open the envelope." Online polls could accomplish this very speedily and cost-effectively, she said.

More direct mail advice: "Make sure the person they're marketing to, actually is interested in the product they're offering." Sometimes direct marketers are so concerned with getting many names, said Walcott, that they don't find out what their targets really want. "You might do better to have fewer names, but more accurately targeted campaigns."

Say you have a mailing list to a group of girls and you'd like to send them something once a month. "They'll look forward to getting it from you, if they know every time they open that thing it'll be something cool -- chocolate, shoes, stuff they need for school. But if you start putting in no-name-brand pantyhose or five-cents-off coupons for no-name-brand hairspray -- if you train them to think the stuff you send them is garbage -- they'll stop opening it.

"What we've seen girls complain about the most, is when ads come to them for things they're not interested in."

At one time, said Good, direct marketers saw newsletters as a wonderful way to dialogue and stay in contact with teens and tweens. But they've discovered this reality: Once you say you're going to start, you've got to follow through consistently -- and that's especially challenging with this group.

"Whatever you deliver,..it's got to be worth reading, fun, consistent in message, product and content. It's got to be just as much a reflection of your products or services as the actual product or service itself." What's more, today's teens and tweens are just as time-challenged as adults, he said, and may not have time for newsletter reading.

Instead, he said, marketers are using newer choices such as event marketing, which can reach a more targeted audience and don't require such a long-term focus of energy.

Parental Involvement

If kids are more involved today in influencing family decisions, what part do parents play in the kids' decisions? Do you ever market to parents to reach teens and tweens?

Obviously there are some legal, security and privacy issues. For example, by law marketers cannot ask a child under age 12 for his/her name, address or e-mail address. And even when using legally obtained lists, direct marketers must be careful not to get too specific, said Lisa Woodhart, irector of corporate development for AccuData America. "We don't want to do anything to make people feel uncomfortable with the information we do have." (SEE RELATED STORY ON SECURITY/PRIVACY)

But marketers also must consider who holds the purse strings.

"With teens, most people don't market to the parents," said Livingston of WonderGroup. "The teens made the decision whether to drink Mountain Dew or Sprite, what clothes they're going to wear. Parents may work with them on the amount of spending, or veto certain choices that are outside of acceptable range to them. But in the teen years they (the kids) are the primary decision makers."

With tweens, he said, it's "a whole different ball game." In most cases, you still can talk directly to the tween -- "but with the understanding that there is going to be a parent approval. And in this case it's much more stringent than with teenagers."

"As parents we try to influence young people how to make good choices and good decisions," said Good.

"We would like to think that an implied foundation exists, provided by parental influence from years past."

But, "clearly with teens and tweens, this is one of their first opportunities to make decisions on their own."


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