Jenny Gill was in New York’s Cornell Weill hospital earlier this year for the birth of her son, Jack, when a photographer stopped by to take snapshots of the mother and newborn. The practice is common in hospitals, but what the photographer did next surprised Gill.
“In the middle of taking the pictures, she pulls out this cutely wrapped onesie and says, ‘Oh, here’s a free Disney onesie. We’ll just need your email address,’” Gill recalls. “It weirded me out. I just gave birth, please lay off with the Disney already!”
Disney is unlikely to lay off anytime soon, and neither are the countless other brands in need of dollars. They’re part of a trend—fueled in part by the growth of digital devices—toward aggressively targeting a demographic that didn’t exist, in marketers’ eyes, until recently: infants to 3-year-olds. By getting their logos and iconic characters in front of babies—even those with still-blurry eyesight—they hope to establish brand-name preference before she or he has uttered a word.
Licensed characters, of course, have been plastered on packaged foods, toys, and every piece of clothing and accessory imaginable for decades—some reach back a century. But over the course of the past couple of years something has shifted. Now the strategy of marketing branded goods to tots has ramped up to the point that even high-end fashion brands are jumping in. Designers including Versace, Fendi, and Marc Jacobs have all recently released lines for kids barely walking, and Cynthia Rowley has even come out with designer diapers.
“It’s a segment where, particularly in the luxe category, it’s an attractive target,” says Marty Brochstein, senior vice president at the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association. “People like to dress up their kids and show off their kids. For that luxe brand itself…it’s beginning the relationship with the child.”
There are an awful lot of logos vying for that relationship. This summer, for instance, Maclaren, the stroller company, teamed up with Manhattan-based Dylan’s Candy Store to co-brand a brightly colored $150 stroller. Audi manufactures branded teddy bears.
“[Brands] are going younger and younger all the time,” says Dan Acuff, a former marketing consultant to Hasbro, Mattel, Nestlé, and others. “Babies don’t distinguish between reality and fantasy, so they think, ‘Let’s get them while they’re susceptible.’”
Martin Lindstrom, a brand consultant whose new book, Brandwashed, was released last week, says, “Marketers are getting more and more desperate to generate sales, so we’re slowly moving the ethical lines. When it comes to families, parents are much more influenced by the kids’ and babies’ preferences for brands.” And babies do have preferences. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood reports that by six months, babies are forming mental images of corporate logos and mascots, and that babies request brands as soon as they can speak. Other studies show that by the time an American child is 3 years old, he or she can recognize an average of 100 brand logos.
Texas A&M marketing professor James McNeal calls it the “drool factor.” Put your baby in a bib imprinted with an image of a branded character or in front of a video on a tablet, and voila: brand recognition in the crib.
The free Disney hospital goodie, in fact—a team effort with Our365, a company that sells bedside baby pictures—was no one-off, but an integral facet of Disney Baby, which launched early this year and targets infants in a more focused manner than past efforts. Disney has also been a leader in reaching the young set online and in the fast-growing sector of baby-geared apps. (Disney’s many such downloads include Toy Story Read-Along; Finding Nemo: My Puzzle Book; and Disney Princess Dress Up.) The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which estimates that 14 percent of children under 2 years old spend more than two hours a day with screen media, believes marketers are subtly encouraging parents to soothe fussy babies with cell phone videos and games from sites that also sell a host of baby-targeted goods.