The Tween Machine

She is influential and already knows more about technology than you ever will. And she has marketers in her sway

Beyond the takeoff of helicopter moms and the advent of the stay-at-home dad, parents in general tend to be more involved with their children’s lives now, altering long-established norms of family life. Says Yarrow: “Before, kids had to fit into the parents’ lifestyle. Now, parents fit their lives around their kids. In many households, lives—social, financial and intellectual—are at a tween level. [As a result], kids get a sense their own judgment is much more valuable and relevant.”

Some 11-year-old at the breakfast table weighing in on everything from where the family should go on vacation (Club Crush Atlantis!) to what’s for dinner tonight (pescatarians rule!) to Mom’s skort (gross!) is not new, but never has that child had more real power in the household—notably financial power.

“We talk about the buying power of the typical American mom or dad and how they make all of the purchasing decisions, but when the kids get to this age, they have a huge influence on what is bought,” says Ana Connery, editorial director for The Parenting Group, publisher of Parenting and Babytalk.

By 2009, tweens had become such a force that the publisher introduced a new edition, Parenting School Years, targeted to their parents. This, as Meredith Corp.’s Family Circle launched the tween-mom blog Momster.

As for traditional media catering to tweens, magazine titles such as Bauer’s J-14 and Twist have become mainstays. And while young-skewing TV series like The CW’s Gossip Girl and The Vampire Diaries aren’t quite age-appropriate for tweens, Disney Channel and Nickelodeon have become wildly popular destinations for the demo, featuring fare like the long-running Nick hit iCarly, starring Miranda Cosgrove, Adweek’s cover girl.

Consumer goods targeting the demo have also exploded, with tween-centric apparel, video games and makeup filling the shelves of brick-and-mortar and virtual stores. Walmart and Target each launched a tween beauty line (geoGirl and Willa, respectively)—a no-brainer when one considers research by NPD Group revealing that girls 8 to 12 nearly doubled their consumption of mascara and eyeliner in just two year’s time.

Chobani yogurt has introduced a variety just for kids, Chobani Champions, supported by a national TV campaign launched this month. On the heels of the seemingly endless, rules-of-grammar-shunning tween offspring of national clothing retailers—Abercrombie Kids, Crewcuts—Mattel announced it is expanding its domain far beyond the Barbie doll, with a girls apparel line slated this fall in chains including Walmart and Kmart.

All the while, legislative efforts to curb the marketing of certain foods to kids has stalled, meaning that the McDonald’s Happy Meal will live to see another day. (Nestlé’s new Girl Scouts-themed Crunch bar might not be so lucky, having already incurred the wrath of health advocates.)

But even as tween-targeted products and businesses proliferate, the issue remains how marketers can most effectively reach a demo that is notoriously hard to pin down and famously savvy when it comes to ad messages.

Tapscott says most of what we know about marketing to the demo is “wrong or is becoming wrong,” explaining that today’s tweens are well on their way to shattering the four P’s of marketing—product, place, price and promotion. “They don’t want product, they want experiences. It’s not just the marketplace or the market space that is important; it’s the intersection between the two.” As for price, “knowledge is power,” and tweens, in the age of Google, already know what everything costs and how to get the best deal.

And when it comes to promotion, “it becomes the dumbest idea ever,” Tapscott adds. “My clients say, ‘We are very customer-focused.’ For these kids, that’s a bad idea. You don’t want to focus on them—you want to engage them.”

Adds Rick Liebling, creative culturist at Y&R, New York, and father of two tween boys: “If you think of culture as a highway that we are all driving down, don’t try to get [tweens] to take an off-ramp and find your brand in the boondocks. [Put your product] right in the middle of the highway. Be right there.”

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