The Tween Machine

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

In short, today’s tweens demand a more personal, more tactile, truly up-close-and-in-person connection to their favorite brands.

Many marketers are getting it right. To launch Chobani’s new product for kids, agency Leo Burnett, New York, with support from Big Spaceship and Fleishman-Hillard, not only rolled out traditional TV spots and ads in Parenting and People but also kicked off a national, summer-long bus tour making stops at tween events like KidsFest San Diego this month and the Nottingham Kids Triathalon in Baltimore in August. Then, there’s the juggernaut known as Brand Bieber, which this month spawned its namesake’s new album as well as a fragrance dubbed Justin Bieber’s Girlfriend, backed by a $20 million marketing campaign whose centerpiece (naturally) is social media. (Bieber heralded news of the product to his 23 million Twitter followers.)

Call it mastering the art of tween-vertising. Or maybe, un-vertising.

“In this age range, girls don’t want to be hit over the head with advertising or sales messaging,” explains Carl Schwartz, vp, marketing at FashionPlaytes, a website that enables girls to design their own clothes. Girls, Schwartz and his colleagues have found, “don’t care about 20 percent off. But if they can help choose the color of next season’s line, that is unbelievably powerful to them. It makes it more real for them.”

(At least one agency grasps what tweens bring to the table. At the Cannes festival last week, JWT hosted the event Junior Worldmakers, highlighting the work of creative kids from around the globe—including a 12-year-old app designer—and underscoring what grown-up marketers can learn from them.)

There’s no doubting that the economic power and social connectedness of tweens have made them especially valuable to marketers—but the path to these consumers is also a minefield. Tweens have gone beyond nature and nurture to encompass another behavioral element—networking—and the comfort level today’s tween has with technology is unlike that of any previous generation. And yet, mature as they are, these are still just kids. The under-13 set remains barred from Facebook—for now anyway. The social network is reportedly exploring special accounts for tween users—albeit equipped with parental controls. Nonetheless, advocates of Internet safety for kids have their hackles up.

And it’s understandable considering that attempts to curb tweens’ activity online are spotty at best. The Tween Internet Safety Survey, commissioned by Cox Communications in partnership with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, whose results were released this month, reveals that while tween parents are doing a good job setting guidelines and restrictions for their kids’ online usage on home computers, only one in five parents use basic content control features on smartphones, tablets and game consoles.

Try as they might, it would appear adults have precious little hope of separating tweens from their beloved screens. As Tapscott puts it, “My generation surfs the Internet; this generation surfs their reality, and they look [at the world] through their screen.”

And, as Y&R’s Liebling points out, it doesn’t much matter which screen they’re looking at—be it on a television, a smartphone, a laptop, or all of the above. “My older son multi-screens. He’s playing on the Xbox Live with his friends, so it’s a game but also a communications tool. He’s got iPad with him, using it to check additional data on his game-playing or to chat with other friends … and he has his iPhone,” Liebling says.

With their attention pulled in so many directions, this demo is a particularly tough nut for marketers to crack, of course. Chalk it up to that millennial brain, “always looking for the next thing,” Yarrow says. “The word ‘trend’ was good enough 10 years ago. Now we say ‘trending.’ This is the absolute perfect example of how fast things move [for today’s tweens]. We can’t stay on something long enough to actually call it a trend.”

Along the way, the entire notion of a brand—and the consumer’s relationship with the brand—has changed. As Tapscott points out, “You aren’t going to manipulate these kids. You are going to be naked as a company, and you better get buff. If you say you have the best product, it better be the best. For kids, the brand is not an image or a promise—it’s a relationship built on trust.”

The Parenting Group’s Connery agrees. “If they don’t have a relationship [with a product or brand], it doesn’t mean anything to them,” she says. “They are very emotional consumers.”

And, as these are preteens, they can also be an unfocused, fickle lot.

As with generations before them, today’s tweens have a need for acceptance by their peers, but they also possess more independence than their predecessors, according to Yarrow. “They have more confidence in their own opinions,” she says.

In other words, once a tween has made up his mind about something, don’t expect him to stick to it.

Naturally, it is that fluid nature—along with all the other desirable tween traits, most notably their unprecedented economic power—that makes the demo an especially attractive one for marketers. He’s always open to new experiences, easily persuaded.

The flip side, of course, is that he can tire of your brand with lightning speed.

Liebling sees the point of view of your typical tween as: “If you don’t get me, I’ll do my own thing. If you can’t make a video that entertains me, no problem—I’ll make my own.”

And yes, they know how.

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