Until recently, if you had never heard of Tween Brands Inc., it was because you weren’t a tween. The company’s two clothing labels—Justice and the recently launched Brothers line for boys—are laser-focused at the age 7-14 demo. (If you’re not pestering mom to drive you to the mall, you’re not the target, dude.) But lately the company’s been turning much older heads—those of analysts, for one. Justice  not only posted an 11 percent net sales gain in April, but it’s also outsold even Walmart in the girls’ apparel category for the last two quarters. (That’s no mean feat, considering that the big-box giant has 3,898 stores and Justice has only 920.) And this was after Justice had squashed the mighty Target as the tween-girl apparel fave. How has CEO Michael Rayden managed to woo this much-coveted but equally misunderstood demo? Adweek tracked him down at Tween Brands’ New Albany, Ohio, headquarters and asked.
Adweek: You joined this company in 1996 when The Limited was struggling to sell clothing to youngsters under the brand name Limited Too. What happened?
The Limited Too was a miniature version of the adult Limited store, and I didn’t see that as viable. So I looked for a good positioning for this brand and saw a void in this sort of preteen-but-post-little-girl age. There was an opportunity. I saw it as a kind of little Urban Outfitters for the girl, with appropriate merchandise and an exciting mix of hard and soft goods.
Lots of brands aiming at tweens just scale down their adult clothes, but Justice designs solely for tweens. Why is that important?
Because the last thing a 10- or 12-year-old girl wants is to look like her mom.
But mom’s the one with the purse, so your stores really have to draw both of them inside, right?
Mom is the primary purchaser in our business, yes. But the only reason mom and daughter come into the store is the nag factor of the girl.
So how do you get the girl into your stores? Tell us the formula.
Play is important—they’re still kids. So we encourage them to enjoy and play with the accessories. They need to feel like it’s their little sorority. You also have to appeal to their senses. They love sensory overload—bright colors, music videos, a variety of merchandise, the tumult of all of that. Finally there’s affiliation, the feeling like they belong. They want to feel good about themselves, and we cater to that.
Give me an example of how a mall store can really make a preteen girl feel good about herself.
Say the girl is slightly larger. We don’t separate out the plus sizes and force her to go to a separate section the way other stores do.
You send out what you call a “catazine”—a combination catalog/ magazine. Uh, snail mail still works as preteen marketing?
We mail 14 editions a year—around 75 million of them— and they’re all style guides. Each catazine corresponds with a new fashion set we have arriving, and it shows the girls how everything goes together. Remember, these catalogs are coming just for them; the girl doesn’t get any other mail. So they tend to hold onto it, circle what they like. Often, the girl and her mom will preshop together.
Your Brothers boys line  launched last summer. How’s it doing?
We’ll open our first store-within-a-store on July 11, have 10 stores open [by summer’s end] and 25 open by the holidays.
What’s the big difference between what tween boys and girls want?
Graphic T-shirts are a very important part of a boy’s life.