The Tween Machine

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

Her toys have been relegated to the back of the closet. She knows the lyrics to every Katy Perry and One Direction tune. She finds Charlie the Unicorn hysterical, rates articles on Reddit and pens op-eds for AllyKatzz. She likes Frappuccinos, is already getting into yoga, has her legs waxed (at least according to a New York Times story) and wishes her life had a voiceover, à la Gossip Girl.

She wants to be anything but the age she is, always looking toward the future, is ambitious, opinionated, influential—and knows more about technology than you ever will.

She is 9 years old. She is a tween.

The 20 million boys and girls in this country aged 8 to 12 (code name: Generation Z) are the new power players of consumerism. Calculations vary according to the assorted ways tweens are defined (some say they’re 9 to 12, others 10 to 12), but one estimate has kids aged 8 to 12 spending $30 billion of their own money annually and influencing another $150 billion of their parents’ spending.

It’s little wonder that marketers are paying so much attention to them, devoting an estimated $17 billion a year to get in front of their shorter-than-a-tweet attention spans.

With 41 percent of kids 6 to 12 putting Apple’s iPad at the top of their Christmas lists this past season, per Nielsen, this is a group of digital natives who are on the cutting edge not only of technology but also media, trends, brands—and everything in between.

“This is the first time in human history when children are an authority on something important,” contends Don Tapscott, author of Grown Up Digital and Macrowikinomics: New Solutions for a Connected Planet. “Today, the 11-year-old is an authority on this digital revolution, which is changing business, commerce, government, entertainment—every institution in society.”

Decked out in their Hollister hoodies, these littlest consumers increasingly are sitting in the driver’s seat, and taking the rest of us along for the ride.

“Tween” may be a relatively new term, yet everyone reading this was one once. So how did this particular group of pre-teens become so influential, and exactly how are they so different from the generations before them?

“We know for sure that tweens have a different cognitive structure—they need more stimulation,” explains Kit Yarrow, consumer psychologist at Golden Gate University and co-author of Gen BuY: How Tweens, Teens and Twenty-Somethings Are Revolutionizing Retail. “Things have to be faster and more exciting in order to entice them.”

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.”

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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