Snap It, Girlfriend!: Kodak tries to make a lasting impression with tween girls

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"Britney Spears, typical teen, is getting her nails done and going on about Brad Pitt," begins the story in People Weekly. "`He is, like, the ultimate,' she says, as her manicurist at the Frederic Fekkai salon in Beverly Hills swabs on dark plum Passionee polish..."

A dubious juxtaposition zips right past most readers here. Implicit is that most typical teens not only get their nails done, but do so in effete Rodeo Drive swanketerias. Spears' image is carefully crafted to be that of the girl next door, despite the fact that the girl next door generally doesn't get surgically retrofitted, repress a history of trauma from working for Disney at an early age, or employ a staff of spinmeisters to paint her as the girl next door.

Still, given that somebody must be gobbling up whatever pop-star permutation the music industry happens to be spoon-feeding the Tween Nation, it seems logical for marketers to jump into the media frenzy and proclaim teeny-bopper empathy.

Cue Kodak, as it seeks to speak more softly to the females of Generation Y. In March, the film and camera giant kicked off a two-month, 30-market mall tour by Youngstown - a cute-boy vocal group on Disney's Hollywood Records label.

It's just one part of Kodak's $75 million, five-year commitment to woo girls ages 9 to 15 to its single-use Kodak Max cameras and display its new digital technology. Desperately in need of new users in a photography market rapidly going digital, no doubt Kodak relishes the idea of shuddering tweens in their natural Gallerian environment, getting their pictures snapped with the Youngstown boys and going home with a dreamy keepsake photo churned out of Kodak's digital Picture Maker.

"If you think about the Beatles and that whole cultural phenomenon during the '60s, the Spice Girls and Titanic are latter-day equivalents of that. And they're being driven by this group [of girls]," says Greg Johnson, Kodak's director of U.S. film. "These are people who are going to be defining the 21st century."

Kodak's thing for young things makes sense. According to internal research, tween girls are 50 percent more likely than boys to own a camera. And Kodak also cites a study by Teenage Research Unlimited, which asked kids to name their single most prized possession: amongst hundreds of responses, photographs were cited most often - by 15 percent of girls - followed by pets (13 percent) and clothes (9 percent). Meanwhile, only 4 percent of boys put pix at the top. Asked to list some of the "in" activities in their lives, 90 percent of girls cited "picture taking."

"Among young teens especially, there is a creative energy toward archivism, and the camera is an outlet for that," says Janine Lopiano Misdom, partner at Sputnik, a New York City-based marketing and forecasting firm. "A majority [of tween girls] keep journals. They collect quotes, and maintain bulletin boards online to share their experiences with their friends."

Looking to tap this tween spirit, Kodak sponsored last year's kick-off concert of the Ricky Martin tour at Madison Square Garden, but found it could only leverage the tie-in with event-day signage. So this year it hooked up with Disney for a more top-to-bottom, hands-on promotional sponsorship, "agreeing to share the risk" involved in launching an unknown, says Johnson.

But the risk may lie less in whether Youngstown becomes a hit or not, and more in what kind of longer-term brand message the band can help Kodak deliver to its new target market.

Because as photo-friendly as Gen Y girls might be, between the ages of 9 and 15 they're also at a time of huge personal flux. This makes us wonder at Kodak's attempts to build brand early with this group simply by giving them a klieg-lit external focus on the pop-cultural flavor of the month.

After all, while 10-year-olds may see the boys of Youngstown as hotties, girls in their early teens are already outgrowing such fanzine fodder, trading in latter-day disco hucksters for Buffy and Angel, or Trent Reznor, or Hole. Or they're easing out of the realm of icon-worship and People turf altogether, in favor of more internal actualization, a process in which photography can be a potent tool.

"To focus on the Princess orientation - here's your handsome prince at the mall - it's selling these kids short," says Robert Deutsch, a cognitive anthropologist and consultant at DDB Needham, New York.

"It is in a sense placating them, acting against what I'd think Kodak would want," says Deutsch. "The most common strategy of marketing is to offer up spectacle. Spectacle is a splash, an impulse. More potent is offering a way to use your brand to orient to the mundane, in the sense of the world. If you can help people realize the novelty of themselves as individual, you can apply your brand viscerally in their lives, to enhance loyalty over time."

In fact, even the youngest members of this age group - who may rave over Youngstown this month - face a dynamic social churn in the coming years, in which such Kodak-rendered memories might become simply embarrassing, like that Huey Lewis show you attended at the Five Seasons Center in Cedar Rapids back in 1983.

"I don't know of a 15-year-old who likes Britney Spears or 'NSync anymore," says Lopiano Misdom. "Kodak is going for the flash-in-the-pan instead of a long-term strategy to help nurture this young lady's creativity. Riding a Youngstown is something that make-up companies, shoe companies, everybody's done. And, sure, it will give them a flash, maybe product sampling. So you get it in their hands, but now what? Kodak can really corner this age group if they start focusing on systems to help them in their archiving."

The company might also do well to understand the transient nature of the pop icon among this ADD-stricken market. The thing about the inter-networked, spending-savvy Gen Ys is that they catch on to the shill quickly and at an earlier age. And across the spectrum of our hyper-commercial culture, little smacks of a shill more than skinny, Disneyfied white boys trying to sing like the last skinny white boys trying to sing like actual black R&B artists.

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