Of kids, dolls and branding: A holiday tale for our times

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"Uncle randy," my 11-year-old niece said to me the other day, "I know what I want to be when I grow up. I want to be a brand."

I was taken aback. "But Elana," I replied, "don't you want to be a ballerina?" She gave me a jaundiced look. "Or a fireman?" She glared. "A fireperson, then?"

"No," she insisted. "I want to be a brand. For Hanukkah, I want you to make me a brand."

I was gratified she thought I had such power, but did my best to dissuade her. Elana is young and impressionable. She has no idea how difficult it is to be a brand. The long hours, the practice, the intense scrutiny. The need to be in a dozen places at once. It can be exhilarating but the disappointments can be profound, too debilitating for a mere child.

"How about I get you a Mattel Millennium Princess Barbie for your doll collection?" I asked. She was unmoved. "Why build someone else's brand when I can devote resources to elevating my own?"

I could see she had a point.

Truth be told, my niece was succumbing to peer pressure. At her elementary school, kids were turning into brands, courtesy of indulgent parents. It apparently started when one little boy, having received a digital camera and Photoshop software for his birthday, began gluing labels with his name and face onto every cereal box in his house. Pretty soon, all his little pals were pestering their Moms and Dads to buy them Fred Flakes and Fred Krispies. This forced local merchants to cut a deal with the kid to stock the stuff.

It was a textbook example of the power of pull marketing, and the lesson was not lost on the budding capitalists in his fifth grade class (two or three of whom already had their own day-trading accounts, and thus understood how strong branding contributed to high price/earnings ratios).

The clamor for personal branding built from there. Several of Elana's friends were hosting Internet talk shows; most had their own magazines. One, a third grader named Jennifer, had sued another Jennifer in the second grade for trademark infringement. Elana had long reveled in the fact that she was the only Elana she knew. Now she worried that if she didn't protect her brand immediately, an unscrupulous junior high school student might register it and charge her an astronomical sum to reclaim it.

But my brother and sister-in-law are pretty orthodox. No branding, they told her, until after you're Bat Mitzvahed. Knowing her oldest uncle was an easy mark, she turned to me.

It was the hardest assignment I ever faced. I could talk a good game about branding. But what did I really know about doing it? I was as shocked as anyone when Elana's cousin, my five-year-old nephew Dylan Rothenberg, put an exclamation point after his name and was thereafter able to charge 7% more than before for his "Dylan!" lemonade. Even in winter.

I had to prove to my niece I wasn't too old to get with the program. At first, I thought the answer lay in PR. I called an old pal in the industry who had recently rechristened his firm, Sidney Falco Public Relations, as Sidney Falco Reputation Management. Sid said he could get Elana an item in the Elliott column. While the price -- $12,000 a month -- seemed a bit steep for a Hanukkah gift, I was willing to pay it. But then Sid demanded equity in Elana. I had to draw the line.

I then phoned L. Tate. I knew L. when he called himself Larry and he ran McMann & Tate, a packaged-goods ad agency. But Larry had canned McMann, moved downtown, shortened his first name and was now listing himself as Tate Brand Marketing Partners. That sounded promising until his secretary informed me that L. was now designing Web sites for Fortune 500 clients and would not accept any job below $1.7 million -- and an equity stake.

I was stymied. I returned to my niece to confess my failure. "I'm sorry, Elana, I . . ."

"Uncle Randy!" she cried. "What a wonderful present!"

I was, to say the least, puzzled. "What present?" I asked.

"You called me "E-Lana," my darling niece responded. "Now, that's a brand for today!"

Mr. Rothenberg can be reached at randallf@echonyc.com.

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