During a shopping trek with young consumers a few years back, Hasbro researchers noticed the onset of what they considered something of a disturbing trend: Older kids were starting to walk away from the toy aisles, shifting their attention to consumer electronics and fashion goodies.
Rather than take a wait-and-see approach, the venerable toymaker revved up a new Big Kids division catering exclusively to tweens. Before too long, Hasbro had convened ongoing panels in three markets, tapping what Big Kids General Manager Sharon John dubs "alpha tweens" for regular insight.
"We used to ask kids why they liked a product, and they'd answer, `Because it's sparkly,' " Ms. John recalls. "From today's kids and tweens, you get such better feedback. They're extremely honest and articulate."
Hasbro's decision illustrates what many traditionally kid-focused marketers have come to realize: It's no longer possible to lump sub-teens together under the same marketing roof.
Some observers believe there are as many as four distinct under-13 segments: newborns-to-3-year-olds; 3-to-5-year-olds; 5-to-8-year-olds; and 8-to-12-year-olds, now commonly identified as tweens.
8=8 or 11 or 6
Complicating matters further are the psychological variations within each of those segments. "You can find an 8 who's more like an 11, or an 8 who's more like a 6," Ms. John says.
At the same time, younger children and tweens still have more than a bit in common. While experts caution against generalizations among the 12-and-under set, phrases such as "optimistic" and "goal-oriented" pop up in just about every conversation. In research comparing the tweens of 2005 with their 1995 forebears, the Zandl Group found a 31% increase in the number of tweens who say family is "the best thing" in their lives.
This family orientation is echoed in "2005 Tween State of the Union," a study conducted by KidShop, a consultancy founded by veteran adman Paul Kurnit, and KidzEyes, a division of C&R Research. In this study, 61% of 8-to-12-year-olds said "relationships" were "most important to [them] in [their] lives right now"-more specifically, 42% cited "family" relationships vs. 16.7% who cited "friends."
Though it's unfair to brand the young children of decades past as insensitive hooligans, today's youths come off as a decidedly more orderly lot. That shouldn't come entirely as a surprise in the wake of 9/11.
The events of that day are likely only remembered by the oldest tweens, but clearly they had an impact on parents. Children of the 9/11 era have been sheltered more than those who preceded them. Whereas previous generations played pickup games across the wilds of their neighborhoods without a care in the world, today's kids participate in organized activity after organized activity under the perpetual supervision of adults. Marketers, meet your Kids Gone Mild.
Children also face new demands in school as a result of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, which instituted a more stringent regimen of testing and greater accountability in schools. As a result, this generation's students almost certainly will be the most tested in the history of American education.
"Before, [kids] worried about the SAT. Now, they're always on notice," says John Geraci, VP-youth research at Harris Interactive. While this hasn't yet blipped in media-consumption studies, experts expect that it might within the next year or so.
Today's youths enjoy a considerably different relationship with their parents than did their predecessors. "Generation X parents [born starting in 1965] are far hipper than baby boomer parents [born 1946-64]. They're into cool music and wear jeans, and they have a genuine desire to be friends with their kids," says Mr. Kurnit, president of KidShop.
Parents as their BFF
What this means for marketers: A campaign targeting children now must take into account their parental "best friends forever" as well. "It's no longer the mom as gatekeeper and kids as the nag. You have to market to two distinct audiences at the same time," says Dave Watt, publisher of Time Inc.'s Sports Illustrated for Kids. Adds Mr. Geraci: "Parents, kids-frankly, nowadays it's hard to tell who's influencing whom."
Younger kids and tweens share the sense of entitlement that comes with having been fawned over by marketers from Day One. Hence, they don't mind all the advertising funneled in their general direction; in fact, they probably made peace with it before the generation ahead of them did.
Despite this receptivity, marketers still have more than their share of opportunities to wear the dunce's cap. Talking down to kids and tweens has become perhaps the ultimate no-no. After being pelted with marketing content since birth, they know the difference between authentic dialogue and what Zandl Group principal Irma Zandl calls "overwrought tween-speak."
Any campaign that depicts parents and children in outright conflict could prove equally damaging.
"Maybe you can show a kid humorously getting over on his dad, but anything beyond that isn't going to work. Kids and parents today are on the same team," says Greg Livingston, exec VP at youth marketing consultancy WonderGroup.
Today's kids and tweens have grown up in a world with ready access to multifunctional gaming consoles and speedy Internet connections. They don't aspire to cellphone ownership-they know they'll likely have a mobile phone within a few short years, if they don't have one already.
Given this technological empowerment at such an early age, they could well evolve into the most progressive and/or demanding generation of consumers, especially in regard to media preferences.
"My 7-year-old daughter is so used to our [digital video recorder] she only understands the idea that she watches whatever she wants whenever she wants it," says Sarah Stone, VP-marketing at Radio Disney. "She gets confused by traditional radio: `Why can't you play that song I like right now?' "
Then there's the computer and, by extension, the online world. "Kids and tweens know how to shop, and they know how to find things online," Mr. Livingston says. "You watch-this holiday season, lots of fifth- and sixth-graders will hand shopping lists to their parents in a PowerPoint presentation." He says this only half-kiddingly.
Already, many tweens serve as the de facto family chief technology officer. Not only do they get consulted before any major purchase, but they often do the online research, and recently marketers of higher-ticket non-tech items have become more aggressive about courting young'uns.
Kid fun from Toyota
Take Toyota Motors Sales USA, which has touted its Sienna minivan with a brochure made to look like a children's activity book (word searches, etc.) as well as a commercial in which a team of youths runs the vehicle through a series of tests.
"We're appealing to parents by saying, `This is what kids want,' but we're also appealing to kids and their sense of fun," says Toyota spokeswoman Nancy Hubbell, who jokes about being "in denial" that she drives a van.
KidShop's Mr. Kurnit says Toyota is "engendering a partnership between kids who like a product's features, like the DVD in back, and the parents who think it's a sensible choice. It makes all the sense in the world to do so."
Lifecycle population: 52.4 million
As share of U.S. Population: 17.6%
White (Hispanic) 18.7%
White (non-Hispanic 57.2%
Other races 4.8%
Hispanic origin (Includes non-white hispanics) 20.7%
Top Male Name1: Jacob
Top Female Name1: Emily
More info: census.gov; ssa.gov
Sources: Census Bureau population projections for 2006; Social Security Administration (names)