Branded for life?
By the time they hit first grade, most US children are aware of some 200 logos many dangled by firms out to secure their long-term loyalty.
AT AN UPSCALE TOY STORE in Boston's Back Bay, two teenagers scan shelves laden with Barbies and designer dolls. Suddenly, one cluster of figurines attracts their attention. The dolls, each about a foot tall, are childlike, cute, and well-groomed. But their clothing bears a designer label with an adult cachet: Tommy Hilfiger.Skip to next paragraph
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"I didn't know they made toys," says Johanna Scully, a 17-year-old from Franklin, Mass. The plastic figures priced at $65 are decked out in "jet-set outerwear" and navy peacoats. All carry the Hilfiger brand. Johanna calls the label-bearing dolls "strange."
Even though Hilfiger makes kids' clothing, Johanna's friend, Katie Guilfoil, considers it an adult brand. "I don't like the idea of marketing adult names to kids," says Katie, age 16. "They should let kids be kids."
But consumers such as Johanna and Katie may find similar products becoming more common on retail shelves across the country. In toy stores, supermarkets, specialty boutiques, and on the Internet, companies that have historically served adults are attaching their insignia to items that were once the exclusive province of kid culture and kid brands.
In addition to the Hilfiger dolls, products include toy tools from Home Depot; baby clothes, jackets, and toy motorbikes from Harley-Davidson; biographies for children from the Arts & Entertainment channel; and junior golf-club sets from Taylor Made.
Other companies, such as Heinz, have simply renovated their existing products to appeal to a younger audience. (Think green and purple ketchup.) In many cases, these companies just seek to rev up profits in the short term by distinguishing themselves in a crowded market.
But some experts cite an emerging, long-term strategy of putting adult brands into the hands of young children, even babies. Studies show that children begin to recognize product brands at about 18 months. As a result, companies have pushed up the starting line of product promotion in order to make their mark before competitors do.
"A growing number of companies are looking at children as potential adult customers," according to a 2000 edition of Youth Markets Alert, a marketing-industry newsletter. "Companies such as banks, car manufacturers, and hotels are hoping to build relationships with children that will continue throughout adulthood."
The realities of retail economics makes it difficult for marketers to hold back. Spending power among "tweens" (8- to 12-year-olds) has surged, as have the volume and variety of products being offered. With dozens of brands of jeans to choose from, for example, the peddlers of teen fashion are now directing their products to kids in middle school.
Many companies are aiming even younger. Several media groups publish kids' editions of their mainline magazines, including National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, and Time. In 1998, The Arts & Entertainment network launched a series of biographies for children about famous Americans to make kids familiar with the network's program, "Biography".
"What we're trying to do with the books is to get kids more aware of what 'Biography' is, ... to let them know the brand is out there," Jonathan Paisner, then-manager of consumer-product development, told KidScreen magazine.
Some companies, such as McDonalds, have for decades sought to turn kids into life-long customers. New studies about brand consciousness among preschoolers have prompted other firms across the spectrum of businesses to follow suit.
James McNeal, author of "The Kids Market," found that children first relate to brands in infancy. They recognize characters, colors, and symbols. Around age 2, most toddlers might begin asking for products by name.
One year later, children start to evaluate brands, deciding, for example, that one brand of peanut butter is better than another. By the time children enter first grade, they are aware of more than 200 brands, according to Mr. McNeal.
Companies that can include their brands among these 200 are able to secure nearly unshakable customer loyalty.
"To accomplish this covenant, brand marketing must start with children," McNeal says. "Even if the child does not buy the product and will not for many years AT&T services, IBM computers, Sears appliances the marketing must begin in childhood...."
Successful brand-building among children can carry over into adulthood. The Tonka name resonates so powerfully with many adults, for example, that Ford this year rolled out a prototype full-size truck co-branded with the toymaker's name.