Stuck in the Middle: Tweens search for Identity

November 14, 2005

Eight to 12-year-olds rely on personal products to help give them a sense of identity on the rocky road between childhood and the teen years.

As any parent of an adolescent will attest, the pre-teen group can be very hard to please. Not yet teens, yet no longer small children, the emerging tween (eight to 12-year-old) group has gained recognition in the past few years, and along with that recognition has come purchasing power.

Unfortunately, this group is not so easy to please—but through no fault of their own. A recent workshop sponsored by Gianettino and Merideth, Short Hills, NJ, pointed out the complex and bewildering changes these youngsters are going through, and how their search for identity impacts their buying choices.

“Today, this group has a lot of money, but they’re still influenced by their parents,” pointed out Francine Lytle, vice president, marketing and strategic services, Gianettino and Merideth. The marketing firm offers workshops that deliver insights into its latest research; “The tween scene—how to connect with 8 to 12- year-olds” was held April 30th at the company’s Short Hills office.

One key to reaching tweens is to keep things simple and at the same fast pace that these ever-changing youngsters live their lives. “Everyone’s mind works the same way,” said Ms. Lytle. “We receive data, we create an understandable design out of it and we get meaning out of it.” This process is automatic, so “as a consumer, if it takes me a long time to go through this hierarchy, I will just walk away,” she said.

Advertising that involves fast-paced images that are relatable can work well for this age group. But this does not undermine the fact that these youngsters are brighter and more savvy than ever, Ms. Lytle said. Meanwhile, their wants and even their alliances are shifting so quickly during this transitioning period that it can in fact be broken down into two sub-categories: the “emerging” group (eight to 10-year-olds) and the “transitioning” group (11 to 12-year- olds).

“A 12-year-old has 50% more life experiences than an eight-year-old,” Ms. Lytle said. Kids on the older end of this scale begin to transfer their emotional ties from parents to peers. “At the age of 11, everything these kids once shared with their parents, they now share with their friends.”

Due to these changes, parents can often feel alienated—and away from the control they previously had over their children’s choices and safety.

This conflict between tweens’ need for independence and their parents’ desire to keep them safely within boundaries makes advertising tricky, but it can be done, according to Ms. Lytle. The key is delivering the message from two different viewpoints: one entirely the tween’s, one the parent’s. Gearing an advertisement toward both at the same time simply will not work, she insisted.

For example, Yoplait’s recent Gogurt commercial featuring a skateboarder roaming through a stylized town and “grossing out” adults was a success with kids, she said, and Pepperidge Farm’s Goldfish Colors crackers was a hit with parents with its images of children playing safely and wearing seatbelts. But the Sunny D (Sunny Delight) “brother and sister fight over drink” spot had a weaker influence as it attempted to joke with children while trying to deliver some semblance of control from the mother’s side.

This doesn’t mean that a product can’t satisfy both children and adults; many can and do, Ms. Lytle said. But marketers need to remain sensitive to the strong wants and impulses that both tweens and parents are experiencing when selecting an advertising campaign.

In the end, most tweens successfully survive this trying time, as do their parents. Understanding the psychology that drives both groups can help marketers tremendously.

“When you’re developing an ad campaign for tweens, tell a story,” she said. “Select the gender and age you want to reach, decide what is motivating the tween in the scenario and describe how it’s achieved.” But do it quickly, in images that can immediately be grasped, she advised.

Not an easy order in a 30-second spot, but with the right tools and enough knowledge of this tricky age group, marketers can experience success.
—Melanie Henson, Associate Editor

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