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Babies: The Ultimate Brand Loyalists?

Editor’s note: This entry was first published at Beneath the Brand, a marketing industry blog.

There are a few emerging age groups on which marketers are increasingly doting: 0 to 20 and 12 to 34. If that seems a bit broad, that’s because it is, and intentionally so.

The basis of the American capitalist economy is changing. The Institute for Supply Management recently released its report on the state of the manufacturing industry for the month of July, and the numbers weren’t good: July of 2011 experienced the first contraction in new product orders since June of 2009, although export orders held steady (no doubt indicative of the wavering dollar value). So what does that mean for the American economy, and how is it tied to the marketing industry?

Consumers, in the traditional sense of the word, no longer have much of a demand for manufactured, tangible products, it seems. In a consumer-based economy that hinges on production, how are companies to grow if demand is shrinking? By selling new needs to a new consumer base. And in the pursuit of new customers, companies are shifting their marketing strategies to target a younger and younger demographic. First, “youth marketing” was the buzzword. Then, it was fine-tuned to the “tweens.” Now, newborns are the new base.

While children must have mastered basic language and verbal skills in order to communicate their preferences, research indicates that language is not necessary in order to form those preferences. Even as early as 1998, Norma Pecora wrote in her The Business of Children’s Entertainment ┬áthat “as we move into the 21st century, children are well-trained consumers able to associate Ronald McDonald with good things before they have learned the language.”

The C-levels at Disney must have read Pecora’s book, because in January, 580 American maternity hospitals opened their doors to company representatives that visit new mothers with a welcome present for the infant: the Disney Cuddly Bodysuit. The cozy, adorable bodysuits — often donning famous Disney protagonists — are complimentary, so long as Mom is willing to sign up for e-mail updates from DisneyBaby.com, the new corporate initiative.

“Apparel is only a beachhead,” Andy Mooney, chairman of Disney Consumer Products, told the New York Times. Disney Baby also offers nursery, on-the-go and meal-time products. Mooney is also working on a loyalty program that incorporates soon-to-be as well as new moms. One idea being discussed is offering free theme park tickets to pregnant women that sign up for e-mail alerts. “To get that mom thinking about her family’s first park experience before the baby is even born is a home run,” he said.

If a baby can connect with a brand before even learning to speak, the chance of creating life-long brand loyalty — and with it, a sense of brand identity — is much more likely than if a child’s first encounter with that brand is at, say, the age of 5. And once that child learns to speak and communicate with his or her parents and grandparents, suddenly you are talking about real influence over real dollars.

As the baby wearing the Disney Cuddly Bodysuit turns into the tween watching Mylie Cyrus on the Disney Channel, and then turns into the 20-something buying movie tickets to Shrek for date night, it’s reasonable to presume that that 20-something will be glad to sign up for an e-mailed newsletter about all things Disney Baby in exchange for free tickets to Disney World. That person is a marketing happily ever after. The transition is seamless, with some overlap among traditional age groups. A 22-year-old sitting in the movie theatre watching Shrek could well be sitting next to an 8-year-old. Nostalgia sells, and it works because consumers are introduced to brands at an ever-earlier age. Rather than creating a sense of identity by geography or religious background or gender, children are learning to create a sense of self around the brand with which they identify. That sense of identity broadens focal demographics considerably when regarding age.

Unfortunately, this aspect of the industry does not bless marketers with the luxury of simplicity. As the adage goes, with great power comes great responsibility. Youth marketing can provide a great service. Companies that align their brand image with social issues, for instance, can help increase awareness of those issues and help young people discern what is going to be important to them as civilians as well as consumers. Or perhaps a company can
become synonymous with a lifestyle — Nike has accomplished this with great success. The trick, then, when targeting the youth market, is to do so with ethical conscious.

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