Tween power? You're kidding


May 2, 2003

How economically powerful are kids? Winston Fletcher is left in confusion.

Brandchild purports to provide "remarkable insights into the minds of today's global kids and their relationships with brands". Well, it's a mite short of remarkable insights, but insofar as the minds of today's global kids are confused, repetitive and self-contradictory, it reflects them pretty accurately.

Martin Lindstrom modestly styles himself "one of the world's primary branding gurus". For a primary branding guru, he has an astonishingly cavalier attitude to facts. Brandchild is all about the behaviour of a group Lindstrom dubs "tweens". Who are tweens? Good question. Lindstrom mentions them on just about every page of the book. He veers from sweeping generalisations ("tweens spend money and time with a casual and carefree attitude") to behavioural analyses of extraordinary precision ("45.1 per cent send text messages several times a day"). Yet even he is not quite certain who they are. Sometimes they are eight-to-14 year olds, sometimes nine-to-14 year olds. A trivial difference? Not at all. The former group is not only younger, it is almost 17 per cent larger than the latter group.

The sloppiness gets worse. To demonstrate the commercial importance of tweens, Lindstrom tosses around massive expenditure figures with gay abandon. On page two we are told, "This is a generation that spends in excess of $150 billion (£94.25 billion) a year", to which can be added "another $150 billion a year because that's the amount this generation actually controls when their parents are supposedly holding on to the family purse strings". By page 23, tweens "influence spending of up to $600 billion a year". (This little gobbet appears in the summary to chapter one, though it does not actually appear in chapter one.) On page 47 "the amount of money spent by tweens in the US is estimated to be over $20 billion", while they influence another $488 billion. By page 193 their expenditure has skyrocketed: "In 2000 their purchase power had reached a whopping $290 billion in the United States. Globally their total purchase influence is an astounding $188 trillion." But by page 216 the figure has plummeted again: "they have an estimated $24 billion at their disposal". And finally on page 250: "In 1998 US teens and tweens had a combined income of $121 billion". (Were the overlapping teen and tween 13 and 14-year-olds double-counted, one wonders - but no explanation is proffered.)

It is worth quoting this ragbag of incoherent figures at length, partly because they reflect the hopeless unreliability of Brandchild 's data, but also because they spotlight the book's principal dilemma. The author, and doubtless his publishers (who should have excised the countless inconsistencies and repetitions) must have realised that a straightforward book about marketing to kids was unlikely to generate huge sales. Companies that market children's brands already have masses of research of their own; there are many books and research papers on the subject; and seminars on marketing to children are as common as Smarties. So to make an impact, it was essential both to beef up kids' own spending power, and then to beef up their influence on adult purchases still more. Hence Lindstrom states on the first page, "this emerging generation has become powerful enough to have a specific allotment in every marketing director's budget" - a statement as nonsensical as it is nebulous. If Lindstrom truly believes the marketing directors of Mercedes, Flora and Johnny Walker (to mention but a few) have a specific allocation for tweens in their budgets he has been reading too much Harry Potter.

To justify this nonsense, Brandchild claims to have carried out "the world's most extensive study ever of tween attitudes and their relationship to brands". How extensive is that? Difficult to say. According to the publishers: "Nearly 2,000 kids were interviewed in 70 cities across 15 countries." The foreword claims research was carried out in seven countries. The introduction claims that 500 people in 11 countries worked on the project, and refers the reader to the appendix for more details. The acknowledgements thank "thousands of kids across the world". A photographer went to ten cities "for the Brandchild project". And the appendix lists eight countries by name but no details of how many children were interviewed either in each or in total, an unpardonable market-research gaffe. Instead, it reports that all the children interviewed were urban and had "a socio-economic status which put them in a home with television, the opportunity to be online, and in contact with upscale brands". How representative is that in India, China and Brazil, three of the countries named?

In the light of this inexcusably skewed sample, it is hardly surprising that tweens are heavy users of mobiles, computer games, texting and email, and are very brand aware, fashion conscious and claim to exert considerable influence on their parents' purchases. But their influence may be far weaker than either they, or Brandchild, believe. More than half the children interviewed claimed they would voice an opinion on their parents' choice of designer fashions, mobile phones and cars. Even if they are telling the truth - Brandchild insists tweens are "110 per cent direct, and totally honest", one of its dottier claims - this does not mean the parents buy what kids want them to buy. It is hardly a basis for claiming that "tweens influence an astounding 60 per cent of all car purchases made by their parents, and 45 per cent of their mobile phone purchases". Lindstrom seems to have forced the data to fit his argument because this is essential for the book.

Buried deep in all this dross and shambles, there are one or two new and interesting perceptions. Brandchild is very good on the multi-sense nature of brand recognition and brand appeal. It is true that many analyses of brands concentrate myopically on appearance and imagery, minimising or ignoring the senses of touch, or sometimes of hearing or even of smell. But this is just as true for adults as for children. And to suggest that "Sound + Sight + Smell + Taste = Brand" is universally applicable is manifest twaddle. What is the sound of Harpic? And do you really want to know the taste? Lindstrom's claim that "our research shows only 0.0002 per cent of all marketing and promotions undertaken in the world are designed to appeal to four or more senses" is worse than twaddle. To have any statistical justification the "research" would have needed to analyse millions of marketing and promotional campaigns. Before thinking any further about such a muddle, I would like to see the list.

Brandchild is a meretricious lash-up. It does not do much for the reputation of either branding gurus or of the market-research industry as a whole. Give it a miss.

Winston Fletcher is founder chairman, World Advertising Research Center, and chairman, the Royal Institution.


Author - Martin Lindstrom with Patricia B. Seybold
ISBN - 0 7494 3867 3
Publisher - Kogan Page
Price - £25.00
Pages - 320

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