May 24, 2004
SUMMARY: Research shows that if you're marketing to the powerful tween market, don't call them "kids" and never let on that you're also campaigning to their parents.
This means you shouldn't try to make your website or ads serve both pre-teens and their parents. Keep the messaging, the URLs, and the media buy separate. Hear how a recent government-sponsored VERB campaign succeeded:
"We're targeting kids 9-13 years old because that's when kids are beginning to make decisions about their lifestyles, but are not old enough to rebel against everything like many teenagers," says Faye Wong, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's VERBô campaign.
The 18-month old campaign is designed to increase physical activity among tweens and help combat obesity with healthier lifestyles. But, before you can influence tweens, you have to understand what motivates them. Here's what Wong's team learned, and how they translated research data into a high-impact campaign:
Key attributes of today's tween (ages 9-13)
Through formative and ethnographic research, including tween and parent focus groups, tween triad interviews, and in-depth interviews with adult/tween influencers and industry experts, the VERB team learned that tweens:
--are beginning to become independent from their parents and to make decisions about their own lifestyles. Friends and the media become increasingly important influences;
--drop to the bottom of the social hierarchy as they go from being the oldest and most admired students (in grade school) to the youngest (in middle school);
--have more access to the media (more than 50% of children over the age of 8 have a TV in their bedroom for private viewing), as parents begin to grant more autonomy;
--are seeking outlets for self-expression;
--don't relate to long-term views; everything is the here-and-now and about discovering their world.
--don't want to be labeled by words such as kids or tweens.
5 Steps to reaching tweens
o Step #1. Convey a single message
Originally the campaign was geared toward a " displacement strategy," promoting positive activities that would replace negatives in children's lives, and it was designed to combat a wider range of health concerns than simply obesity.
The ads tried to promote positive social attributes in a variety of settings. "In an original ad, a girl was playing a violin and playing soccer," Wong explains.
She learned that the messages were confusing. "Kids were getting mixed messages, Do you want me to sit or do you want me to get up?" she says. "So we fine-tuned and now focus solely on physical activity."
o Step #2. Build brand first, then get more specific
In the first year of the campaign, the goal was to stimulate curiosity. "Verbs are action words," Wong says. The campaign encouraged kids to find the VERB they liked and enjoyed doing. .
Some commercials -- running on Nickelodeon, The Cartoon Network, The WB, Disney, ABC Saturday AM, and MTV -- showed tweens doing different VERBs such as running, kicking, or dancing. Other ads highlighted a single VERB, such as "swing": the commercial showed different forms of the verb, from swing dancing to swinging a baseball bat to swinging on a swing set.
The messaging was, "VERB. It's what you do." and it encouraged kids to "find their verb."
In phase two -- once kids had begun to recognize the brand -- the message became more concrete, Wong says. "Specifically, it's about playing anytime, anywhere," she says.
Current ads show tweens engaged in physical activity -- and having fun doing it. The message is that games can be played in kids' own backyards, and that they donít have to be athletes to play.
o Step #3. Target parents (but don't let kids know)
While the VERB campaign actively reaches out to parents as well as to kids, it's definitely a "for kids, by kids" brand, Wong says.
With that in mind, she makes sure all members of the team know that the brand messaging is different for the adults, and that communications to parents stay separate. "We don't want kids to know that we're talking to parents," she says.
Ads geared towards parents are more informative, letting parents know the importance of active lifestyles. The ads only run in publications where kids are unlikely to come across them, such as Family Circle, Parents magazine, Ebony, Indian Country Today, and Healthy Kids en Espanol, to name a few.
And you won't find anything for parents on VERBnow.com, the VERB Web site for tweens. Parents must go to a whole different site, VERBparents.com to find information.
o Step #4. Test and test again
To ensure that messaging hits its mark, Wong's team tests every new ad in the concept stage and then again before it is finalized to go out.
"That gives us pretty high confidence that by the time it goes on air kids understand the message," Wong says. If a message isn't clear at testing, revisions are made based on what they learned from the kids.
Take the current Venus Williams ad, for example. In the ad, Venus is playing tennis with kids by the kids' rules -- one of which is that when a player hits the ball into a shadow, it's "out."
"When we were testing the concept, it came across to the kids as unfair to Venus because it sounded as though she was upset because she didn't understand the rules," Wong says.
Changes in script and tone made it clear that Venus understands the rules and is having fun. "That kind of feedback from kids is important because they hear and see things we may not," Wong says. Partnering with athletes and celebrities brings a cool factor to the campaign ads.
o Step #5. Grassroots messages
While a national message is generally effective for raising awareness, the VERB team felt it may not be enough to change behavior.
Wong and her team wanted to physically reach kids, so they organized street teams in selected markets to attend VERB-sponsored events. "They're college-age kids who look young and look cool," Wong says. "They might wear earrings or have blue hair. They go to places where kids are and engage them in being active."
A member of a street team might go up to a kid at an event and teach them how to do something in particular, such as kick a soccer ball, or they might say, "What's your verb?" and engage in that way.
Wong's team also put together activity promotions to reach kids in schools, such as "Anytime Doubletime." This is based on the concept that, if you take two different verbs and put them together, you have a new game.
Promotional materials for Anytime Doubletime are available to middle schools for teachers to implement with their students.
By February 2004, the CDC had seen dramatic results. Based on telephone surveys of 6,000 youth and their parents prior to the campaign's beginning, and repeated to those families in late 2003, Wong's team discovered:
--34% increase in weekly free-time physical activity sessions among children ages 9-10 in the US
--27% increase in free-time physical activity sessions among US girls in the 9-13 age range
--25% increase in free-time physical activity sessions among US children from lower-middle income households