Small Firms, Like Disney, Can Sell to Tweens

BURBANK, Calif. ( TheStreet) -- No longer children but not yet teenagers, "tweens" are now considered a powerful consumer demographic in their own right. Between the ages of 8 to 12, kids begin to develop into independent consumers: spending their own allowance money and showing specific brand preferences when shopping with Mom or Dad.

Walt Disney ( DIS) has been especially successful appealing to tween girls. The company helped launch the careers of actress Miley Cyrus and pop stars the Jonas Brothers, turning them into international brands available on everything from backpacks to snacks.

But Burbank, Calif.-based Disney hasn't had a comparable hit with tween boys, which might help explain this week's announcement that it will buy Marvel Entertainment ( MVL), home of iconic male-oriented characters such as Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk. The Disney marketing machine has convinced tween girls to spend millions on merchandise from Cyrus's show, Hannah Montana; it can probably spin superheroes into a massive new revenue stream.

But there's no reason small companies can't get into the boy business, too. Tween boys have been somewhat overlooked compared to girls. Companies that understand how to appeal to their interests have the advantage of relatively few competitors.

According to youth marketing company Alloy Media + Marketing, tweens spend $51 billion each year, with their families kicking in an additional $170 billion.

To get in on that market, you must understand how tween boys think, says Adriann Fonstein, consumer strategist for AMP Agency, a unit of Alloy. "For them, life is about play. They like silly, physical humor. You have to make them feel like they're in on the joke."

Boys between the ages of 8 and 12 like things that straddle the line between imagination and reality: goofy scenarios that take place in the real world, or realistic situations unfolding in an imaginary world. Fonstein notes that when she holds focus groups with this age range, at least half the boys regularly cite Geico ads -- with the talking gecko -- as their favorite commercials.

Despite hand-wringing from their grandparents, boys aren't completely attached to the Sony ( SNE) PlayStation or Nintendo Wii. According to the market research firm Packaged Facts, almost 40% of 9- to 11-year-old boys say video games are their main way of having fun. But about 60% of boys in that age range also read comic books regularly.

That familiarity with comics should be good news for Disney as it evaluates the profit potential of Marvel's heroes. One of the most impressive aspects of the Disney's marketing is how it spins off its properties. Disney Princesses, a repackaging of characters from classic animated films, became the best-selling girl's brand in the world. Soon, new royalty will be added to the lineup: Tiana, star of the upcoming The Princess and the Frog (and the first African-American princess), and Rapunzel, who gets her own movie next year.

Disney also has a strong product lineup aimed at younger boys. Its animated TV series Handy Manny has branched out into a successful line of toys, and the upcoming movie Toy Story 3 is expected to be a smash, in theaters as well as retail.

But Disney stumbles once boys have outgrown their Cars sheets and backpacks. In an interview with analysts, Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger admitted the Marvel deal is an opportunity to attract more boys and older kids.

Marvel has a library of 5,000 characters, plenty of fodder for the Disney creative machine. Some of those characters -- including Spider-Man, X-Men and Iron Man -- have jumped in value since being featured in successful action films. Building on those names with new videogames, TV shows and toys should bring in a whole new customer base. "Boys this age are carving a niche for themselves," says Fonstein. "They want to be unique, but they also want to fit in with their friends. You need to make them feel their personality can be expressed."

Whether it's a comic shop that features kids' artwork on its walls or a restaurant that arranges a promotion with a local sports team, there are many ways small businesses can bring in families with boys. Just remember that all tweens are not created equal.

"A third grader is very different from a seventh grader," Fonstein says. "The younger boys are thinking in a more structured way -- they're coloring inside the lines. Older boys are more interested in creating something from scratch."

No small business can afford the $4 billion Disney paid Marvel to get access to its primarily male audience. But show a sense of humor and encourage boys to show their personalities, and you'll attract not only the tweens, but their parents as well.

-- Reported by Elizabeth Blackwell in Chicago.

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Elizabeth Blackwell is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She is the author of Frommer's Chicago guidebook, and writes for the Wall Street Journal, Chicago, and other national magazines.