Selling to Kids – Before They Can Buy
By Rick Moss
Whyville.net, a virtual meeting place for the sophisticated 8 to 15 set, has “places to go, things to do, and of course,
people to see,” according to the website’s “About Whyville” page. Children can join for free and, once “Whyvillians,” earn “clams” by playing educational games. This has pretty
much been the case since 1999 when the site went online, but it’s only been a recent development that the kids’ virtual currency will buy them a Toyota Scion (virtually speaking,
Kids of Whyville are represented by on-screen “avatars” and can place themselves within different online environments. With the “purchase” of a Scion, they can now impress their
virtual pals by driving around in a cartoon replica of a hot, trendy car, as well. For sponsors, such as Toyota, Whyville offers a good deal of exposure. The site claims over
1.2 million registered “citizens,” with daily visits from 25,000 boys and girls.
And Whyville is not bashful about its approach to kid marketing. It’s pitch to sponsors promises “a unique opportunity to reach and engage tweens.”
“Whyville sponsors become ‘part’ of the city,” the sponsorship page goes on to say. “We integrate your organization’s product, brand or message into destinations and activities
inside Whyville. Sure, we can do the banner ad ‘thing’ but there is so, so much more that we can do inside the virtual world of Whyville to promote your organization.”
From the point Toyota introduced its car in the U.S. two years ago, it has concentrated on attracting young drivers. With the youngest demographic in the auto industry (median
buyer is 31), Scion’s marketers have used various methods to build a “culture” that involves musical/sound options, nightclub events and Scion-themed gear, but the company’s sponsorship
of Whyville.net is perhaps its most forward-thinking marketing ploy to date.
Quoted in Julie Bosman’s New York Times Advertising column, Jay Goss, Whyville’s chief operating officer, is clear on the intention. “It’s not lost on us, and it’s not
lost on Scion,” he said. “By definition, this is a sponsor of Whyville that can’t have as its customers the kids who visit the site. But they know that kids influence parents,
and kids grow up.”
The “early branding” trend is emerging throughout retail. The article cites efforts by Staples and Office Depot, for example, to make an early impression with high school students
who are on the verge of financial independence. However, many would bristle at the idea of going after very young, indelible minds in their earlier, formative years.
Moderator’s Comment: What do you think about Scion’s product placement on Whyville.net, both from a business and ethical standpoint? What types of products
would be most adaptable to this form of future-loyalty marketing?
Scion, with its young, hip, carefree image may be a relatively safe bet, but it’s easy to imagine a parental backlash with consumer products that are deemed
unhealthy to the body, mind or pocketbook. It’s not often that a research stat will send a chill up my spine, but this one that the NYTimes columnist pulled from a Packaged
Facts report sure did and, if nothing else, it is one indicator of the marketing mindset at play: “Both boys and girls age 9 to 11 say they spend without thinking.”
My, my…kids sure grow up so fast these days. Used to be that you had to be an adult to be that clueless. –
Rick Moss – Moderator