The Problem: Addie Swartz wants to give girls an alternative to Britney. But how do you sell wholesomeness to tweens?
The idea first came to Addie Swartz after she put her daughter, Aliza, to bed one night four years ago. Then 9 years old, Aliza was telling her mother about some problems at school. They were the typical concerns of a fourth-grader -- cliques, cafeteria humiliations, and the like. But they set Swartz thinking about the difficult years that lay ahead -- especially about the alarming amount of time preteen girls spend watching Britney Spears videos or playing with scantily clad Bratz dolls.
What girls like Aliza -- those "between toys and boys," as Swartz puts it -- lacked was entertainment media designed expressly for them. Swartz was convinced that there was room for a cool but wholesome lifestyle brand to fill that void. She knew it wouldn't be easy. In a culture dominated by the likes of Lindsay Lohan and the Olsen twins, little girls grow up awfully fast these days and recoil from anything they deem childish. But Swartz -- who sold her first company, an education software firm called Bright Ideas, in 1996 -- was determined. "Girls see Paris Hilton and Britney Spears and take cues from them," she says. "I wanted to use the media to empower girls in a positive way."
She decided to start with a series of books about girls like Aliza and her friends. The characters would be innocent but still face modern-day issues, such as divorce and cliques. The books would allow Swartz to develop characters that girls could identify with and learn from. And if the series proved successful, she could spin the characters off into more lucrative media, such as television or direct-to-home videos. There was little question that the "tween" girl market was a good place to be. The niche had been heating up throughout the 1990s, as children of the baby boom generation reached the coveted 8- to 13-year-old age group. Today, with more than 10 million girls in that group, the market is estimated to be worth more than $40 billion annually.
Swartz began assembling a top-notch executive team for her start-up, dubbed B*tween Productions. She tapped her friends and former business associates and convinced six seasoned pros -- including a former Hasbro executive and an award-winning children's film producer -- to join. In July 2002, the team held its first brainstorming session. That summer, they created composites for the characters and decided on the setting -- the real-life town of Brookline, Mass. The characters, and the series, would be known as the Beacon Street Girls.
Swartz then staged 30 focus groups composed of girls 9 to 13 in the living room of her home in Concord, Mass., and at summer camps throughout the state. Swartz was pleased, and sometimes surprised, by what she learned. During one session, some girls suggested that a character's yellow-blond hair should be more natural and advised Swartz to tone down another character's makeup, saying she seemed too grown-up. At another session, several girls said they felt embarrassed when Swartz showed them a picture of a partially nude woman in an advertisement for the trendy clothing retailer Abercrombie and Fitch. The responses confirmed her hunch that tween girls were not as sophisticated as some marketers seem to think.
Armed with her research, Swartz and her team put the finishing touches on the Beacon Street Girls. The ensemble cast reflected the diverse interests of her focus group participants: There was Avery, the soccer enthusiast adopted from Korea as an infant; Maeve, a dyslexic girl who loves old movies and boys; Katani, an African American fashionista who designs her own clothes; and Charlotte, the new girl in town -- who sports dirty-blond, not yellow-blond, hair. Swartz then tapped Annie Bryant, author of the popular Sweet Valley High series of books, to fill out the characters and the plot.
Swartz had financed her company's development with $50,000 from the sale of her first business. To attract investors, she knew she had to sell more than just books, so she paired the books with products that appear in the stories, such as pillows and backpacks. That pairing appealed to angel investors, who have plowed some $2.5 million into Swartz's project. "They wouldn't have invested in a book," she says. "It was about building a brand that can be leveraged aggressively."
Finally, by spring of 2004, Swartz was convinced that her books and products were cool enough to grab the attention of tweens. "Girls love the books," Swartz says. "Now, we just have to get the word out."
The biggest challenge was distribution. Retail, she felt, was the only way to go. But fighting for space on bookstore shelves seemed like a losing proposition. "I knew it would be hard to break through the clutter," she says. While she was holding focus groups with girls, Swartz was also meeting with buyers from toy shops and bookstores to gauge their interest. The merchants she spoke with agreed that the tween market was difficult to capture. But they seemed enthusiastic about the Beacon Street Girls, and many told Swartz to call back when the products were ready.
When she did, many of the buyers liked what they saw and agreed to feature Beacon Street Girls merchandising displays, which are now in 70 mostly independent shops nationwide. At the Brookline Booksmith, for instance, a seven-foot-tall Beacon Street Girls display packed with backpacks and pillows towers over the regular bookshelves and even dwarfs a nearby Harry Potter stand. Convincing bigger players like Borders and Barnes & Noble to do the same hasn't been easy. After months of failed attempts, Swartz settled for standard shelf space, a deal she hopes to renegotiate.
Swartz readily admits that her model is borrowed in large part from the American Girl brand -- the hugely successful line of dolls, books, and accessories aimed at girls age 7 and older. In fact, Swartz thinks of the Beacon Street Girls as the next step for American Girl fans who no longer play with dolls. But Swartz's prices are much lower. While an American Girl doll costs $84, Beacon Street Girl accessories run the gamut from a $2.99 spiral notebook to a $54 soccer duffel.
Since the launch of the first book last May, three additional Beacon Street Girls books have been published. The first in the series, Worst Enemies/Best Friends, has been reprinted three times since its initial printing of 8,000. In total, 46,000 copies of all four Beacon Street Girls books have been printed, and Swartz says she has received dozens of orders from stores for more.
The accessories -- especially the pink mini-backpack and blue duffel -- are selling well, Swartz says, and she plans to extend the brand with clothing and tech gadgets. While her advertising budget is small, the books have gained free exposure via partnerships with more established organizations. For instance, Maeve -- the dyslexic Beacon Street Girl -- was recently featured on the website of the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation for children with learning disabilities. Thanks to such partnerships, Swartz expects to generate $1 million in revenue in 2005. But money, Swartz insists, is not the bottom line. "Girls are losing their childhoods so fast," she says. "I want to give them a world that's cool and fun -- and meaningful."
Tween girls like to experiment, but in a familiar environment, so packaging books with accessories is brilliant. That said, the content needs work. I'm not sure what's unique about the Beacon Street Girls. Even though the characters in the books have problems, they're too goody-goody to appeal to girls in the tween demographic. Kids that age don't like to be patronized. They like darker characters, like Harry Potter. Swartz has to figure out what makes her characters stand out, and explain it in one or two sentences.
Chief creative consultant, Geppetto Group
New York City
The Beacon Street Girls books seem reasonably well written, but, by packaging them with other products, Swartz is sending the message that books aren't good enough. Marketing to children has escalated drastically since the 1980s. Once Swartz started selling accessories, she became part of the problem. The message is that products will make kids feel happy or cool. If Swartz really wanted to help children, she should have stuck with books.
Psychologist and author of Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood
The Beacon Street Girls really appeal to me. I especially relate to Charlotte, the new girl in town. I felt like her when my family and I moved to a new neighborhood and I was worried about losing my friends. The accessories are nice, too, but I'm more into the books. When I read a book, I like to imagine the setting and characters. I can create my own version of the story in my head, and nobody can tell me that I'm wrong. But other girls may feel differently. I'll definitely show the books to my classmates.
Eighth-grader, I.S. 127, Bronx, N.Y.
The Goods is focused exclusively on products and services for business owners. We won't ignore the latest netbook or the hottest smartphone, but we'll also examine the services, software, and Web-based tools that can help make your business succeed. NADINE HEINTZ, a senior editor at Inc., edits The Goods, as well as Quick Hits. Send suggestions, comments, and deals to firstname.lastname@example.org.