June 3rd, 2003

A Growing Marketing Strategy: Get 'Em While They're Young

By Caroline E. Mayer
Washington Post

The three dozen first-graders were a rowdy and wiggly bunch, almost as jumpy as some of the animals brought out for them to pet.

The two classes from Arnold Elementary School in Arnold, Md., were on a field trip, 10 minutes from school, visiting a local Petco that was already as familiar to the students as McDonald’s.

Six-year-old Bradley McCumber made that clear when the store’s assistant manager, Kelli Athanasas, showed off a bright-green bird and said store employees were trying to teach the 3-month-old dusky conure to talk.

“Can it say ‘Petco’?” Bradley said.

Athanasas had no doubt that the students would say “Petco” in the days after the field trip. “By the weekend, at least 10 will be here with their families to show them what they got to see—and to redeem the coupon” for free goldfish that each received.

The Petco field trip is one of a growing number of activities that businesses offer to bring to schools. Knowing that schools are strapped, companies see an opportunity to offer a community service and marketing message at the same time.

“That’s where the kids are,” said Tom Harris, vice president of sales and marketing for the National Theatre for Children, whose productions bring corporate-sponsored messages into elementary and middle schools. “It’s a captive audience and in a world of where kids are torn between the Internet, IM [instant messaging], sports, TV and radio, school is the place where marketers can find them in an uncluttered environment.”

The business goes far beyond schools sharing profits from vending machines or selling naming rights to a stadium or cafeteria. An industry of subcontractors, such as the Field Trip Factory of Chicago, which set up the Arnold school’s trip, has been created to help corporate America get brand names and messages into the classroom.

The reason is simple. Kids’ buying power is estimated by marketing experts to be at least $ 10 billion a year, not including their influence on family purchases. It’s little wonder that companies that make child-oriented products such as toys and snacks are joined by banks and carmakers.

With field trips and plays, book covers, art guides and nutrition workbooks, they are courting ever-younger consumers. And, Harris said, “it’s exceptionally easy to get programs into schools. We have a 95 percent acceptance rate.”

Arnold Elementary first-grade teacher Julie Franklin planned the Petco trip.  She said her classes normally visit the Capital Children’s Museum in the District in the spring, but this year the school administration didn’t want trips “to go outside the county for security reasons.” So, she said, “I started looking for other field trips and this came in the mail. I couldn’t believe it was free, it looked so interesting.”

“This is a program for everyone,” said Don Cowan, a Petco spokesman.  It gives the company a chance “to reach out to the community and schools,” he said, but, “we’re not so naive to say there’s nothing in it for us.”

Many school officials say corporate sponsored programs are only just beginning.  “Right now, schools are in such tough financial straits that we’re likely to see these collaborative arrangements grow,” said Daniel B. Fuller, director of federal programs for the National School Boards Association.

Alex Molnar, director of the commercialism in education research unit at Arizona State University, said some programs “may be less grotesque or appalling than others, but they all add up to the same thing: a river of exploitation that is running through the classrooms.”

Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, an anti-commercial group based in Oregon, said he has had success getting several communities to move toward banning soda and candy sales in schools. But new corporate marketing programs keep popping up.

“It’s like squashing bugs,” Ruskin said. “As some go out, others come in. This kind of marketing has no place in school. It may be engaging but there are plenty of ways to make learning engaging without turning a school into an amphitheater of commercials.”

School officials and parents who went on the Arnold Elementary field trip had no complaints about Petco’s sponsorship. “Anytime they can learn outside the classroom, it sticks in their mind; it’s huge,” said Carol Cassidy, who accompanied her 7-year-old daughter Madison on the trip. “It’s a great community business to get involved in schools,” she said. “Now, if they were selling belly button rings, I’d be more nervous.”

Anne Arundel County Public Schools, which oversees Arnold Elementary and 126 other schools, wants to increase corporate programs. “It’s not money that’s coming out of the pocket of the school system or individual parents,” staff attorney Synthia Shilling said. “We can provide kids with experiences at no cost.”

Susan Singer, president and founder of Field Trip Factory Inc., used to be defensive about marketing to students. But she said her business isn’t like some other commercial ventures in schools. “What do you learn from a soda machine? How to make change for a dollar,” Singer said.

Singer, a marketing executive, came up with the idea of field trips for one of her supermarket clients 10 years ago. The concept was so successful, she started a firm in 1998 devoted to teaming corporations with local schools. This school year, her company’s 20 employees scheduled nearly 8,000 business-sponsored field trips; in the next school year, the company hopes to schedule more than 18,000. Most of the trips are in Chicago, near corporate headquarters, but Singer said there’s growing demand from schools in the Washington area and other East Coast cities.

The Annapolis first-graders’ trip was one of 3,300 student tours at Petco stores that Singer’s company set up this school year. Field Trip Factory creates the curriculum, trains the store personnel and organizes the trips for a fee, which Singer and Petco declined to disclose, except to say it is less than what usual advertising costs. The schools pay and receive no money.

Clients include regional supermarket chains whose employees lead children down store aisles, teaching them to read nutrition labels and highlighting more healthful alternatives to the sugary foods most kids like to eat. Sometimes, with the added financial backing of a food manufacturer, there’ll be a stop in front of a low-fat, high-fiber cereal, to point out its benefits over a chocolate-flavored brand.

Also through Field Trip Factory, the Sports Authority plans to host about 800 groups—15,000 children—this year, teaching them how to properly load a backpack, wear a bicycle helmet and monitor their heart rate after aerobic exercise.

Pearle Vision has hosted 130 tours to its stores this year to show students how glasses are made and to tell them how to take care of their eyes. Some Saturn dealers in Chicago hosted students, teaching them about auto safety.

At four of Toys R Us’s newest and largest stores, students are led on a “Mighty Minds” tour, where they are taught to manage time by drawing a calendar, to solve puzzles through teamwork and to plan a party within a budget. That last activity takes place near the store’s party area.

“We’re teaching creative problem solving, not ‘I want, I want,’ “ Singer said.

Dole Food Co. teamed up with another marketing middleman, Harris’s National Theatre for Children. It presents a 25-minute “Five a Day, the Color Way” performance for elementary schools that repeatedly reminds students to eat at least five servings of fruit or vegetables a day. The play is set at “Fruit University,” where the motto is “Root for Fruit.” The lead character is Fiona Farnsworth who, thanks to her “power of kiwi, strength of mango and speed of spinach,” stops her arch-enemy, the Painter, from stealing the colors from fruits and vegetables to make them gray and, thus, unappetizing.

Dole’s name is mentioned only twice, at the beginning and the end, when the actors thank the company for sponsoring the play. But the company name’s is prominently displayed on a large banner that is part of the scenery, and on posters and workbooks handed out after the play. The workbooks come with coupons for Dole products.

The goal is “to increase produce consumption overall” and Dole sales specifically, said Amy G. Myrdal, senior manager of Dole’s Five-a-Day program.

Harris said the National Theatre for Children is getting an increasing number of queries from consumer-goods manufacturers that want to sponsor plays for schools. That’s a change from two years ago when its plays about nutrition, smoking prevention and energy conservation were sponsored by health care or insurance firms, utilities or government agencies.

While the for-profit theater aggressively courts brand-name firms, it will not accept business from companies that want to sell guns, liquor, tobacco or candy, Harris said. The company declined to create a play to promote a highly sugared cereal, he said.

Fast-food restaurants are not off limits, however. The National Theatre is negotiating with a major chain to sponsor a play highlighting healthful offerings, such as salads, grilled chicken sandwiches or yogurt parfaits, at what Harris called “quick-service restaurants.”

“You can’t stop people from going to a QSR, but you can teach them that they don’t always have to buy a burger and fries,” he said. “We’re not there to sell a product but to give an educational message to kids. We make it clear that the play is ‘brought to you by’ not, ‘buy buy buy.’ “

Steve Lucas, whose daughter, Grace, attends Arnold, called the Petco field trip “a great activity,” although it was “cruel and unusual marketing for parents.” He added, “We have to deal with the fallout.” Pointing to his 6-year-old daughter, he said, “She’ll want to buy cats, parakeets for the next two weeks.”

Grace was already saying she liked the little mice and wanted at least “100 hamsters.”

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