The Post-Soccer Mom
June 23, 2008
By Becky Ebenkamp
Hold the pickle, hold the lettuce-and, while you're at it, hold the Dodge Caravan carting the cartel of kids to the soccer game. Hold the culinary classes, too, and those oboe lessons for junior. In case nobody noticed, that mythical '90s personage known as the Soccer Mom is no longer with us. The domestic superwoman who balanced family and checkbook, put Bill Clinton in the White House twice-and, lest we forget, was the demographic darling of brand marketers everywhere-is gone.
Well, she's not gone, exactly. Think: "moved on." Soccer Mom has stepped aside to make way for a new, unidentified parental object. Now there's a new mother in the house. She's part of a replacement class of young, politically and economically influential females: the roughly 20- to 30-year-old Generation Y or Millennial Mom. She's different from her predecessor, and much harder to stereotype. Just like that old Burger King ad brag used to go, she wants to have it her way, even though, in today's world, that could mean roughly a billion different things. It falls to marketers to figure out what all of that's supposed to mean.
Her way, for example, means a more relaxed attitude about the kids. "Child raising is no longer a blood sport," said Nancy Hallberg, chief strategy officer at The Parenting Group, publisher of Parenting and Babytalk magazines. "It's more about enjoying the moment than over-programming children with piano classes and Gymboree."
Her way means the Gen Y mom is discarding some of the strictures that her mom raised her with because, as Hallberg pointed out, Gen Y moms "are the daughters of the Soccer Moms, and some of what defines them is in reaction to being raised by them."
"There is no Soccer Mom anymore," added cognitive anthropologist Bob Deutsch, who runs consultancy Brain Sells in Wellfleet, Mass. "Those women were not only driving their kids, they were driven." Now, he said, Gen Y moms "give themselves more leeway. They're not martyrs. They seem at ease and natural, like they don't have to strive for perfection. Their identity is based on choices, not societal roles, and they are freed up because of that."
Her way, in other words, means it's not about lifestyle anymore. This time, it's just life.
"These moms are hanging onto their personal identities," added Maria Bailey, CEO of the kid-centric marketing firm BSM Media, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and author of the 2002 book Marketing to Moms. "That's why you're seeing more of these terms like Yoga Moms and Eco Moms. They've customized their lives just like they've customized their TVs with TiVo and their music with iPods."
Ah yes, you knew that Web-has-changed-everything stuff would be coming, didn't you? But in the case of Millennial Moms, there's actually a lot of meat there. Not only have tech tools and the Internet changed how young moms live, they've changed what they expect from marketers in terms of content, delivery and even product development. It's why savvier marketers have started responding with Gen Y mom-specific initiatives from brand-sponsored online meetups for new mothers, to mom-fueled word-of-mouth campaigns, to promotional partnerships with the growing ranks of young mom bloggers.
Membership at the Y
While the parameters of Gen Y vary, the U.S. Census Bureau defines millennials as those Americans born between 1978 and 1994. There currently are about 9 million Millennial Moms in the U.S. and, Jamie Lynn Spears notwithstanding, the segment still has some growing up to do before it reaches its prime baby-making potential. Gen Y moms are projected to have more kids-and at a younger age-than both their Gen X and baby boomer predecessors. For marketers, these stats make them the ones to watch.
What's more, this is a generation with a capital G. While Xers were often seen as latch-key loners, the mass-produced millennials were studied and storied like some demographic equivalent of the Dionne Quintuplets. What kind of people would they grow up to be? Would this idealistic generation remain as optimistic as it aged and dealt with life's sundry crap? This attention, along with a strong parental focus, led them to believe they were somewhat golden. "They believe they're the next great generation; they've been told they can solve huge problems and that they can solve them together," said Chris Moessner, vp-research at Just Kid Inc., a Stamford, Conn., marketing and research consultancy.
While many experts stress that there's not always a generation gap separating Gen Y moms from their boomer 'rents, there's often a physical one: Millennial Moms don't always live near their folks, so peer-to-peer support and information gathering is critical. (Hello Facebook and other social-networking tools.) While the Gen Xer tended to gather information from different sources to make independent decisions, Gen Y wants to be on everybody's buddy list. "We're seeing all these 'mom tribes,'" said Hallberg. "Moms look for other moms to network with. Community is their mantra."
"One of her tribes could meet in the playground in the morning to share interests related to preschool," said Cheryl Wilbur, the Parenting Group's director of strategic insights. "Then she might go to school to pick up her older child and have another group of relationships there, then maybe she goes to her book club-she has other issues in her life besides her kids."
Of course, many of these tribes are assembled from virtual strangers, and that adds an interesting dynamic to the friendships forged on message boards and in chatrooms. Wilbur has seen that firsthand on her company's MomConnection Panels, where members can share ideas and opinions and advertisers such as Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark and Clorox can read them to better market to them (or with them; more on that later.)
This digital-age tribalism among young moms no doubt leaves them feeling more empowered than the mothers who preceded them, and that also might explain another peculiarity of the demographic: The idea of establishing balance-so sacred to the Soccer Mom-fails to resonate. As Parenting's Hallberg explained, "Balance is the new four-letter word. This mom grew up as a multitasker, so she's a little more adept at integrating multiple aspects of her life and switching gears with a little more facility than Gen X moms have."
While it may seem like little more than subtle semantics, integration is a better term. According to Deutsch, there's a huge difference. "Integrating is better," he said. "When you are balancing, you always have to make an artificial choice, a compromise that could be a false compromise. When all is said and done, you have to unify, which is this integration of body and mind."
Bailey added that Gen Y moms are the children of women who struggled to achieve the elusive balance between work and family, and saw few rewards for all the effort. "Fifty percent of Xers saw their parents divorce, and they realized their mothers were striving for something unobtainable," she said. "For millennials, everything is about 'real' and 'reality.' Because they were raised on technology, they know they can have things when they want them, that it can help them customize a lifestyle on their own terms."
Age of Inclusion
Put these things together: A generation of emerging breeders who like having choices and control (but aren't control freaks), run in packs and harness the power of technology at their fingertips. What do they all mean to a marketer? Well, the good news is, they might be your BFF if you treat them right. On the other hand, if you piss them off, they'll put up a wall, and a firewall and a MySpace bulletin telling their 10,000 friends to follow suit.
That figure is hardly an exaggeration. Every day, about 10,000 moms are starting blogs. Imagine how many are updating them, let alone reading them and adding comments to other moms' blogs. That, of course, doesn't even touch the separate world of virtual communities. "This generation is creating a lot of her own content," Hallberg said. "It makes sense that she's gonna want to call some of the shots."
And here lies a critical lesson for the brand out to woo the Gen Y mom: You do not, in fact, woo her; you invite and engage her. Young mothers expect to be partners, not merely shoppers. "If you want my business" Bailey described the average Gen Y mom theoretically telling brands, "this is how you have to do business with me."
"They recognize their power of connectivity," said Dave Balter, CEO/founder of Bzz-Agent, a Boston-based agency whose word-of-mouth consumer network includes some 35,000 Gen Y moms. "They know what they have to say matters; their self-awareness is impressive," he said. "They see brands as their own, and their knowledge and information empowers them."
Case in point: BzzAgent participant Stacy Shreves, 31, the bubbly mother of a 4-year-old named Chloe, who this reporter encountered through e-mail and came away with no shortage of brand advice. ("If you haven't tried SwissMiss' new caffeinated cocoa, go buy some NOW!!!," she instructed.) For Shreves, marketing is many things, but one thing it's not is passively sitting on the couch and having focus-group messages tossed at you through a TV or computer screen.
"I definitely prefer the feel of a two-way conversation instead of being talked at and told what I should like," said the young mom from Akron, N.Y. "Nobody likes being bossed around. If one of my friends recommends a product to me, I'm way more likely to buy it than if some supermodel recommends it via the TV. I like being involved."
Marketing with Mommy
That Gen Y moms like-no, insist on-being involved in the branding process (which, today, must be seen to include everything from the marketing pitch back to product development) leaves brands with plenty of adjusting to do. As Bailey put it: "If I had written Marketing to Moms today, I would call it Marketing WITH Moms. They realize they have a voice and that it's empowering to invoke change."
By necessity and expectation, then, marketers have learned to adopt more participatory structures to their initiatives, which has made the once closed, secretive world of advertising newly transparent. "There is no longer this veil of secrecy over marketing," Balter said. In some cases, [brands] are even letting these media-savvy moms help design and market their brands to their tribes.
Marketers are coming up with how to be relevant to moms in ways that build communities around their brands. Whirlpool, for instance, runs a Mother of Invention grant program that awards five moms a total of about $50,000 (along with oodles of appliances) to fund their business ideas, and hosts the American Family podcasts at its Web site "to discuss issues that impact families with diverse backgrounds and experiences."
Rather than blab at them, marketers for Suave and Sprint went with Webisodes to involve moms in entertainment. The brands co-sponsor a site called "In the MotherHood" that showcases comedic shorts in which Leah Remini and Chelsea Handler deal with the joys of raising small children. Moms submit short stories about their experiences to the site, and visitors vote on which ones will serve as content for each season's comedy capsules. There are forums, discussion boards and articles to engage visitors and brand integrations where they make sense. Sprint is using profiles of the show's characters on the site to introduce moms to its ringtone offerings.
Hewlett-Packard reached out to mom bloggers for its promo partnership with DreamWorks' Kung Fu Panda. To show off some of its stuff, the IT firm held panda-themed parties in seven cities and invited moms and their fams for an immersive interactive movie experience. There were treats, panda masks, photo ops and, of course, HP Photosmart Compact Photo Printers available so they could show off their snapshots. Once back home, the moms blogged about this VIP experience.
"They go out to them not only with product, but information they can share with other moms," said Bailey, whose company worked on the promotion. "These moms want a relationship with marketing rather than 'Just flash an ad in front of me.' They want to be part of the peer group with marketers."
To help propel its rocketship-shaped bottles of Aquapod into cyberspace, Nestlé Waters enlisted BzzAgent and its mom W-O-M army. The idea was to get kids off sweet sodas and onto water and to make the dull beverage fun to drink. The campaign revolved around moms sharing their and their kids' ideas for making bottles and the activity of water-drinking more fun. The main point, according to Balter, was to let Gen Y moms be part of the conversation, not on the receiving end. "It's not a one-way dialogue," said Balter. "It can be fun to be part of that marketing process. [The key is] how do you involve this brand in their life and what their family needs?"
Many brands have created online meetups for moms. Kimberly-Clark, for instance, has its Huggies Baby Network, a Web hub offering expert information for new mothers and moms-to-be with mothering tips, pages for sharing baby pics and, as always, special offers and product news.
Moessner pointed to Nintendo's winning Wii strategy of creating and encouraging viral videos to support a product that was designed to be inclusive. Moms, he said, are looking for more ways to have fun, shared experiences with their kids, and Nintendo is offering it through product and marketing.
"[As] Gen Xers, we just went down and played videogames by ourselves," Moessner said. "But now moms get to play the Wii Fit and Wii Games with their kids. Moms are on YouTube e-mailing funny clips to their friends, and kids are e-mailing mom funny stuff, too. Companies [like Nintendo] that have gotten on YouTube are doing a much better job of building excitement for their products."
Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment is also getting into the "we" spirit by designing and marketing products under its new BD-Live interactive umbrella for Blu-ray. New movie features allow viewers to chat onscreen with friends, insert a video messages or play an online trivia game while watching a Disney flick. The technology will first be available for the release of Sleeping Beauty this fall.
"For us, this generation of moms is marked by the multitasking of everything they experience," said Dave Hollis, svp-business development and new technology at Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment. He works with a sounding board of moms who offer feedback on what features they'd like to see developed in family products. "We're asking them to be consultants, for lack of a better word, and it's priceless from our perspective," he said.
Mom, Stay at Home
Asking moms to be consultants is not always fun and games. A recent example: Camp Baby. This past April, Johnson & Johnson convened 56 mom bloggers at a three-day, all-expenses-paid summit designed to solicit feedback and foster some bonding between brand and mom. Trouble was, in the view of some attendees, J&J didn't realize how quick mommy bloggers would pounce on-and spread the word about-shortcomings in the program, such as the fact that Camp Baby prohibited the attendance of . . . babies.
"I'm surprised and disappointed, to put it mildly," said one young mom on Mothergoose.com. "To expect a new mom to ditch her newborn for three days is crazy," piped in another. A third intoned, "That's unfortunate that [J&J] can't see what a mistake they are making." A company rep maintained that "the online environment is always evolving [and] as marketers we are evolving as it evolves."
Though the effort was far from a disaster, J&J's not the only company to misjudge the mores of Gen Y moms. Part of the problem is that many marketers who specialize in the mommy market fail to realize that Gen Y moms are not like the mother demos that preceded them. The company line seems to go: "We know moms-we've always known moms." But Parenting's Hallberg begs to differ. The fact that a targeted mom is a millennial "has profound implications for how she's going to buy your product," she said. "You have to think different when you communicate to her and share what benefits are important to her, because those are the issues she's going to share with her tribes. And those tribes are as powerful a media channel as any conventional media are."