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Sleeping bags with their names embroidered on the edge, room décorthat notes the name of the space’s chief resident, Wii “Mii”s that are made to look like their young users (or purposefully look quite different from them), and even made-for-me versions of Nike products...It’s hardly hard to find examples of customization in kids’ worlds.

As an element of evergreen youth culture, and as a go-to-tool in the marketers’ toolbox, customization sits alongside collecting as a “classic.” But why does customization connect so strongly with youth? And what, importantly, are its limitations as a lever to pull when it comes to creating powerful youth products and salient services?

First, customization’s cache can be explained, at least in part by kids’ and tweens’ developmental needs and stage-related goals…

  • The need for power and control. Despite being a cohort that’s often considered to be consulted and catered to, the experience of childhood is still one in which every freedom on the playground is countered by a limitation or a rule. Kids, focused on mastery, and tweens, focused on finding their way through a fitful trip in-between childhood and teendom, both seek ways to get a grip on the world around them. Getting to go beyond voicing one’s opinion to actually creating an object of their desire, to their own specifications, provides tangible proof that they can affect the world around them. It’s not the only way they feel powerful, but asserting their own style on everyday objects can carry more layers of meaning with it than it does for adults.
  • The need to fit in. Customization might seem contrary to the desire to fit in, but for kids and for tweens, being one of the crowd often means balancing the desire to fit in with the need to assert one’s own identity. Historian Nicholas Sammond points to the early Mickey Mouse Club, with its members dressed in standardized suits with their names clearly visible on the front, as evidence of a distinctly American way of balancing these two seemingly conflicting goals.
  • The need to be known. It used to be that getting a piece of mail with one’s name on it evoked a certain kind of euphoria among youth: “Someone knows I’m out there!” For this cohort, it might be more like the first email, or the acquisition of a screen name that shows them that they are known outside the domestic domain.  Either way, seeing their moniker on the mail, or their name in lights isn’t about stardom or fame as much as about the simple notion that they are a person. For young kids in particular, this recognition of their separateness from their family and their siblings makes them feel special.
  • The need for the now. Kids and tweens are certainly seasoned at impulse control – or at least savvy to the need to exhibit it in specific situations. But being told not to wait – that you can have something (an experience, a product, a service) – on your terms is not only indulgent, but exhilarating for kids and tweens.

But when you’re creating customize products or experiences for kids and tweens, proceed with caution…

  • Kids and tweens don’t really want to create from the ground up – at least when it comes to make-it-themselves products. Some kids and tweens, certainly, feel confident enough to act as authentic auteurs. But most prefer to put the pieces together in a unique way. And they want some assurances that you’ll help them “get it right” by giving them enough – but not too many – ways to assemble themselves.
  • Customization, alone, isn’t a proposition…Most brands, like Nike, need to establish themselves as products and experiences to admire and aspire to first. Once the brand is established, letting kids take it back and make it their own is all the more compelling.
  • Finally, customization looks different by age and stage.  Tweens shift from preferring their name emblazoned on everything to carefully selecting where they display. While kids and tweens both conceptualize customization as “play,” tweens are less interested in experimenting with forms and flavors than with their emerging identities. And putting their stamp on something they own is a much less risky proposition for confident kids than for tweens, who suddenly perceive that all eyes are seeing them.

Now, here’s your chance to customize this blog! Who do you think is getting it right when it comes to customization? Make your mark below!