Prior to Justice being sold at auction and closing all of its stores, the leading tween fashion retailer announced in July 2020 that it would close 600 of its retail locations. Less than four months later, fellow mall-based fashion retailer Francesca’s started teasing a tween line, Franki, on Instagram. It launched on November 21, and according to the company, it went from concept to market in just 103 days. 

Increasingly, tween and teen customers have become hot targets for fashion brands and retailers, from new startups to established players. According to advertising agency Barkley, Gen Z (ages 6-24) spends an estimated $143 billion a year, and that excludes their influence on household buying decisions. Roughly a quarter of the population is under 20 years old, and teens spend a majority of their income on clothing, per Piper Sandler.  

While creating clothes for the demo is one thing, getting customers to buy the styles is quite another. The tween and teen fashion brands that are seeing good traction early on have come to hold shared beliefs about their target shopper and, therefore, lean on parallel strategies. Along with peer-to-peer recommendations and the idea of freedom of expression, their marketing centers on age-based aspiration, authenticity and open communication of values — all shared through digital channels, of course. 

Below is a breakdown of the core-Gen-Z marketing playbook of 2021, according to those insiders.

Promote personal expression
Gap entered the teen market with a capsule collection for girls in the summer of 2020. It started as “a little experiment to bridge the gap between kids’ and adult [apparel],” said Mary Alderete, CMO of Gap. The company built on the concept in the fourth quarter with a boys’ teen collection. 

“This market is unique,” said Alderete. “What’s really important to them is [that brands] really hit that sweet connection point between how they’re feeling and what they’re doing, and recognize them for who they are.” 

In doing so, she said, it’s important to not tell teens what to wear, but to instead set the stage for them to find their own personal style. 

Likewise, with Franki, Francesca’s is leading with a concept of embracing one’s own identity, said Tasha Blackman, Francesca’s interim vp of marketing. “It’s about being fearless and showing the world who you are, and really expressing your confidence in really unique ways,” she said. 

When Alderete moved over to Gap from Gap Inc.’s Banana Republic in February 2020, she brought marketing in-house, and set out to “ramp up the youthful energy and bring more focus to this idea of individuality,” she said. Both concepts were signatures of Gap in the ’90s, and they play into Alderete’s overall focus on “culturally relevant expressions of modern American optimism,” she said. The phrase is now displayed on a wall at the corporate office.

In addition, “mostly all of our digital media is now social media,” she said, calling the approach to content creation “1,000% different than 12 months ago.” Between its Gap and Gap Kids accounts, the retailer currently has 4.4 million Instagram followers. It has just one TikTok account (@Gap) with just one post that has less than 1,000 followers.

Both focuses are evident in the latest teen campaign, NxtGen Gap, released earlier this month. Like the company’s initial teen campaign called Be the Future, it spotlights a range of teen crusaders and philanthropists. This time, they include transgender youth activist Rebekah Bruesehoff (20,000 followers) and clean-water activist Mari Copeny (157,000 Instagram followers). 

“We’re turning the brand over to them,” said Alderete. Recent @GapKids Instagram posts and Stories feature the teen activists and information on the efforts they’re spearheading. To build on the co-creation of marketing, Alderete suggested that co-creating products with the activists is in Gap Teen’s future. 

For its part, Franki has also embraced digital-first marketing featuring an array of influencers. Francesca’s Instagram posts teased the line in mid November, and weeks later, the line was rolled out and introduced to current and potential Francesca’s customers. The marketing mix at launch included its website’s homepage, its newly launched app, customer emails, and Instagram and TikTok posts tagged #frankibyfrancescas. Posts by influencers “representing inclusivity and diversity” were shared across social platforms. 

To provide teens with a more personalized experience, a Franki website and dedicated social accounts are “goals for the future,” said Blackman.

Facilitate peer-to-peer recommendations
“Representation, and giving teens the opportunity to see themselves [in marketing] is important,” said Alderete, who went on to note the power of influencers backing the brand. “It’s best when [influencers] tell other people about you, as opposed to you telling people about yourself.”  

She said that “TikTok happened” for the brand in recent months, thanks to a combination of organic influencer posts. They included dancer Kyndall Harris doing a TikTok dance tutorial in a Gap sweatsuit, posts on Emma Chamberlain doing a YouTube video in a Gap arch logo hoodie and posts hyping a vintage gap hoodie in a trending neutral-brown shade — the style is now being sold on eBay for $200.

Gap’s “full funnel” approach to marketing Gap Teen can now be broken down to two parts, Alderete said: connecting with teens via teen influencers on their choice platforms and marketing to moms through Gap’s go-to levers. The latter include promotion on Gap.com, paid Instagram posts and TV spots. It also advertises via Google AdWords, zeroing in on “teen” and related terms.

Likewise, Rachel Thebault, co-founder of 5-month-old teen brand Woodley + Lowe, said that “word of mouth is the most important factor for driving success” in the category. 

“With this age group, the whole funnel is really tricky,” she said. “Millennials have the disposable income to see an ad on Instagram and just buy something immediately. This market does not have that behavior.”

At the same time, rather than looking to editors and celebrities for what’s cool, “It’s more about [teens] getting together and making a decision together, like, ‘This is the next style of sweatpants that we want to be into,’ or ‘This is the next kind of shoe that we love,’” said Thebault.

So, for marketing, “getting in front of her on all the platforms where she is, and letting her discover [the brand] for herself” has been Woodley + Lowe’s approach. Instagram and TikTok posts have exclusively been organic. The brand gifts products to influencers, who post unboxing and review-style videos, which the brand then reposts. Beyond user-generated content, Woodley + Lowe posts videos of styles on “real girls,” which have proven most impactful, based on engagement. On Snapchat, it runs paid ads via videos of ambassadors talking “like a friend” about a Woodley + Lowe style. 

Don’t call them teens
“I call it ‘women’s light,’” Thebault said, of the tween-to-teen category. According to her, teens don’t aspire to be like people who are their age. “You’re always wanting to dress like the slightly older girl. If you’re 12, you want to buy what the 16-year-olds are wearing.”

So, “a women’s brand with a very young vibe” is the focus for Woodley + Lowe, despite that its size range starts at Youth 12. When scouting influencers, it considers girls ages 15-26.  

On the same note, Blackman said that Franki was motivated by young shoppers coming into Francesca’s stores with their older siblings and wanting to buy the same styles.

For Gap Teen, Alderete said Jane Pattinson Devlin, vp and head of design at Gap, has also been inspired by adult fashion trends like tie dye. Nailing proportions and fit for the teen customer are keys to getting the line right, Alderette said. 

Authentically care about what they care about
“The [Gap Teen] line was designed to be for a generation majorly plugged into the planet,” said Alderete. “[Gen Z] cares, and they know; they’re aware.”

So, she’s charged her team with keeping up: “I always say, ‘You have to spend so much of your time, not at your desk, but on your phone or with music or out in the world understanding the film, music, video and dance references, the vernacular, the language, the voice,’” she said. “We have to be immersed, so that we can connect authentically and relevantly.”

When it comes to supporting a brand, what Gen Z cares about its values, “specifically around sustainability, inclusivity and diversity,” she said. “They want to know that they’re contributing to something bigger.”

Copeny, who’s been featured in both of Gap Teen’s campaigns to date, supported that: “I always look at if they are doing anything for the overall good of youth when [scouting] new brands,” she said. She typically finds them on TikTok and Instagram. 

According to Thebault, Woodley + Lowe’s shoppers and influencers repeatedly mention its 100% compostable mailers in their social posts. They also hype that they helped a small business when purchasing from the brand. 

Moving forward, with updates to the Woodley + Lowe’s e-commerce site, Thebault plans to further cater to her shoppers’ priorities. 

“I want to reimagine the mall shopping experience, but through an online platform with Gen-Z values,” she said. If all goes as planned, the site will include a social commerce component, allowing shoppers to consult with friends on purchases, and a social impact course where they can learn about ways to contribute, for example. “The ’90s version [of the mall] is vapid and ‘mean girl.’ But the Gen-Z version centers on social impact and community.” 

5 questions with the founders of new tween bra brand Apricotton 

For a school project at Western University in London, Ontario, Chloe Beaudoin and Jessica Miao put together a business plan for a tween bra brand they named Apricotton. Now recent graduates, they’re hellbent on growing the brand, which officially launched via a Shopify site on November 1. So far, while holding full-time jobs and leaning on seven volunteers, they’ve achieved 300% month-over-month sales growth, as well as 2 million impressions and 15,000 across social channels. Glossy spoke with the founders to ask about their challenges to date and plans for the future. 

What inspired the brand?
Beaudoin: Jessica and I were talking about our own first experiences with bra shopping — you had the option of going to the very sexualized lingerie stores, which are not the best for 12-year-olds, or going to a department store, where the [training] bras are one-size-fits-all and not very good quality. As we were talking about it, Jessica’s younger sister was actually going through that phase, 10 years later. We surveyed almost 100 girls [while developing the line], and not a single girl said she had a positive first bra-shopping experience. So the white space we saw was a bra that fits [a preteen], and that’s age-appropriate, stylish and high quality. 

What was the biggest challenge in getting it off the ground?
Miao: We started planning for the launch in April, at the peak of Covid. So a lot of [manufacturers] were closed, and it was hard to have those initial conversations. But once the [pandemic] got better in China, we were able to find a Chinese manufacturer. And I speak Mandarin, so I can actually call our contact over WeChat; we’ve developed more of a personal relationship. [Chloe and I] design the bras, and then we share the tech pack to our manufacturer, and then they give us feedback and draft more of a professional-looking version, and then make paper patterns and go from there.

How are you getting the word out?
Miao: We focus on organic Instagram and TikTok posts. On Instagram, which we got off the ground first, we were able to connect with moms there; we’ve probably partnered with 30 mom influencers. But our own Instagram posts are more tailored toward tweens. It’s not just bras; we post about things like whether or not you can go swimming while on your period and other quick puberty tips. For my personal TikTok, I create videos about how I started the business and [navigated] things like packaging. We’ve been able to consistently create viral TikToks; many of our videos have over 10,000 views. [It helps that] the small business niche is trending on TikTok. Also, being genuine is important; I reply to every single comment, and that incentivizes more girls to comment and interact. We were originally shipping just to Canada, but because of the huge response from TikTok, half of our sales are to U.S. customers now.

Has fundraising come into play?
Beaudoin: We haven’t raised any money yet, but we were in our Western University accelerator, so that was helpful, in terms of just getting an initial couple thousand dollars. Since, we’ve just been funding things from past sales. But hopefully we can look for investment soon; that’s on our list.

Do you want to continue selling exclusively DTC?
Beaudoin: We do, just because of the [alternative] bra shopping experiences. When you walk into a lingerie store, there are a lot of sales associates which often intimidate young girls. But bra shopping with your mom can sometimes also be awkward, too. With us, you get your package in the mail, it’s easy to open, it’s easy to try on at home. Plus, we’ve created our packaging to look like a gift. So when you open it up, it’s actually a celebration instead of an awkward moment. But we’ve been in talks with a 50-year-old prom dress shop in London, Ontario about having a quick display in their store, which would be really exciting.

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