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In the early 1960s, fast-food chain McDonald's hit upon a massively profitable long-term strategy: Get 'em while they're young.
The company started using the Ronald McDonald character in the early 1960s to attract very young children to the McDonald's brand. It was something of a marketing revolution at the time. Today, Ronald McDonald is the second most recognized character by American children -- second only to Santa Claus.
The company introduced Happy Meals in the 70s, playgrounds in the 80s, and online games and web sites in recent years. The company also invests heavily in establishing a presence in schools, funding McDonald's branded math, reading, PE, fund-raising and scholarship programs.
Together, these elements successfully forge powerful brand recognition, brand loyalty and brand preference among children before they're old enough to even know what marketing is.
It's a long-game strategy, which involves brand imprinting on children that results in loyal adult customers decades later.
As a result of this get-em-while-they're-young strategy, at least in part, McDonald's is the largest food chain in history, and serves about 68 million customers every day.
The lesson hasn't been lost on the technology industry.
Amazon Embraces the Ronald McDonald Strategy
The cost? $2.99 per child (or $6.99 per family). That's the price for Amazon Prime members; non-members pay $4.99 and $9.99, respectively.
The first month is free.
For the starkest of comparisons, understand that Apple charges parents $3.99 just to rent one children’s movie, such as "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas."
Amazon charges a dollar less for (theoretically) hundreds of titles than Apple charges for one. The content is top-shelf stuff, too. Amazon's press release specifies children's titles from Andrews McMeel Publishing, Chronicle Books, DC Comics, Disney, HIT Entertainment, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Marvel, Nickelodeon, PBS, Reading Rainbow and Sesame Workshop.
Importantly, the service is designed to give kids a safe place (safe both for kids' minds and parents' wallets) to explore and choose content on their own.
Amazon hasn't revealed how much money it’s willing to lose on giving free content to kids. It's obvious that Amazon is losing money on the deal — probably a lot of money.
Apple's Been Doing It for Years
Amazon's aggressive targeting of children is hardly unique. Apple has been doing it for years, in all kinds of subtle ways.
Apple's nearly 400 retail stores, many in shopping malls, are like playgrounds for children. In addition to allowing pawing of ordinary merchandise on the big tables, Apple thoughtfully installs kids' tables at most or all of their stores, where children can play with iPads and develop multi-touch addition and brand loyalty. Here's a picture I took at a California Apple Store.
The strategy is working. Nielsen reports that nearly half of the children surveyed want a full-sized iPad and an additional 36 percent want the iPad mini or iPod Touch for the holidays. One third of kids surveyed also want an iPhone.
Apple also recently unveiled their broader education and book publishing strategy, which forgoes revenue in favor of targeting children.
The company aggressively sells iPads as textbooks into schools around the world, offering steep discounts on hardware to schools. Many educators and school boards complained that iPads were just too expensive, both because the initial cost was high, and also because the cost of them being lost, broken or stolen was high.
Apple's new iPad Mini offering, however, is cheaper and much more compatible with school use.
And iBooks Author, Apple's new electronic book creation and publishing tool, explicitly encourages teachers and students to use the tool to create books and distribute them for free.
Apple created iBooks author so that a sixth grader could use it to write a paper; a teacher could use it to cobble together a textbook for the whole class, and a Pulitzer-prize winning author could use it to create and publish serious fiction.
The strategy is designed, no doubt, to leverage the popularity of iPad in education to engender brand loyalty for iBooks Author tools, both for the creation and consumption of written and multimedia content.
Is the Ronald McDonald Approach Right for Tech?
I think Amazon's and Apple's relentless and costly marketing to children will pay off in the long run. As someone who has switched platforms on both desktop and mobile, it's clear that switching is difficult and requires a lot of motivation.
And that's why targeting children is such a powerful marketing strategy for platform companies. If you can deliver a person from high school already holding strong opinions about which computing or mobile platform they know and love, you've probably got a loyal customer for life.
Amazon’s new Kindle FreeTime Unlimited program takes the idea to a whole new level, both in the degree to which Amazon is willing to lose money in order to get kids in the habit of turning to Amazon and Kindle for content, and also in the age group, which starts with three-year-olds.
To paraphrase the late singer Whitney Houston, Amazon and Apple apparently believe that the children are their future.