PARENT MARKETING: AMERICA'S BABY BOON - Targeting parents is big business in an otherwise flat US market

Yet the ads are just as likely to be for SUVs and printers as for baby wipes. Jim Edwards reports on this expanding sector.

With adspend so flat in the US during the past two years, one area stands out for bucking the trend. Marketing to parents has grown as if it were occupying an alternative universe where the recession, the war and the 11 September attacks never happened. Media targeting parents has experienced double-digit, multimillion-dollar growth.

Take Parents magazine. In 2002, it took $151 million in ad revenue, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR. In 2001, it saw $130 million, which was up from $122 million in 1999.

Parents, owned by Gruner & Jahr, is not alone. Parenting, owned by Time Inc, went from $96 million in 1999 to $133 million in 2002; and American Baby, owned by Meredith Corp, went from $55 million in 1999 to $88 million last year. And spend across all the parent-oriented titles rocketed from $399 million in 1999 to $576 million in 2002.

At the same time, the category itself got thicker. Three years ago, CMR tracked only seven parenting titles. An internet search this year reveals 14 such titles, including such obscurata as Epregnancy, Fit Pregnancy and Baby Talk.

To put the scale of the business in perspective, consider that the top men's magazine in the US is Dennis Publishing's Maxim, a category killer with a circulation of about 2.5 million, which generated $30 million in paid-copy revenue last year. But the headline-grabbing Maxim is eclipsed by the rarely talked-about Family Circle, owned by G&J, which generated $62 million from its circulation in the same period. While Maxim drew in $179 million in ad dollars last year, its elder-and-better went to the bank with $253 million.

Over the same gloomy period that saw ad executives selling their beach houses, a cottage industry of parent-marketing consultancies has grown up to advise clients and agencies on how to reach moms and dads. Those shops include Forty Weeks, based in Washington DC, and BSM Media in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

On first impression, such shops seem folksy and microscopic - the kind of tiny businesses that are forever blinking on and off the US ad radar.

Forty Weeks, for instance, also sells its own lavender and chamomile pregnancy knick-knacks. And when you call the contact number for BSM, you get straight through to its chief executive, Maria Bailey.

But don't ignore them. BSM's client list includes Microsoft, Burger King, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Office Depot, and Forty Weeks has advised Showing magazine and Pregnancy & Baby magazine.

American mothers spend $1.7 trillion a year in the US, according to Bailey, who culled that statistic from the US Department of Agriculture, the federal agency that records consumer spending.

"Sixty per cent of car-buying decisions were made by the female in the house, even if they're buying a truck," Bailey says. "Office Depot has recently realised that 70 per cent of their customers are women. If you really look at who buys the most stuff, the lowest-hanging fruit are working mothers because many of them are small-business owners. And they are the CEOs of their home."

Advertisers are coming around. Those parenting magazines may be thick with ads for infant formula and talcum powder, but they're also bringing in pages for Canon colour printers, Adobe PhotoShop, Dodge cars, MasterCard and GM Goodwrench. In other words, advertisers are realising that targeting high-spending parents may be more efficient than trying to spread all their dollars across the 18-49 demographics generally.

"(Advertisers) may say sorry, we have not specified new moms as our target," Joseph Lagani, the vice-president and publishing director of the American Baby Group, says. "What we tell them is, well if you want to think about reaching young women in general there's a lot of different ways to do it. One of the greatest affinities for women aged 18 to 34 is beauty and fashion, but having a baby is also a big affinity."

Parents' publisher, Jan Studin, puts it a little more bluntly. "Parents will do anything to provide for their children. Marketers now know that this category has tremendous opportunity for growth."

Unlike more cyclical categories such as finance or technology, where spending is dependent upon short-term waves in the economy, the parents business has a built-in engine that renders it immune from recession: the birth rate.

"There were about four million babies born in the US in 2001," Lagani says. "And that is projected to increase over the next eight to ten years to about 4.4 million. That's more babies being born than during the absolute height of the baby boom in the US. We have a robust market to serve."

Agencies are taking note. Euro RSCG Worldwide in New York devoted four chapters of its autumn 2002 consumer attitudes survey to parents and families. "A kid is now a status symbol in a way that it wasn't before," Marian Salzman, Euro RSCG's chief strategic officer, says. "People define themselves as architects of family life, that's how Americans define themselves."

Of course, there's a question to be asked here: is more money really pouring into the parenting business? Or is it just hype?

Media buyers are sceptical. They note that agencies have targeted mothers ever since David Ogilvy announced: "The consumer isn't a moron, she is your wife."

"Budgets are really flat," Virginia Rowe, a vice-president at MindShare New York on the Gerber and Mead Johnson businesses, says.

Renee Milliaressis, the president of strategy at MediaVest in New York, notes that the categories that have always been aimed at parents - food and nappies - tend to be staples that survive recessions anyway. They may appear to be increasing in importance, but that is perhaps due to the fact that more fragile categories - technology and finance - have dwindled. The tide has gone out leaving the rocks exposed.

"I'm not reading about this as a trend. I'm not seeing it. And I'm not getting it viscerally from clients in any way. Many clients we work with are interested in reaching moms and dads as parents, but that is by no means a new concept," Milliaressis says.

Time - and pregnancy rates - will indicate whether the trend is real or not. In the meantime, the parenting sector remains one of the few at the moment that is proving irresistible to advertisers.