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Addie Swartz 1987
Photo © 2005 by B*tween Productions, Inc.
Addie Swartz, a role model's model. The Kellogg alum stands among her Beacon Street creations.

Brand 'beacon' tries to light the way for girls 'between toys and boys'

By Rebecca Lindell

Addie Swartz's breakthrough moment occurred at a suburban mall while surrounded by a gaggle of 9-year-old girls and a life-size photo of a nearly naked woman. The girls were heading into a popular national retailer to shop for clothes. But the poster, placed unavoidably at the store's entrance, forced all of them to ponder the sexual imagery. After an awkward moment, one of the girls asked, "Why did they do that?" Swartz, a 1987 Kellogg School grad whose daughter was among the group, knew the answer and wasn't happy about it. "It seems sex sells," says Swartz, a successful entrepreneur who was growing frustrated with the brands and messages reaching her two young daughters. Meanwhile, her fourth-grader was returning home from school each day with tales of cliques, bullying and embarrassments - the sort of issues that can have a profound impact on a girl's self-esteem as she reaches adolescence. Most media geared toward girls this age seemed to play on their insecurities, while offering little help on issues that really troubled them, Swartz observed. "There wasn't anywhere for them to get a road map to maneuver through these situations," Swartz says. So she decided to create one. The result is the Beacon Street Girls, an empowering book-based lifestyle brand Swartz designed expressly for girls between the ages of 9 and 13 - the "tweens."

The brand is built around five characters who star in a series of books written not only to entertain, but to model strategies for thriving during the middle-school years. Fun, fashionable products - including jewelry, stationery, bags and room décor - are tied closely to the characters and storylines.

The brand is managed by B*tween Productions, the eight-employee company Swartz launched in 2002. The company published its first book in May 2004. Four more have followed, and the sixth is due this fall.

The Beacon Street Girls shop, play sports and have sleepovers. They also struggle with jealousy, competition, divorce and peer pressure.

There's klutzy, compassionate Charlotte, who wants to be a writer. Katani dreams of starting her own fashion-and-advice business. Athletic Avery was adopted from Korea as an infant. Fun-loving Maeve doesn't let her dyslexia interfere with her dreams of an acting career. Artistic Isabel is the new girl whose mother suffers from multiple sclerosis. "The idea was to capture the essence of real kids, not Britney Spears or Paris Hilton, blonde, thin and perfect all the time," Swartz says. "Those images are unattainable and unrealistic."

Swartz developed her characters specifically to speak to the needs and vulnerabilities of girls at this age. "Maeve, for example, is so full of life, but she's dyslexic," Swartz notes. "She's not good in school, her parents fight about it and they end up getting separated. She feels responsible. But, with the support of her friends, Maeve works through this. She talks about it. She's strong.

"That's reality, and we're trying to present it through characters who can speak to kids in a media-oriented environment. Because the media isn't going away. The question is, how can you use the power of the media to make a difference for girls?"

A brand that taps myths

One brand that has leveraged media exceptionally well - and which Swartz cites as an inspiration - is American Girl. The brand skews toward a slightly younger audience than Swartz's line and is a $380 million enterprise. Like the Beacon Street Girls, American Girl is rooted in literature. Each American Girl character is introduced through a fictional story based on American history. One American Girl, for example, struggles through the Great Depression; another escapes slavery via the Underground Railroad. "It's an amalgam of things girls are interested in - relationships and stories," says Mary Ann McGrath '73, who with Kellogg Professor John Sherry has been conducting an ethnographic study of the American Girl experience. The books have helped capture girls' imaginations, McGrath says, in part because they show girls overcoming challenges. "There isn't much of a mythology of strong girls in our culture," says McGrath, who earned her Kellogg PhD in 1988 and is now a marketing professor at Loyola University. "Without pushing them to grow up, these books say, 'As a girl, you're strong. You can manage a lot of difficult situations.'" But will such a message play to the middle-school crowd?

"There are a lot of expert marketers out there who say girls this age won't buy this because there isn't enough sex, violence or intrigue," Swartz says. "Yet, girls love our books. Since our launch in September, we've printed 180,000 books and we've gained a strong following.

"Certainly, there are seventh graders out there who wouldn't be interested in this, but that's OK," Swartz adds. "The market is big enough that I don't have to capture the attention of every girl."

That seems to be the case. The tween market is big and growing. Children this age spend about $11 billion a year themselves, while their parents spend an additional $176 billion on them, according to research cited by Swartz. The market is projected to grow by 15 percent each year. The venture is a calling for Swartz, who has spent much of her career focusing on the youth market. Her résumé includes stints at Disney, Reebok and Lotus Development.

While on maternity leave from Lotus after the birth of her first daughter in 1992, Swartz fielded so many questions from friends about educational software that she founded a company, BrightIdeas, to sell such products nationwide. She sold the company in 1996. The proceeds eventually became the seed money for B*tween Productions.

Swartz has raised an additional $2.5 million from private investors. Her executive team includes a number of seasoned pros, including the former head of product development at American Girl, the past sales director of the successful publisher Klutz, and several award-winning authors and designers. She also has assembled an independent advisory board of experts on girls' development to help ensure that the Beacon Street Girls remain true-to-life.

Swartz's most trusted advisers, however, are her young customers. The company relies on a "tween advisory board" to help determine story lines for upcoming books. Five hundred girls have joined the board, which is open to all Beacon Street readers.

Swartz is excited by the level of response.

"We put out a poll two weeks ago Friday. By the following Monday, we had a 48 percent response rate," Swartz marvels. The respondents often pose requests for new products. Several girls have asked for a "Beacon Street" sign to put in their bedrooms, while others want a walking guide of Brookline, Mass., where the series is based.

"They are embracing the world and want to extend it," Swartz says. "Our readers are helping to build the brand."

Swartz says the company is on track to generate $1 million in revenue in 2005. She also says she is fielding interest from several sources about an animated series based on the books.

The success is sweet, and so is the sense of creating a brand that empowers and inspires.

"My heart and soul are in this," Swartz says. "I'm excited about building a profitable business that can have such a positive impact on girls."

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University