To Mum, an 8lb consumer

Yes, your baby needs food, wipes and nappies, but do new parents need to be constantly bombarded with products? Meg Carter reports
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The Independent Online
Having a baby? Congratulations! You're now part of a highly attractive target market. Falling birth rates and growing competition mean manufacturers of baby food, clothes and other products are sharpening their weapons to battle for you and your baby.

From the first trip to the doctor's surgery, the expectant mum is under fire. Don't expect any sanctuary in the ante-natal clinic, either: it's a "creative poster medium", according to the baby marketing specialists Bounty. Even after the birth, prepare to be inundated with junk mail timed to coincide with every stage of your baby's development.

"This used to be a gloves-on arena with no competitive claims. Not so now," Drusilla Gabbot of the advertising agency Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO told delegates at a Marketing to Pregnant Women conference in London last month. And no wonder: not only are we having fewer children, we're having them later.

Of the 699,000 babies born in 1991, one-third were to mothers aged over 30. In 1994, births had fallen to 664,000; of these, 40 per cent were to those aged 30-plus. Meanwhile, established baby brands face growing competition from cheaper supermarket versions. Baby foods, nappies, wipes and lotions - you name it, there's a cheaper, own-label alternative.

Consumers are demanding improved quality, more natural, eco-friendly and convenience products, manufacturers claim. Which is why today's mum- to-be is bedazzled by a stunning array of accessories, from baby-friendly soaps, detergents and lotions with UV filters to automated disposable nappy sanitisers, Macleans' "Junior" mouthwashes, Moulinex "baby chef" food processors, not to mention Mexican, Spanish and French-style processed baby foods "for your little gourmet".

"The market is being driven by increased demand for convenience products and product innovation in spite of falling birth rates," saysStephen Martin, new business development manager, Cow & Gate Nutricia. Great news for big business? Undoubtedly. But is it good news for parents, too?

Sue Johnson, 28, who is expecting her first baby next month, is not so sure: "I've developed a voracious appetite for information and have sent off for numerous information booklets. But while some are useful, others are contradictory and, inevitably, biased."

Sophie Mackenzie, 31, whose baby, Joseph, was born last month, believes some companies take advantage: "When you're pregnant you want to buy everything. But I'm already wary of manufacturers claiming 'your baby needs this'. There's a lot you don't really need."

Marketing experts are only too ready to capitalise on inexperience. "There isn't anybody as brand-disposed as a first-time mum," says Ms Gabbot. "She is - I won't say gullible - persuadable." Anxious, confused, excited and enthusiastic, the new mum invariably sticks with the first brand tried, wary of risking a rash or other upset by swapping brands. But marketing experts insist their tactics are getting better, not worse.

"The old notion that 'M' equals maternal and mindless is waning," says Laura Haynes, managing director of the design company Beresford's. "If there's a problem, it's when manufacturers don't know what they want to say. They try to communicate everything and confuse the consumer or make them miss the point. 'Pure' doesn't mean anything any more."

It's a concern shared by a growing number of healthcare professionals. Although unwilling to endorse products, they are increasingly being approached by manufacturers seeking their stamp of approval on information booklets and research. "We get two approaches a week," says Malcolm Macmillan, spokesman for the Royal College of Midwives (RCM). "Last year we took up none."

Growing competition means the race is on for manufacturers to put their product in front of the mum-to-be. Product sampling is a growth area dominated by Bounty, whose 260-strong team guarantees its "New Mother Pack" is at your hospital bed within 72 hours of birth. The company also produces publications and sells lists of mothers' names and addresses.

Most mums welcome Bounty. "Ninety per cent of women giving birth receive them; 80 per cent agree for their details to go on to our mailing list," says Bounty's publications director, Paul D'Inverno. But the RCM is worried about Bounty's exclusive deals with many hospitals and clinics. "Pregnant women are entitled to as much information as possible," Mr Macmillan says.

Expect no respite. With birth rates and consumer confidence failing to show any sign of an upswing, it's tough out there - and not only for traditional baby brands. "Childbirth is a watershed for a lot of products," explains Gabbot. It stimulates sales of consumer durables - such as cars and washing machines - and prompts a review of other items, from clothes to detergents. And, of course, it results in a brand new, little consumer. Which is why Compaq computers is joining forces with Fisher-Price to develop a range of baby computer products. It certainly pays to catch 'em young.