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Edu-tainment: No Longer Just Child's Play

although I'm not fond of words that play off of "entertainment," for the purpose of this article we'll leave it be. Edu-tainment, most often associated with children's educational software programs, is also very much a part of science museums that allow visitors to interact with exhibits.

Proof of edu-tainment's legitimacy as a retail business model can be found in Noodle Kidoodle, a specialty retailer of children's educational products that's growing aggressively, opening 16 new stores last year and 10 this year. Noodle Kidoodle has based its company mission on the fact that "kids learn best when they're having fun."

Isn't the same tenet true for adults? Besides, both Gen-Xers and Boomers believe it's a right rather than a privilege to be entertained. The marketing message "I want my MTV" has filtered down into the body and soul of today's consumer.

Although not a new idea, edu-tainment will be the boom business in the coming decade. We're already seeing adult edu-tainment in various retail venues and brand names. Pottery Barn allows customers to learn and interact with its products - and, of course, take the products home with them.

Today's sophisticated and aging consumers hunger to learn something new or rekindle lost interests. They want to learn how your product or service can assist them in their lifestyle interests.

However, there is more to edu-tainment than education; it has great potential as a social occasion in which men and women can meet others of like interests. The nightclub scene of the '80s and theme environments of the '90s aregiving way to cooking, gardening, golfing, flyfishing and wine-making, as well as the pursuit of leisure hobbies via educational classes, clubs and meetings.

Who knows, tomorrow's gourmet cooking class could be the new hot spot for single adults to meet. In fact, it may already be happening. At Peabody Place in Memphis, Viking Culinary Arts Center opened as a cooking school complete with teaching kitchen and cooking theater. Viking Range Corp., based in Greenwood, Miss., specializes in commercial-style kitchen appliances for home use. Through these classes at the Culinary Arts Center, the company is educating customers on its story and products. Of course, the end result is to bond the consumer to its products.

Dr. Rolf Jensen, director of the Copenhagen Institute For Future Studies, writes in his recently published book, The Dream Society: "As cookie-cutter products inundate the market, companies of the future will have to differentiate themselves from their competitors by creating stories about who they are what they stand for - stories that appeal to the heart of the consumer." Such marketing giants as Disney, Nike and Rolex have long recognized society's appetite for a good story. Edu-tainment is an effective means by which retailers can communicate their story.

Edu-tainment can be a powerful tool if done right. It cannot be presented as an infomercial. Today's consumers are turning their backs on contrived themed environments and turning to more authentic experiences.

Edu-tainment is not only for white-collar professionals; to the contrary, it is most effective when presented for the masses. For example, Harley-Davidson told its story through Harley owners' groups that now boast nearly 400,000 individuals. This lifestyle group is so powerfully bonded to a product that owners serve as a sales force for the company - in other words, they pass the story along. The story strengthens rather than diminishes, as often is the case with high-growth companies. Once that story gets lost, so too does the customer.

Every retailer and developer has an opportunity to tell a story through edu-tainment. As consumers continue to seek out experiences, well-executed edu-tainment venues will proliferate. Edu-tainment provides repeat business, a loyal customer base and a social gathering place - and it is downright fun. As consumers grow numb to the thousands of marketing messages they are bombarded with on a daily basis, edu-tainment may offer a solution to "getting through to your customer." Educate and watch your product fly off the shelves.

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