Taking on Baby Einstein’s DVD empire is a formidable task. But Juno, a precocious puppet with big googly eyes, pigtails and a red dress, is up for the job. Her strategy: Create original orchestral music for children, surround herself with a host of equally quirky characters (like Rai Rai, a toddler who wears nothing but a cape and diaper), and leverage mobile technology like no puppet has done before.
It won’t be easy. Baby Einstein is the 800-pound gorilla in the industry—it was bought by the Walt Disney Company back in 2001 and commands an estimated 90% of the infant media market. By contrast, Juno Baby (the startup that created Juno’s character) operates out of a small office in downtown San Francisco, where just 13 employees toil away on a line of DVDs, CDs, books, and iPad applications for tiny tots.
The market for babytainment is not only dominated by one mega-player, it’s also highly controversial. Just ask Baby Einstein, which has battled critics (including the American Academy of Pediatrics and child-advocacy groups, who say baby-specific programming could have a harmful effect on children’s development) for years.
Juno Baby started seven years ago, when pianist, Emmy Award-winning composer and new mom Belinda Takahashi went searching for classical music to play for her newborn daughter. "I was dismayed with everything that was out there," says Takahashi. So she teamed up with her husband, a former financial analyst named Adam Adelman, to create Juno—a muppet (named after the couple’s daughter) who sings along to originally composed live music, not synthesized melodies.
After tinkering with the idea and putting up their own cash to shoot a pilot video they ended up hating, Takahashi and Adelman finally launched Juno Baby in 2009. They brought in a CEO, raised $4.5 million in funding and put together an impressive advisory board that includes the former COO and president of FAO Schwarz and a psychologist from Yale University who specializes in childhood development and electronic media.
Last August, Juno Baby launched its products in FAO Schwarz stores (the company also sells on Amazon.com and says it’s in the process of closing deals with several additional retailers). Despite a growing lineup of original CDs, DVDs and colorful books, their hottest seller so far is the Juno plush toy. A Juno television show is in the works, though the company won’t disclose which network will carry it. Juno Baby already has one app on the iTunes store (the Music Learning Adventure, which is available for free download) and plans to launch about 18 more over the next year, including slick interactive books and virtual musical instruments.
It’s even developing a distribution platform (think of it as iTunes for babytainment) and plans to white-label apps for other content creators. "It isn’t just Nickelodeon and Disney who dictate what children will consume anymore," says Barrett Cohn, Juno Baby’s CEO.
The company relies on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook to spread the word and is heavily focused on selling its increasing portfolio of apps over the iTunes store—which has relatively little barrier to entry. There is big opportunity in mobile and tablet applications for children. A recent Duracell Toy Report listed the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad as the most-requested holiday gifts among children. An estimated 50% of moms who have iPhones let their kids use their phones; 29% of those moms have kids under four years old.
Of course, Juno’s not the only kid-friendly app in the iTunes store (where every children’s brand, from Curious George to Fisher Price sells digital books and games). Last May, Baby Einstein also launched an iPhone app that sells for $3.99 and features music, videos, and a digital scrapbook.
But even though more children are using mobile devices more often, critics who believe babies shouldn’t watch any programming aren’t likely to think they should be playing with iPads either. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study found that older children (ages eight to 18) who are heavy media users report getting lower grades. And the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends zero television programming for children under two, regardless of whether it’s viewed on a TV, laptop, or mobile device.
"The reality is that there is screen time for babies," says Liz West, a spokesperson for Disney’s Baby Einstein. "But there is no substitute for interaction with your baby." Earlier this week, Baby Einstein launched Discovery Kits, boxed sets that include a DVD, CD and picture book or cards that it says will "give parents another way to interact with their babies."
According to West, all Baby Einstein DVDs will now be sold as part of a kit. Juno Baby says it never makes claims that its products will make babies more intelligent. "We believe your baby is already smart," says Takahashi, Juno Baby’s co-founder.
Juno may not have the power to raise your child’s IQ, but she sure is cute. And her songs—about eating broccoli or getting a haircut—have won national awards and captivated the short attention span of many infants and toddlers, as attested by online reviews and moms’ blogs. Of course, parents—the tall people with the pockets full of money and smartphones just waiting to be used as a cheap alternative to babysitters—are Juno’s real demographic. At the rate new media usage is growing among young children, Juno can expect to go up against even more competition in the near future, not just from Baby Einstein.