Justice Studios Caters to the Tween Scene

Peter Tonguette
The first three books in the “UltraSquad” series from Justice Studios

What do you think of when you think of the tween retailer Justice? Surely glittery T-shirt slogans and trendy clothes and accessories, but what about a popular graphic-novel series, a local documentary and an annual awards show?

Since last year, Justice has been producing such original content through a joint venture with Columbus production company Elevate Pictures, under the name Justice Studios.

According to Justice marketing-strategy director Traci Graziani, whether the retailer is selling clothes and accessories or telling stories, its mission remains the same: to make girls feel good about themselves. When a tween walks into a Justice store, Graziani says, “Everything in there is for you and to make you feel you're confident and empowered and your best self. … We strive for that in everything—in our product and all of those experiences.”

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The messaging is apparently working: Even in today's struggling retail environment, the company remains popular with tweens—and their parents—with annual brand sales holding steady around $1 billion for the last three years.

Justice's shift to curating “experiences” reflects trends that have become pervasive in marketing. “Our parents and our girls and the way that they're shopping is different,” Graziani says. “How we reach them and connect with them as marketers is changing every single day.”

Adds Elevate CEO Jeremy Hughes: “Storytelling is the only differentiator that is truly apparent in what is today's world.”

Prior to Justice Studios, the retailer had worked with Elevate on seasonal marketing campaigns. “We were developing video content, whether it was music videos or series, which we're still doing as part of the brand,” Graziani says. “Where we've expanded is in partnering with them to develop those original [intellectual properties] that are bigger, vast story worlds,” she says.

For Elevate, the partnership made perfect sense. “Justice had a brand affinity that was second to Disney as far as the retail space for girls that were in the tween age group,” Hughes says. “We were like, ‘This is prime for us being able to build what would be an entertainment studio here—actually standing up properties that kids could fall in love with.' ” Such an approach also would help sustain the brand outside of its peak shopping periods of holiday, spring and back-to-school, he says.

Take, for example, theUltraSquad graphic-novel series by Central Ohio tween author Julia DeVillers and illustrator Rafael Rosado. The series, which revolves around a cadre of young women with superpowers at their disposal, has so far spawned three titles. “If you flip through anUltraSquad book, you can see the characters jump off the page,” Graziani says. “It all comes back to empowering the girl, lifting them up, setting them up for the future.” In addition to a fourth book scheduled for release next spring, a new line of related merchandise is in development. (Find the first three books at Justice stores, Barnes & Noble and Amazon.)

For DeVillers, the Justice partnership represents a rare opportunity to create content in her own backyard. “I'm usually working here in Columbus alone, and then I fly out to New York,” says DeVillers, who penned a previous line of books when the company was known as Limited Too. “Whereas here we have this whole team in Columbus, and we meet in person. We celebrate in person when the book is done.”

Equally impactful is the Live Justice Awards, the second installment of which was livestreamed from Los Angeles in June. The show, Graziani says, “honors girls that are changing the world through an award, through recognition and then also through charitable donation on their behalf to the organizations that they're making an impact [with].” The event—co-produced by Elevate and Tiny Horse—boasts a constellation of stars popular with tweens, but its focus is applauding girls who make positive contributions to the places they live.

Justice Studios also produced “Finding Clara,” a documentary that follows the young dancers cast in the lead role in BalletMet's 2017 production of “The Nutcracker.” The film offered a kind of wish-fulfillment for those who watched, says BalletMet marketing director Lynette Shy. “I think it's always fun as a kid to envision yourself in a different role, and that is something that we do all the time here,” Shy says.

Although Justice clothing is seen throughout “Finding Clara,” the documentary (available on iTunes) had a purpose beyond promoting Justice and BalletMet. “What ‘Finding Clara' really is about is finding your individual self and who you are,” Graziani says. “If you have kids, especially daughters, this age of 10, 11, 12—right there in our sweet spot—is one of the most challenging times: You're doing a lot of firsts and you're figuring out who you're going to be.” The experiences of the girls cast as Clara, she says, reflect that journey of self-discovery.

The response to Justice Studios among the retailer's demographic has been enthusiastic, Graziani says, with content being widely viewed and engaged, though the company doesn't share numbers. She chalks the success up to parents who have confidence in the Justice name. “Coming from a brand that you know is trusted, that puts that customer at the core and cares about the relationship that you're building with your daughter, that what it's about for us,” Graziani says.