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Branded for life?

By the time they hit first grade, most US children are aware of some 200 logos – many dangled by firms out to secure their long-term loyalty.

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AT AN UPSCALE TOY STORE in Boston's Back Bay, two teenagers scan shelves laden with Barbies and designer dolls. Suddenly, one cluster of figurines attracts their attention. The dolls, each about a foot tall, are childlike, cute, and well-groomed. But their clothing bears a designer label with an adult cachet: Tommy Hilfiger.

"I didn't know they made toys," says Johanna Scully, a 17-year-old from Franklin, Mass. The plastic figures – priced at $65 – are decked out in "jet-set outerwear" and navy peacoats. All carry the Hilfiger brand. Johanna calls the label-bearing dolls "strange."

Even though Hilfiger makes kids' clothing, Johanna's friend, Katie Guilfoil, considers it an adult brand. "I don't like the idea of marketing adult names to kids," says Katie, age 16. "They should let kids be kids."

But consumers such as Johanna and Katie may find similar products becoming more common on retail shelves across the country. In toy stores, supermarkets, specialty boutiques, and on the Internet, companies that have historically served adults are attaching their insignia to items that were once the exclusive province of kid culture – and kid brands.

In addition to the Hilfiger dolls, products include toy tools from Home Depot; baby clothes, jackets, and toy motorbikes from Harley-Davidson; biographies for children from the Arts & Entertainment channel; and junior golf-club sets from Taylor Made.

Other companies, such as Heinz, have simply renovated their existing products to appeal to a younger audience. (Think green and purple ketchup.) In many cases, these companies just seek to rev up profits in the short term by distinguishing themselves in a crowded market.

But some experts cite an emerging, long-term strategy of putting adult brands into the hands of young children, even babies. Studies show that children begin to recognize product brands at about 18 months. As a result, companies have pushed up the starting line of product promotion in order to make their mark before competitors do.

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