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Children today are more powerful as purchasers than ever before. The latest research from Gallup for Wall’s indicates that weekly pocket money in the past three years alone has risen from an average of 182p to 205p.

In addition, children have far greater access to TV than parents or schedulers may realise. According to the SMRC ChildWise Class of ’94 survey, 25 per cent of nine to 12-year-olds watch TV after the 9pm watershed and this figure rises to nearly 50 per cent at weekends. As many as 66 per cent of children have TVs in their own room, while 16.5 per cent also have a personal video.

In the realm of new technology, children are streets ahead of their parents. The main group of computer games players are young teenagers and a staggering 93 per cent of households with children between the ages of ten and 15 have their own games hardware, while only 30 per cent of households without children are similarly equipped (MMC/HMSO, March 1995).

But it is not only the power of older children to make their own purchases that is increasing. Younger children have more influence than ever when shopping with their parents. New, qualitative research from Coley Porter Bell, in conjunction with Research International, investigated how children and their parents react as consumers when in supermarkets. From a series of accompanied shops, some of which were video-taped, CPB examined children’s responses to different style images on brands, the influence of advertising in-store and the balance of power between parents and children when it comes to choosing which products to purchase.

The “Buy-Me” research confirms that the image of the fickle child consumer is an accurate one. Children are very promiscuous shoppers, likely to switch brand allegiance at the drop of a hat. Yet children are also more brand aware and visually literate than their parents. They can cope better with clutter on-pack, selecting their preferred products easily and quickly, whereas older consumers tend to prefer and need a clear hierarchy of information.

The research also showed a high level of recognition of favoured brands, even among children too young to read. This recognition is based on colour rather than graphic imagery. And children are particularly quick to respond to merchandised characters on pack, spotting them well in advance of their parents, who are more focused on trying to find the items on their shopping list.

Characters, offers and promotions are extremely popular with children. Even when the offer is small and the pack very crowded, children will ferret it out. Kids are avid collectors and almost anything, from small plastic figures to printed cardboard circles, can become collectable items – with a high “swapability” value in the playground.

Coley Porter Bell chairman Colin Porter says: “The research underlines just how hard it is for a parent to wade through a shop with a child present and how much influence the child has. Mothers make compromises all the time to keep their children quiet.”

Few parents will repeat-buy a product if their children did not like it the first time. However, many are prepared to try something new if the child pesters them for it and it appears neither inappropriate nor significantly outside the price bracket that a particular parent would expect to pay for such a product.

Mary Lewis, creative director at design agency Lewis Moberly, says: “Parents, usually mothers, buying for their children can be placed on a spectrum from ‘controller’ to ‘indulger’. The former is aiming to buy what she would like the child to have; the latter buys what the child wants. Both feel they are doing the best for their children. As packaging designers we need to understand how brands and products are likely to be perceived by each group of parents. Indulgers can be relatively easy to satisfy, but we really do need to work at making packaging acceptable to the more critical ‘controllers’. For these mothers the worst category is sweets. They don’t want their child to have them but they end up feeling guilty when they deny them.”

Lewis recommends pack designs that appeal both to children and their mothers and cites as examples her own agency’s toothy Clarence the Crocodile and teeth-cleaning Barney the Bird characters. Both Clarence and Barney were created for a range of Boots sugar-free sweets for children. Lewis says: “There’s enough there in terms of characters to attract the child. But there’s even more for mum.”

The importance of developing characters for a brand rather than slapping on one of the famous characters already being used across a spectrum of products – Gladiators or Power Rangers, for example – is endorsed by the Coley Porter Bell/Research International research. CPB recommendations focus on the need to create brand loyalty.

Porter says: “Brand owners should create their own personalities based on the equities of their brands. If they want to create an in-depth relationship with the consumer, based on their brands’ actual values, they must create brands with character rather than borrow characters to stick on their brand.”

CPB findings also suggest that brand owners should explore opportunities for extending the merchandising of their created brand characters across other media, into cartoons, fanzines and computer games, for example. These, Porter argues, should not overtly sell the product but rather reinforce the character of the brand.

Own-label brand owners have particularly strong opportunities to do this as they enjoy such control over the retail environment. Their brand characters – or dressed-up human versions of them – could patrol the store; while cartoons featuring the same characters could be shown at selected points along the aisles.

The ITC does, of course, have rules regulating the use of characters that were created for advertising purposes, but there is still considerable potential for brand and own-brand owners to exploit the medium.

Creating longevity in the relationship between child and brand character means that the characters will have to evolve constantly in line with the changing visual imagery accessible to children. Not all clients are prepared to invest in this evolution. The Snap, Crackle and Pop Rice Krispie kids and Frostie’s Tony the Tiger are popular characters which, Porter argues, have been allowed to get out of date. He says: “They are still very much cartoon characters from the Seventies which act as symbols for the product but do not really add much value.”

Porter suggests that through advertising and packaging the characters could be brought up to date. Placing them in new situations and making them slightly less safe would increase their appeal to kids, according to research findings which suggest that, as part of the early stages of growing up, children are keen on pushing the boundaries away from the images parents would choose for them. Porter says: “The characters need to be a bit more rebellious. Tony needs to get some street cred.”

CPB itself has attempted to give a more contemporary feel to the established Penguin brand. Previous designs used a static penguin character. CPB launched a new pack early this year which shows the penguin in different situations, thus making a little visual joke on each bar. The new look reflects the TV advertising and makes the chocolate biscuits – classic lunchbox fare – into swapable commodities in the playground.

The Tango brand has also had success in establishing its own brand values through both advertising and packaging. The latest development – the orange doll – carries through the unusual and slightly cheeky character of the brand.

Supporting a brand through on-pack design and, in particular, brand characters, can be established from the launch date. Britvic is currently testing a new product called Ice Junkies: fizzy, ice-cream slush drinks in a range of florescent colours that are to be sold in leisure centres and cinemas. The brand’s design, through CPB, uses two geeky Bill and Ted type characters who have just been hit by a snowball, plus the copyline “they’re not cool, they’re freezing”.

Says Porter: “Many people make the mistake of thinking kids want brand characters they can aspire to. In fact the Ice Junkies pair are a bit idiotic and are there to be laughed at, which goes down very well. Yet the product has some street cred, the word ‘junkie’ for instance making it a little bit dangerous.”

Children obviously have a great deal of influence over their parents’ shopping patterns. Parents may give in to repeated pestering to buy a product; or they may feel tied to buying products that their children will actually eat or use. The moral of the tale is clear: clients ignore the visual world of the child at their peril.

Further to the special report Lesson from America (MW October 20), First Artist Corporation would like to clarify that the Evening Standard Five a Side sponsorship was not bartered in return for airtime from Sky television and that Sky has never taken advertiser-funded sports programming from First Artist, nor has it guaranteed any airtime around the programme nor any commercials and that the reference to this type of negotiation was an illustration of how First Artist negotiates certain programming with some television networks. The same article referred to the Celica car, which is, of course, made by Toyota and not Honda, as suggested.

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