Early Learners

Conducting market research surveys among the under 16-year-old age group is, according to received wisdom, something of a challenge. The combination of distinctly non-adult perceptions, ever-changing fashions and the fact that a child of six will have little in common with one of 13, make the term ‘the children’s market’ something of a misnomer.

Different research agencies meet the challenge in different ways. At Leapfrog managing director Judy Taylor argues that it is a mistake to hive off children’s research into its own separate world. She says: “I think that the way to approach children is the same way as to approach adults. You have to live part of their life, talk to them in the right language and observe them. You should talk to them in the same way as you would talk to an adult whose life you don’t understand or find hard to relate to.

The important thing is not to make the mistake of believing that just because we were once all children we can properly remember what it was like or that even if we could, it would give us much insight into the lives of children today.”

Suzanne Doherty, associate director of communications agency CbH, points out that many brand marketers believe they know about children and how they will react to marketing. But normal expectations that work in the adult world, can often be stood on their heads when it comes to children.

“For example,” she says, “children having disposable incomes is nothing to do with social groupings. Generally a child of ten living on an estate will have more money to spend than one who lives in a detached house in the suburbs. Middle-class parents are more likely to control what the children should be spending the money on.”

In addition, adds Doherty: “Children are just not as exciting and anti-establishment as people think. They tend to want simple messages that are not mould-breaking and creative. They actually want to be like mum and like the idea of participating in loyalty schemes and collecting points. They like to operate within expected norms and won’t be motivated by something off the wall.”

DMB&B global planning director Sally Ford Hutchinson agrees, adding that when it comes to research such a straightforward, black and white approach has both advantages and disadvantages. She says: “Children do tend to be much more blunt and less polite than adults. Things are either cool or crap. You may not get the subtlety that you have when researching with adults.”

This simplicity and straightforwardness is accompanied by a degree of narrowness when it comes to brand awareness, according to Martyn Richards, research director at SMRC.

He says: “Children link advertising to themselves and if it does not already live in their world and relate to them by showing the product being used, they will not understand what it’s for. In addition, as children get older their awareness of brands in any sector focuses on one or two big names, like Walker’s and Coca Cola, where adults will be aware of four or five,” (see table).

Despite the challenges of researching children, as a group they remain a lucrative target for advertisers, especially television advertisers. According to recent figures from SMRC not only does TV watching in children’s bedrooms remain common, but that 22 per cent of seven- to-14-year olds now have a video in their rooms as well.

In a sector which is lucrative but challenging, methodology becomes all important, and here researchers demonstrate a variety of approaches.

One innovative technique has evolved at design house Coley Porter Bell. Managing director Amanda Connolly explains: “As 70 per cent of purchase decisions are made in store, we feel that it is important to carry out some research in that retail environment. It is obviously valuable to observe all shoppers in this way, but we found it particularly helpful in assessing how much pack design and the shopping process influenced children and how much influence or pester-power those children had on their parents in the shop. Mothers often say they give their children the healthy options but if you actually watch them shopping and being pestered all sorts of things end up in the basket.

“Of course you need to carry out this kind of research in conjunction with qualitative focus groups – we had three elements to the project, first filming them discreetly going round the shop, then, the second time, actually accompanying them and picking up on any behaviour we observed happened on the first shop, then, thirdly, doing a traditional qualitative group – but it does help you to see what is really happening.”

When it comes to more conventional group research with children, methodology must be appropriate for the age group concerned. Jane Hobson is associate director, consumer division at Research International. She presented a paper on children at the recent Market Research Society annual conference.

“Children’s vocabularies are a lot smaller than the average adult and there are many concepts which they are too young to understand entirely,” says Hobson. “As a consequence they have a greater need for a non-verbal outlet for thoughts and feelings which can be utilised in research. Therefore we should pay greater attention to body language and incorporate paint ing, drawing or dressing up games to help us tap into what they are feeling as they are feeling it.”

Hobson recommends that for five-to-seven-year olds, research needs to be kept relatively short, about ten to 15 minutes, made visual or tactile and involve straightforward preference questions rather than the complicated scaling of responses. Drawing to express feelings can be particularly useful with this age group.

For seven-to-11 year olds the same principles apply but questioning can be longer – up to 20 minutes – and more involved and fuller probing can take place. At both of these stages the interview should be kept varied with lots of ‘doing’ things. At this age games of imagination can prove both fun for the child and productive for the researcher as in, for instance, a situation where the child is asked to imagine what had happened before or after an ad, and to describe it.

Most researchers agree that the biggest transformation for children occurs at around 11 when they move to secondary school. SMRC’s Richards points out that aspirations at this age are very strong. “A new magazine will come out and gradually fall to its accepted level among children. It may start out as a teen mag and you need to continue to target the older children, but it will end up being read by 11 and 12 year olds, aspiring to be older and more sophisticated.”

One category which is very rarely researched is the pre-school age group. The vast majority of researchers agree that interviews are of very limited use with the under-fives and that observation is fundamental here. The Teletubbies, aimed at the two to four year age group has always been researched thoroughly, although not in a formally recognised way.

Creator Anne Wood explains: “We develop our ideas through our work of watching children both in our specially designed shop in Stratford-upon-Avon and through our focus groups. We try to observe the child’s world and improve our understanding of how children relate to the world.”

At the Ragdoll shop staff keep a record of all adult and child comments that may be of interest to producers. In addition the co-ordinator for testing regularly watches The Teletubbies with children in the play centre in the shop and passes observations on to the team.

At the beginning of The Teletubbies project video tapes were taken of children watching the programme to provide clues as to which elements appealed to the young viewers. Children watched in the company of nursery school teachers who also offered helpful guidance in interpreting the children’s responses.

For Teletubbies, as with other Ragdoll programmes, this focus group testing continues to be key. The focus groups are based in nursery schools around the country: one each in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and four in England – all are varied by demographics. A full-time tester copies tapes and provides equipment to the focus groups. In addition 56 families, drawn from a wide cross-section of society, also dip in and out of the testing process on a regular basis.

Observation is clearly vital to the success of Ragdoll’s research and with The Teletubbies in particular has worked well for them. While an ability to watch and listen well may be at the heart of all good research among consumers of any age, it is clearly a key factor in understanding brand response among children. Easily as important as the other necessary factors of directness, brevity and a creative approach to the whole research process.

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