Child minding

Apparently it was last November when it all started going downhill for the Spice Girls. That was the month when the posters came off the walls and the musical tastes of Britain’s pre-pubescents moved on.

We know this because of the intense research done among children – arguably a more researched group than the adult population.

The reasons are simple. Children have enormous spending power – the total five- to 16-year-old market is said to be worth more than &£30bn. They also have a tendency to change their mind, often and fast – hence from one month to the next, the world’s favourite girl band became a fad of the past.

The children’s market is characterised by, on the one hand, those who believe you shouldn’t move without a fistful of research, and on the other, those who think experience and instinct is enough.

Research company Logistix Kids not only conducts a monthly survey among 600 children, in association with Carrick James Market Research, it also carries out weekly qualitative research.

Logistix Kids managing director Ian Madeley says: “If a client asks me what the position is right now with children, I don’t want to refer to data that’s months old. We need a monthly snapshot of what is going on.”

Which is why Madeley can name the week last November when children in focus groups said they were bored with the Spice Girls.

“There is a lot of money at stake in this market, and clients need the security of data,” says Madeley.

In contrast to this, Tim Clarke, director of the Gemma Group, which includes the licensing arm Characteristix, says he works on products that will appear on the market 12 months in the future, making research difficult and experience of the market more relevant. Clarke says Characteristix does no formal research and relies on knowing how the market works.

“For example, we decided 12 months ago not to pursue the Star Wars’ Darth Maul character for a greetings card product. This is not because we didn’t know that the character would be hugely successful, but for us the release time wasn’t good. It’s a very expensive character and normally with film characters you have a six-month window after the release of the film. We knew we wouldn’t do it justice,” says Clarke.

Clarke admits that character licensing offers more flexibility than many toys or even pop groups. Characteristix has licences for products like the Teletubbies, Barbie, Action Man and Thomas the Tank Engine – all properties which have perennial appeal.

The appeal of cartoon characters makes life easier for companies like Cartoon Network, although it does have a research panel, Toon Track, which has a database of 2,000 children and adults.

Cartoon Network vice-president of sponsorship and promotions Casey Harwood says: “The key thing in promoting to children is to separate fads from long-term trends. We know that certain cartoon characters like Scooby Doo, Tom & Jerry and The Simpsons are immortal.

“Having said this, it is imperative to know what is hot and what is not. It is also very important to identify the early adopters. We identify everything from what is appearing on the bootleg T-shirts sold at Camden Market through to what clothes young adults are wearing. These styles will almost certainly be adapted and filtered through to younger, and older, age groups in due course. Also, a lot of trends start in gay clubs – you must go underground to see what’s going on.”

It does seem that this type of research, which encompasses knowing where to look and what to look for, is key to understanding where children are at.

One of the most obvious places to find out what children are thinking is schools. Boomerang Media has developed a product called SchoolCards – basically advertising cards distributed in 300 schools across the country. Clients who use the medium include Sony, EMI Chrysalis, IBM, World Vision, Columbia Records and Dorling Kindersley.

School project manager at Boomerang Media Gail Macindoe says: “We speak to schools on a daily basis and receive feedback every two weeks on pupils’ reactions to the artwork and the pick-up rate of each SchoolCard. Our postcard racks feature ten different types of free postcards at all times. The advertisers and their creative change every two weeks.

“Forty per cent of the cards are commercial, featuring advertising messages, and the rest are sponsored or art cards which provide social, cultural or educational messages. This range of messages and creatives, together with our focus groups, allows us to track teenagers’ likes and dislikes, and identify shifts in trends and opinion.”

The SchoolCards project, as well as Youth Research Group’s Internet research programme – www.yorg.com – proves that schools are becoming increasingly open to commercial intrusion.

Managing director of Youth Research Group Glen Smith says www.yorg.com is the largest Internet-based research programme aimed at children.

Smith explains: “Over the past five years, the children’s market has grown beyond recognition. When I started in this business in the Seventies, there was only one research company aimed at this market. But children are socially conditioned to respond in a way that adults would like them to – so in focus groups, the children tend to say what they think the accompanying adults want them to say.”

To get around this, Smith developed www.yorg.com which is conducted through a network of schools. This year, he says, they will be interviewing 21,000 seven- to 16-year-olds. The interactive Internet site is used by children during their IT lessons. The children respond and interact online, probably in a medium they are comfortable with. Presumably, however, the respondents are drawn only from those schools which have access to the Internet.

Smith adds: “The children respond to the research underteacher supervision. But apart from that, there isn’t a researcher in sight.”

Research consultancy BMRB International runs Youth TGI, the children’s version of TGI, which has been operating for 30 years. Although it runs focus groups, the bulk of research is completed by children in their own homes. The research is divided into three age groups: seven to ten, 11 to 14, and 15 to 19.

BMRB International marketing consultant Richard Bedwell agrees that in focus groups there is a danger that children will respond in the way they think the facilitators want them to, “but we encourage children completing the Youth TGI to do it themselves”.

Bedwell also says it is much easier to persuade children to complete questionnaires than adults. “With Youth TGI, there is about a 90 per cent response, and the remaining ten per cent are usually because the adults don’t want to get involved.” He also says that in the three age bands, response is highest in the youngest, decreasing as the children get older.

The next phase for Youth TGI is for it to become a rolling database across the whole year like the national TGI, to provide a constant snapshot of what children are thinking.

However the research is conducted, there is no doubt that increasing emphasis is going to be put on the children’s market.

Carrick James, director of Carrick James Market Research, says: “There is a growing realisation that children influence all sorts of purchases apart from toys. They influence the purchase of snack products, toiletries and breakfast cereals.

“Young people know what they want. They have very strong views and client companies need to know what they are in order to make the right decisions.”

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