Most parents will be familiar with the tug-of-war that takes place with children when it comes to making purchasing decisions. What parents want their children to eat, drink, wear or do is often at odds with what the children want.
The million dollar question is how have we arrived at this situation where children are much more demanding and knowledgeable about products and brands? Is it manufacturers and marketers which have mastered the skill of creating the desire for a product followed by tantalising promotions – Pokémon being a salient example? Or is it societal changes which have seen a massive shift in the power and status of children within families?
Maher Bird Associates planning director Richard Longworth has clear ideas about what has caused this change: “We are a generation of parents whose resistance to pressure has been lowered, for a variety of sociological reasons: guilt at not being around for our children as much as we’d like; higher disposable income means ‘we can’t afford it’ no longer holds true; and a pressure on time and the stress of coping which creates the tendency to avoid arguments and tantrums in public and private. Rather than blaming ourselves, we look for an external target – the manufacturers, the world of marketing and advertising – on whom to place the blame.”
Although there is truth in this argument, marketing and advertising probably need to bear more responsibility than Longworth is prepared to acknowledge.
One of the big stress points for parents is having to cope with peer pressure among children. When a product is perceived as “cool” and the ownership of it gives status to the child – a common marketing ploy – it is difficult for parents to resist that type of emotional pressure.
But although children’s influence on purchasing decisions is far greater than before – the fact is that parents still hold the purse strings and marketers with any sense realise that a product aimed at children has two audiences.
The term pester power is losing currency as marketers realise they have far more chance of winning in the long term if they have both the parents and children on their side. But, this is always going to be more difficult to achieve.
Research consultancy Logistix Kids Worldwide decided to look into the term pester power and find out what really happens in the relationship between parents, children and shopping.
Through a study, conducted by Hauck Research International, Logistix Kids identified a number of processes that take place in this relationship – a small proportion of which could be labelled pester power.
Dave Lawrence, head of insight and planning for children at Logistix Kids, says, “Pester power is mainly the domain of children under three, because that is how most children communicate at that age – in every social context.
“But from four upwards, children have much more social awareness and skills. They become more savvy about the negotiating process.”
Mothers strive for self-fulfilment
But against all this, says Lawrence, is the mothers’ range of motivational needs which have to be satisfied.
He says: “The primary need is to provide food, and second to look at the nutritional value. After that, other motivations come into play including the development of the child’s ‘self concept’ and personality. Ultimately, mothers are striving towards a position of self-fulfilment – such as being a great mum.”
The research showed that children approach this process from a different perspective.
Lawrence says: “They do not need to consider the basic survival and security needs. Their pre-occupation is simply getting what they want.” Lawrence points out that this model is based on a Western perspective where children, on the whole, don’t have to worry about day-to-day survival.
At some point, however, the needs and motivations merge and it is here that negotiation and compromise between mothers and children becomes possible.
Lawrence says: “The key to successful marketing to children is to find common ground for both parties. Within our Negotiation Model we have identified a winning situation for both mothers and children. The Holy Grail for any child’s brand.”
Lawrence points to a variety of products that seem to have achieved this: Sunny Delight, L’Oréal Kids, Cadbury Yowies and breakfast cereals. Lawrence even believes that Walker’s has managed to do this by gaining credibility with children through the Gary Lineker campaign, and also by bringing parents into the loop through its Books for Schools promotion. Lawrence says: “I bet their next promotion will be very child focused.”
Although many believe the Sunny Delight phenomenon had a lot more to do with skillful distribution (it was distributed mainly through newsagents – where children make most self purchases) there is no doubt that it stands out as an example of a product that Procter & Gamble ensured appealed to both target markets.
Michelle Lewin, consultant at The Value Engineers, says: “The success of Sunny Delight can be rooted within the context of the dialogue/negotiation model. The product has a variety of emotional, functional and attitudinal cues and hooks which parents and their children can leverage to get to a situation where they both feel they have achieved a positive result.
“As brand marketers we must learn to understand where our brands and products stand in the spectrum of child demand, through negotiation and dialogue to parental dictate.”
Shift against violent toys
Toy manufacturers are becoming more adept at understanding this concept.
Some 80 per cent of sales in the toy sector take place in the one-and-a-half months over Christmas making it vital that any new product be successful. Mattel launched Rescue Heroes in the UK 18 months ago, based on company research which showed parents were increasingly dissatisfied with what they perceived to be negative and violent toys.
Nikki Collinson, associate director at sales promotion agency Dynamo, which handles promotions for Rescue Heroes, says: “Research showed that mothers wanted toys that were more about help and rescue, and so Mattel used this information to develop four characters around the rescuing concept. It is a deliberate step away from Power Rangers. They provide an alternative to violent and aggressive play patterns that soldiers and “shoot ’em up” games offer.
“The toys have been incredibly successful and of course mothers love them,” she says.
Children’s clothes is another sector, probably not too dissimilar to food, where parents and children find themselves having to negotiate.
Clarks marketing communications manager Hugh Croad says that with shoes, children as young as three and four are influencing purchasing decisions. Clarks, because of its history and reputation, is in a position where parents are happy for their children to be wearing Clarks shoes – the job is to get children involved.
Croad says: “We always use self-liquidating offers; we want to get children excited about shopping for our brands.”
In a “Back to School” promotion – this time of year is busiest for Clarks and accounts for 40 per cent of its turnover – Clarks offered a promotional offer which had been researched with mothers. It was geared to encourage children into the store. The campaign, through Tequila Payne Stracey, struck a balance between providing good value and a good product for parents and “street cred” for children.
Croad says: “We know that parents want their children to buy Clarks products. What we have to do is make children more interested in coming to us.”
Longworth at Maher Bird believes manufacturers should be doing more to convince parents that they are actually on their side.
“Take Teletubbies as an example. Derided by critics and many parents at launch, Teletubbies was a great success with children because it was created out of a well-researched and deep understanding of the mind of a child under five – how they think, learn and how they are entertained – so as to help stimulate and develop that mind. But, at launch, that message had not got across.
“Subsequently, through public relations activity, parents were informed about the nature of Teletubbies’ appeal to their children and their value to a child’s development.”
Dialogue and negotiations are key
Overall, marketing appears to be taking a more sophisticated approach to understanding the relationship between parents and children. Pester power is not in fact an effective marketing tool. Dialogue and negotiation is what it is all about now. It would be interesting to see what the modus operandi is in 50 years’ time.