Brand awareness comes as part of growing up

New research commissioned by Marketing Week reveals that children today are reacting to brands with a sophisticated awareness and strong opinions about their coolness.

Imagine seeing the world through the eyes of a child. Everything seems larger than life – colours are brighter, sounds are louder and, for many years, you will be seeing things for the first time.

But these days, children are less innocent flowers and rather more practised consumers with detailed knowledge of brands and their values. Marketing Week commissioned exclusive quantitative and qualitative studies from consultancies Fly Research and Discovery Research to examine just how children between six and 11 years old react to brands in 2010.

Food and drinks brands have the highest awareness among children, with more than 90% matching the correct logos to Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Tropicana, Ribena, Sprite, Fanta, Robinsons and Capri Sun in the soft drinks sector. Other well-known brands include Nike and Adidas in the sports sector, alongside Disney and Apple in the media world.

Children are not just good at recognising the physical attributes of brands, they also have opinions about companies that do not target them at all, demonstrating a sophisticated awareness of different product attributes. This is particularly true for technology brands.

“My dad lets me play with his iPhone, but I would get a BlackBerry,” reported one eight-year-old in a focus group.

And while the food and drink brands might have high overall awareness, as children move between six and ten years of age, it is interesting to see that “grown up” brands such as BlackBerry and Apple begin to feature more as child-focused FMCG marques become less important. Favourite ads mentioned by children are also largely for products and services aimed at adults, such as GoCompare, Cillit Bang and Webuyanycar.

When ranking brands by “coolness”, it is notable that food names such as Frosties, Cheerios, Coco Pops, Petit Filous, Munch Bunch and Babybel are ranked considerably cooler among six- to eight-year-olds than nine- to 11-year-olds.

Children ask themselves if they will like something, rather than just accept a brand’s claims or be drawn in by packaging

Andrew Therkelsen, Discovery Research

Meanwhile, nine- to 11-year-olds give greater cool kudos than their younger counterparts to brands such as Innocent drinks, Sprite, KFC, Primark, Adidas, eBay and Microsoft. Frosties, Disney, Coco Pops, Burger King and Frijj also make the top 15 “cool” brands for six- to eight-year-olds, but fall off the list for nine- to 11-year-olds.

FMCG brands, then, seem to have a greater effect on younger children than their slightly older counterparts. In fact, branded goods have such a stranglehold on children that they regard supermarket own-brands as decidedly uncool, claims Discovery Research director Andrew Therkelsen.

One parent in the focus groups commented: “My son will only eat McCain chips and he has no idea why.” The children themselves are even more damning about own-brands, with one saying: “They don’t have the proper recipe and make it disgusting.” Another offers: “They do Frosted Flakes instead of Frosties, but they’re not as good.”

Therkelsen says there is a sense among children of supermarket own brands “not being the real thing”. And the cynicism increases as children get older, which may partly explain why today’s obesity-conscious youth grow less keen on food and drink brands and more interested in other areas.

“They ask themselves more if they will like something, rather than just accept a brand’s claims or be drawn in by packaging,” Therkelsen says. He points out that cereal brand Coco Pops is the subject of particularly negative views from this older segment: “You’d put on ten stone if you ate them every day,” one child claimed.

Indeed, from the age of around ten, it seems that there is less of a desire among children to receive overt marketing in a childish tone. Therkelsen explains that the rejection of “childish” brands becomes apparent at this age. More adult-focused food brands, such as J2O, Kettle Chips, Doritos and Special K, were mentioned spontaneously and positively in Discovery’s focus groups.

Adulthood in general seems popular with today’s children, who even rank their own parents as “cool”.

My advice would be to get out there and talk to parents, schools and children. We did a lot of that and it helps identify the boundaries

Michael Bates, Morrisons

Camilla Bennison, research director at Fly, says this may be a product of the technology age, as parents now tend to own a multitude of desirable objects, such as mobile phones and iPods. But parents themselves are what children would miss most if they had to spend a day without them (68%), beating TV, games, films and the internet.

In determining the precise coolness of any particular product, peer pressure is a big factor. Ninety-one per cent of the 377 respondents to Fly’s research say they would think something was cool if their best friend also thought it was. “This is human nature and a phenomenon that probably hasn’t changed much across generations,” explains Bennison.

Marketers will be relieved to hear that even more important than recommendations from friends and family (87%), children believe that appearing on TV implies something is cool (89%). Films and shows also generate a cool factor from 86%, while 84% say something is cool “if everyone at school has one”.

Celebrity endorsement is also important for a young age group. A famous face fronting a brand or product would influence 80% of children. Distinctly less cool factors are if mum or dad likes it/has one (65%), if a teacher likes it/has one (47%) or if a younger brother or sister likes it/has one (40%).

In response to the open question of “who is your favourite celebrity”, Disney character Hannah Montana and Dr Who star David Tennant score the highest, with 12% and 7% respectively. Other popular responses are singer Cheryl Cole (4%), TV presenters Ant and Dec (4%), footballer David Beckham (4%) and media mogul Simon Cowell (3%). However, 30% of the survey’s respondents claim not to have a favourite celebrity.

Girls appear more influenced by celebrity culture than boys. Eighty-two per cent of girls are more likely to think something is cool if endorsed by a favourite celebrity compared with 78% of boys. They are also more responsive to the online environment – 86% of girls think that something is cool if they have seen it on the internet, compared with 81% of boys. For boys, something is more likely to be uncool if a teacher likes or has the item (51% vs 47% of girls).

Other gender biases can be seen across the research. Girls are more likely than boys to regularly ask for specific brands of snack foods (46% vs 35%), as well as dairy desserts (31% vs 23%) and cheesy snacks (35% vs 21%).

Unsurprisingly, girls are more likely to occasionally ask for specific brands of clothes (45% vs 35%) and footwear (47% vs 39%). Meanwhile, boys are more likely to regularly ask for specific brands of games or consoles (42% vs 28%). Girls are more likely to ask parents to buy from specific clothing stores and supermarkets, while boys are more likely to regularly ask to buy from specific games or toy shops.

Gender also affects the branded characters that appeal to children. Girls are most attracted by Hannah Montana (70%), High School Musical (60%), Hello Kitty (52%), Disney Princess (47%) and Barbie (37%). Boys, not surprisingly, are put off by such characters and are most attracted by Scooby Doo (74%), Spiderman (71%), Dr Who (68%) and Ben 10 (58%). 

Overall, The Simpsons, SpongeBob SquarePants, Scooby Doo and Toy Story top the list of characters that children love. Disney, Barbie and Star Trek come at the bottom of this section, but it is interesting how many characters have outlived their original generation, such as The Simpsons, Star Trek and Scooby Doo.

Most branded characters have greater appeal to the younger age groups than older children. “Disney Princess and Barbie have greatest appeal for six-year-olds and this tails off dramatically as the age increases,” says Fly Research’s Bennison. “Hello Kitty tails off after age nine, as does High School Musical. Spiderman and Hannah Montana are the only characters whose appeal runs across six- to ten-year-olds.”

While some of these branded characters are likely to live on beyond the current clutch of children, Discovery Research’s Therkelsen says that adult brands will continue to appeal to children on an increasingly frequent basis.

He suggests: “As adult brands become more appealing and aspirational to children, it will be difficult for pure kids’ marketing to cut through. This concept of marketing to children could be over for a lot of brands, whose products should have enough authenticity to speak for themselves.”

This does not mean that the commonly used term “pester power” is likely to fade away entirely. Ninety-three per cent of children admit to nagging their parents or guardians to buy them things. Toys (37%) and video games consoles (35%) are the most regularly asked for branded items, followed by soft drinks (33%) and films or DVDs (25%). Branded fashion and footwear are less of a priority, with 15% and 12% respectively asking regularly for these items.

With all this demand for parental spending in mind, however, the focus groups did pick up on one very interesting trend among today’s children. Many seem aware of the recent recession in the UK and the cutbacks this has forced families to make in various areas.

As a result, the study concludes that while children might still get excited by everything from Scooby Doo to an Apple iPhone, a group of realists is emerging. This may be the first generation in a long time to talk about making rational decisions about some purchases and claim they are rediscovering old toys rather than continuously buying new ones.

Marketing to children: The pitfalls and how to avoid them

Many brands have come under fire for their choice of products for children – in April this year, Primark was forced to withdraw a padded bikini for young girls, while in 2006 Tesco faced a public outcry after it stocked a pole-dancing toy. Clamping down on marketing to children has become an apparent priority for the UK’s new coalition Government.

In the run-up to the general election, Conservative Party leader David Cameron warned that he was prepared to tackle any perceived “commercialisation” of childhood with further regulation if necessary.

Prime Minister Cameron has yet to reveal how the coalition Government plans to tighten regulation in this area, but the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) have called for better management of the online environment.

More than 2,500 complaints to the ASA about online advertising in 2009 couldn’t be acted on because they weren’t within the CAP code of conduct’s remit. However, this code is set to be extended to online later this year.

The ASA has already banned the advertising of foods high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) from children’s TV and is looking to introduce similar rules for age-restricted video games to bring them into line with rules for age-restricted films.

We want to put the pride and confidence back into marketing to children

Dave Lawrence, The Value Engineers

The problem for many brands and consumers is that much of the terminology, such as HFSS, is fairly flexible. As a result, the ASA has introduced training and seminars on best practice for companies, while the Advertising Association with the help of youth marketing agency Dubit is launching a website later this year called the Children’s Ethical Communications Tool Kit.

Dubit director Robin Hilton explains: “Large agencies and brands have the resources to make sure they are where they need to be legally, but smaller brands and agencies don’t have this, and aren’t necessarily aware of the guidelines that exist.”

If guidelines are made clearer, it could eliminate the need to introduce further formal legislation in future. Brands such as Kellogg have been criticised for promoting its Coco Pops cereal as an after-school snack. Hilton believes that many brands do not have an underhand agenda but are simply misguided.

“There have been campaigns that haven’t been well thought out, and what has happened has harmed some brands,” he says. Specialist brand consultancies are now helping brands navigate the minefield that marketing to children has become. They are promoting a new era of marketing to children, which involves talking to them in the context of being part of a family.

Kids Industries founder Gary Pope says: “If you do right by a family, the cash will follow.” He claims his agency operates on a strong principle of not working with brands that want to market unhealthy products to children. He has, instead, worked with cereal brand Quaker and Aquafresh toothpaste to develop sub-brands for children.

The experience of a children’s specialist is essential, he says, because this stops brands becoming part of a tabloid headline.

“In a large agency, the average account director is a 29- to 33-year-old male who doesn’t know anything about children or families,” Pope says. “You have to be a specialist with children because the stakes are higher. A brand like Lynx can get away with making a bad ad, but make a bad children’s ad and the Daily Mail will be all over it.”

Brands that have been deterred from reaching out to children because of the risks should ease their way into this consumer group by tailoring a message for parents, suggests Dave Lawrence, head of the children’s division at agency The Value Engineers. “We want to put the pride and confidence back into marketing to children.

“Kids are important as consumers in their own right, but the worry is that brand owners are going to exclude them from the marketing process out of a fear of being labelled irresponsible.”

Product integrity is key when addressing children, Lawrence says. This might involve creating new products, reformulating existing lines or simply doing more marketing around healthier brands. PepsiCo took this route in March when it announced it would put more focus on its healthier brands, such as Pepsi Raw, Pepsi Max, Tropicana and Walkers Baked.

Lawrence says the most constructive marketing initiatives for young people allow “kids to be kids” through appropriate activities for their age group or sponsorship of youth events.

For those that get it wrong, Lawrence says it will hit them where it hurts – sales. “Parents are becoming more discerning about what they buy for their children,” he warns.

To see full tables with the statistics click here

Case study: Morrisons

Morrisons’ Let’s Grow campaign was shortlisted for this year’s Marketing Week Engage Awards because of its educational and engaging nature. The scheme offers free gardening equipment and teaching resources for schools so children can grow their own vegetables. The idea is that this activity fits with the brand’s own focus on offering consumers fresh food.

Marketing director Michael Bates says the aim of the campaign, besides educating children, was to create stronger ties between the brand and the communities it operates in.

“It’s not overt marketing to children, it’s a community programme driven through schools,” he explains. “We have put a lot of time into resources for teachers to give them lesson ideas that hook back into the national curriculum.”

Clearly, the programme features Morrisons’ branding, and this is something Bates is open about. Consumers collect vouchers with their shopping, which are then passed to schools. Bates claims the scheme has encouraged more people through the supermarket chain’s doors.

“We have been amazed at how successful it has been commercially. A healthy return on investment has come from it in terms of what it’s cost us and what we have got out of it,” he says. Bates recommends, however, that any brand embarking on communicating with children and families should get some guidance. Morrisons turned to the National Schools Partnership for advice on how to implement its campaign.

“We recognised at the outset that we didn’t have experience in this field,” he admits. “My advice would also be to get out there and talk to parents, schools and children. We did a lot of that and it helps identify the boundaries.”

Billington Cartmell helped Morrisons put together Let’s Grow, and Tom Lamb, the director of the agency’s kids and families unit, adds that only genuinely useful, engaging and educational schemes will really make an impact on modern parents and their offspring.

Lamb explains: “Brand activity that helps a child’s development is the right way to go.”

Case study: Asda and LazyTown

You would be hard-pressed to find parents who haven’t come across the children’s TV phenomenon LazyTown. It centres on hero Sportacus encouraging the kids in LazyTown to be active and eat healthily – much to the disgust of his nemesis Robbie Rotten.

LazyTown has become so popular that not only does it have its own merchandise, but food brands are queuing up to partner with it. One brand that passed LazyTown’s strict “food promise” is supermarket Asda, which now sells a healthy kids’ food range using LazyTown co-branding.

According to managing director of international licensing Guðmundur Magnason, LazyTown was ahead of its time in identifying a gap in the market but also faced a challenge in making a healthy concept appealing and fun for children.

“The main challenge creator Magnús Scheving had was making education about a healthy lifestyle entertaining. If it was called HealthyTown, children wouldn’t watch it,” Magnason explains. “So he made a show where you don’t mention health, but you see the characters behaving this way. Lead character Sportacus gets his energy from sports candy, which is fruit and vegetables. He drinks milk and water. Without ever mentioning a healthy lifestyle, the show communicates through the characters in an engaging way.”

Amid the array of brands desperate to use LazyTown characters on its packaging and advertising, Asda is committed to altering about 20% of its children’s food range to align with LazyTown’s food promises, says Magnason.

“Asda was willing to commit more than anyone we have met,” he claims. “We have renewed this partnership for another year.”

LazyTown is also working with a Latin American food company that produces breakfast oats for children. The product originally contained artificial apple flavouring, but LazyTown has helped the company move towards using natural flavours.

“Our commercial team is now offering the company a discount on the royalties paid so it can accommodate the cost difference in redeveloping the product so it contains natural flavours. We are helping the brand make the shift to a healthier product for children,” Magnason explains.

With LazyTown already well known to youngsters and their parents, it hopes to see more suitable brands stepping up to work with it as parents’ concern for their children’s health increases.

“Other brands become healthy or green once in a while. You have [cartoon character] SpongeBob SquarePants being healthy in one episode but in the next one he is back flipping burgers,” says Magnason. “But being healthy is not just our unique selling point, it is in our brand’s DNA.”

Case study: Ford

This summer marks the first time car manufacturer Ford will target the UK family market when it launches an outdoor campaign that will feature in shopping centres. The double-panelled six sheets feature a video at the top bringing to life the in-car, in-seat experience. The bottom panel features a series of games that children can operate via touchscreen technology.

Ford of Britain advertising and sponsorship manager Lyn West says this approach aims to reach all those people in a household who make a decision about what new car to buy.

“Family is a very important target market for this vehicle, but we didn’t want to just talk to a dad or a mum, but to have an inclusive way of talking to a whole family,” she says. “We wanted people to engage with the brand at a time when families are out doing things together. I wouldn’t say we are marketing to kids, but I would look at it as a form of brand engagement that includes all the family.”

Ford is planning further experiential-type activity aimed at families. The brand is already working with website Mumsnet, asking mums to make a video diary filming their family’s experience with a Ford vehicle.

While no child may yet be able to afford the tens of thousands of pounds a new vehicle can cost, their influence over the car-buying process keeps brands such as Ford keen to gauge their views.



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