Targetting the little people

If trends in the US are anything to go by, designers and marketers should be lowering their sights and aiming at children as a route to their parents’ pockets. Mike Evamy looks at some of the measures that have been taken to exploit pester-power.

Some call it pester-power, some the nag factor. Others would say it is simply allowing your kids the same freedom of choice as adults. Whatever you call it, it’s on the increase: marketers claim children have more say than ever on how families spend their money – and most parents, especially at Christmas time, would agree.

Until now, kids have been fought over only by manufacturers of toys, films, football strips and sweets. These businesses have a variety of tactics, from advertising to sponsorship and licensing, to brand experiences like Cadabra, a “magical journey” for children through the Cadbury World theme-park, which won a Design Effectiveness Award for Imagination in October.

What’s happening now is that businesses outside the traditional child-oriented sectors are starting to see children as knowing participants in negotiations about what to buy. And, in response, a new generation of marketing, advertising and design consultancies will be on hand to nanny them through their return to childhood.

The concept of getting youth to buy into brands is a contentious one and promises to remain so. Research by the Cancer Research Campaign, released in the midst of the recent furore over Formula 1 tobacco sponsorship, claimed that the Grand Prix advertising of cigarettes hooks 10 000 British F1-watching boys (aged 12-13) into the cigarette habit every year.

Evidence like this is precisely what’s driving businesses to connect with youth. In New York, WPP Group announced in September the creation of a new agency that will carry out “work for clients seeking to communicate better with kids and teens”. Taking the name of the Geppetto Group, after Pinocchio’s saintly toy-maker dad, the offshoot will home in on children with a range of design, research services and advertising. It will serve other WPP businesses as well as its own clients, which include the American Heart Foundation and the massive Turner Entertainment. The three principals left Saatchi & Saatchi in New York, where they had set up the agency’s Kid Connection arm. “We believe that marketing to youth means communicating with a mindset, not a demographic,” explains chief executive officer Julie Halpin. “This is the most savvy and imaginative consumer in the world today. It was about time that the very best creative and planning resources were focused on them. And that is why we formed the company.”

Rachel Geller, Geppetto’s planning director, is slightly less coy about the commercial opportunities. “Marketers of durable products, of packaged goods, that are not now marketing to kids don’t understand what a huge market it is, don’t understand kid influence and kid power, and how much kids matter in the household.”

“Kid power” is stronger in the US than it is here. But major retailers here have been widening the range of merchandise aimed at children. One example is Boots, a Design Effectiveness Award winner with its zoomorphic battery packaging by Lewis Moberly. Now it is bringing its brand values – trust, safety, integrity – to the children’s market, taking on Early Learning Centres as the source of award-winning educational toys with a high fun factor. It has recently relaunched its five-eight -year-old Discovering Our World range with a packaging programme by Roundel.

Makers of supermarket goods are catching on to the techniques. Prime among these ploys is the search for new catch phrases and characters that kids can quote back at each other. Dr Brian Young, a psychologist at Exeter University who has written extensively on the media and children, calls this phenomenon “cultural penetration” – a term, he says, that’s a parody of macho marketing jargon. “It’s when your brand sits up there among other topics of conversation. Businesses could be providing a brand as a cultural resource that children will use, like they use gossip, to play with.”

Advertisers are also capitalising on “kid power” in the family. Safeway broke through with ads starring a small brother and sister with adult voices who seem more in control of the shopping list than the silent unseen parents.

But it is not only the producers and retailers of fmcg that have latched on to children’s influence on purchase decisions. Marketers of major items like holidays are appealing to young, eager minds that are untainted by years of exposure to advertising. Thomson Holidays includes Kids Clubs at its resorts. The company has beaten the competition, and is rolling out play areas at airports.

The London design group that developed the cartoon characters behind Thomson’s Kids Clubs, which feature in their comic (below) was Funhouse, which has specialised in the children’s market for ten years.

In a move which anticipates major clients’ needs to get closer to kids, Funhouse recently merged with corporate identity and brand consultancy International Design Logic to form Brandworks. The airport play areas, says Brandworks’ marketing manager Emma Wilcox, are “a complete fantasy world, not just a climbing frame”.

Thomson and others are learning that their brands can connect with kids and engender brand loyalty at an early age. Of kids’ marketing in the years to come, Wilcox says: “I don’t think in the near future it will be particularly radical; it will be a period when people catch on and realise they’ve got to communicate to kids, full stop.”

But agencies such as Brandworks, and now the Geppetto Group, claim to provide an insight into modern childhood that makes the messages they design richer and more meaningful to children.

According to Geller, “A lot of marketers think, ‘We’ve gotta have fast music, cool-looking kids, an aura of popularity.’ That’s true, but you also have to have a good product. What we do is about seeing the benefits and characteristics of the product that can spark the imagination and fit kids’ patterns of life, the things they do.”

The creation of groups like Geppetto is provocative, nonetheless. The increasing focus on children upsets consumer groups, child care agencies and parents. They maintain that the growing tide of advertising is robbing children of their innocence, and have hit out at ads with pester-power.

“I hate that,” retorts Geller. “The nag factor? I think that’s so obnoxious. Here’s my take on it. When I go into the shower and I want to feel gorgeous, I have a whole variety of shampoos, gels and mousses, so that I can come out feeling beautiful, like a movie star. A nine-year-old kid takes a shower, what do they have? They don’t have anything that’s marketed to them, that helps them with their needs and their desires. If we believe, in our culture, that products can help us feel better about who we are and bolster us and make us feel more successful, why should a nine-year-old child not have those things?”

Perhaps we shouldn’t be projecting the insecurities of adults, and their way of smothering those insecurities with consumer goods purchases, on to children.

But that’s the US for you, home of the child beauty queen. Here in the UK, the whole issue of brands and kids is likely to remain divisive. That won’t stop companies in every line of business – with the exception, possibly, of pensions and hip replacements – pursuing the kid consumer.

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