Parental guidance

Bright colours and cartoon characters might seem key to branding products for children, but Emily Gosling discovers designers are just as keen to employ clarity and nostalgia to appeal to the parents who hold the purse-strings

The lucrative force of ’pester power’ is not to be underestimated. But in branding a product to appeal to youngsters, is it really all about a visual assault of colour, characters and gimmickry? And is branding for children really ’for children’?

It seems not. While designers frequently harness a bold palette, font and visual energy to appeal to the children’s market, clarity and nostalgia aimed at the adult consumer remain the primary design concerns.

This clarity and efficacy was the overarching priority in consultancy Lydia Thornley’s creation of a new identity for MathBase, a numeracy software product that helps children and students with special educational needs improve their maths skills.

Consultancy founder Lydia Thornley says, ’The point with both audiences is simplicity. The product needs to be able to convey a different message to the audience of parents or teachers that it’s professional, reliable and easy to use.’

For the MathBase logo, Thornley used a ’typographic approach’ and an ’equals’ sign to convey usability in tracking the child’s progress. She says, ’It’s that balance between friendliness and modernity and effectiveness.’

MathBase product developer Richard Glemberg says, ’We tried to make the product attractive, colourful and fun – but the approach is simple and graphic.

’Lots of this type of software puts cartoon characters and extraneous material in there, but children can suffer from visual overkill – we can give them a clear direct route to the subject matter in the purest form.’

In branding for children, visual metaphors and character devices are increasingly being replaced with a simpler, transparent feel.

This simplicity takes centre stage in the new identity and packaging of recently relaunched toy Playplax, created by Webb & Webb Design.

The new logo features squares of colour to match the toy’s pieces and demonstrate the beauty of the product itself.

Webb & Webb designer James Webb says, ’The key thing was to make use of the primary colours of the toy and make it as eye-catching for a child as you can.

’Not many five-year-olds pay too much attention to branding – they’re not aware that it’s been designed for them, as long as it appeals to them.’

Lucy Baring, director of Playplax brand-owner Portobello Games, says that the branding of Playplax was aimed first at adults, and subsequently at their children.

She says, ’We were aiming it at the buyer, but definitely with an eye on the fact that it has childlike appeal. We were lucky because the product itself was so colourful.’

Because of the toy’s design heritage, Webb & Webb was keen to create a look that would excite nostalgic adults, as well as a younger audience.

Webb says, ’Playplax is marketed as a children’s toy that adults can’t live without. The positioning of the packaging started with adults and finished with children.’

Robot Food’s rebrand of Jammie Dodgers biscuits also harnesses nostalgia and simplicity to bridge the gap between appealing to adult and child audiences.

The redesigned product references 1950s and 1960s elements – such as the font, which is derived from the Roger the Dodger comic strip in The Beano.

Robot Food design director Mike Shaw says that while branding for children implicitly requires the ’fun factor’, with ’energy and shelf shout’, as with Playplax, nostalgia is invaluable in creating a brand that appeals to adults.

Shaw says, ’It’s good to draw from the heritage as much as you can, but it needs to stand out in today’s market – if it’s solely a retro 1950s style it won’t look as appealing to children. It wants to appeal to both: essentially it’s the parents who buy it.’

Again, simplicity and transparency are brought to the fore. The brief for the redesign was to make Jammie Dodgers ’appear more Jammie Dodger-like’, so Robot Food aimed to make the colour scheme more natural and realistic.

Family and Friends recently created the visual identity for new popcorn brand Peter Popple’s Popcorn, which uses a ’bright but natural palette’ and a scientist character device to ensure its visual appeal to children.

Family and Friends co-founder Derek Johnston explains that the choice of colour palette and the simplicity of the typographic logo aim to reflect natural ingredients and also incorporate a ’retro’ feel – elements that appeal predominantly to parents.

Not many five-year-olds pay too much attention to branding – they’re not aware that it’s being designed for them, as long as it appeals to them

James Webb, Webb & Webb

Johnston says, ’We believe you shouldn’t try to target children with packaging or branding, so our aim was to create something that had child appeal but primarily appeals to the gatekeeper.’

He adds ’There’s as much “parent pester power” as “pester power”.’

It seems that branding for children is fundamentally branding for adults: hingeing first and foremost on simplicity – allowing the product to take the spotlight – while also incorporating the ever-appealing force of nostalgia.

As the artist Rachel Whiteread, a life-long Playplax fan, says, ’[Playplax] is a strange mix of nostalgia coupled with the free rein of my childhood imagination.
’In this age of Game Boy and the X-box, I believe creative simplicity is sometimes the best solution.’

Nostalgia sells

  • Paddington Bear caused some controversy when he switched from his signature marmalade sandwiches to promote Marmite in 2007
  • Postman Pat helped Specsavers promote its ’buy one and get one free’ deal in 2009, starring in a TV ad that saw him sit on his glasses
  • Peter Rabbit has lent his name to a range of organic food for children, which includes drinks and snacks with no added salt or sugar

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