The Serious Business of Designing for Fun: Packaging for kids

Steve Osborne

According to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, children prefer cereals that have a cartoon character on their packs. They don’t (just) prefer the design of the box, but the actual taste of the product. Of course this is our old friend ‘sensation transference’, the secret weapon that all packaging has to transfer consumer perception of its design features to the product inside.

When we were asked to work on several packaging design projects for children’s products recently, we needed to understand the answers to some key questions: why do nearly all kids packs feature characters? How do brands get the balance right between child appeal and parental approval?  Why do kids out-grow certain characters, and what can be done to keep their interest?    

For a start, as demonstrated by the above research, characters do make a pack more fun and encourage kids to play with the product. In an ideal world, playing includes actually eating or drinking it. Characters help get kids’ attention and maybe even their devotion for a while, but how do brands work out what kind of characters to use?

Our findings, informed by experience but also by asking some experts in kids marketing, helped us to see past the seemingly undifferentiated mass of smiling faces on nearly all packaging for kids and identify three basic strategies, which we’ve called: ‘draw a face on it’, ‘back story for hire’, and ‘best of both worlds’.

‘Draw a face on it’ is the entry-level strategy for many products, but few of these invest enough effort to deserve being called a brand. Thankfully kids can anthropomorphise practically anything – from animals to, trains, trees, farm machinery through to apples, strawberries and every other recognisable ingredient known to man.

Packaging aimed at children
Packaging aimed at children

But to stand out from the sea of smiling fruit you need to develop your characters to have a back story. What is their personality? Where do they live? What do they do? Who are their friends? The more details you can provide, the more children can see themselves stepping into the adventure.

Most of the brands in cereal land were made on TV in the 1960s and 1970s, when the biggest ones would be seen almost daily. Back then it was possible to invest in some well-drawn characters and give them a bit of a story of your own. A pretty simple story admittedly, in which their only activity is demonstrating the play value of the product to kids, and its nutritional value to mums.

Nowadays many brands prefer to adopt the  ‘back story for hire’ strategy: licensing well-known TV or film characters to give products or brands instant kid appeal – big impact for relatively little effort.

Simply follow the communication guideline provided by the licensor, and in particular note their number one rule: thou shalt not show our character doing anything that is ‘out of character’, such as actually consuming your brand.

Character for French brand Oasis

Despite this limitation the arrangement works pretty well as long as you realise that it’s not your brand being built here. A quick walk around the supermarket will show that Cinderella and Woody ‘like’ quite a few other brands too.

Our definition of ‘best of both worlds’ on the other hand, is a truly smart strategy which allies a brand’s own character with licensed ones. France’s Yoplait Kids brand P’tit Yop is the perfect example, creating its own ‘bottle’ character, who introduces any new licensed offer with a short TV spot. You have to watch really carefully to realise that the P’tit Yop character isn’t in the movie.

Whether licensed or home-grown, character personality needs to take account of a key phase of neurological development that happens sometime between the age of 7 and 8.

It is from this age that kids test out ‘rebellion’ behaviour to find their place in the world around them, develop a keen interest in fantasy worlds and discovery, and are highly influenced by TV, video games and by what their peers think is cool.

Simple, one-dimensional characters become redundant overnight, and are seen as very childish. Characters appealing to 7-10 year olds have more complex personalities, look and behave a bit more ‘on the edge’, but ultimately still play out the familiar storylines of challenge/obstacle/struggle/resolution.

One of my favourite examples of well-crafted home-grown characters belongs to French soft drinks brand Oasis. These slightly weird fruit characters have bags more personality than a hundred Sally Strawberries, and star in some witty commercials that easily pass what I call the nuance test.

A child in the supermarket
A child in the supermarket

Another manifestation of this aspect of child development is a growing need for signals of independence and mastery of their world. Something as simple as ‘my own way to drink’ really counts. Juice pouches, or the likes of Tetra’s wedge offer added value for kids simply by jazzing up the product delivery – the ritual of popping the seal and slurping out the juice speaks volumes for an independent child.

Characters on packaging also have an important responsibility: when the next step is Coke and Red Bull, parents expect packaging for kids to help delay the inevitable moment when they opt for these ‘less healthy’ options as long as possible.

By staying relevant to kids aspirations through the child phase, to tweenage and hopefully beyond, packaging can support the adoption of healthier foods and drinks.

Steve Osborne is a partner at Osborne Pike.

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