Keeping up with today’s kids

Delivering messages that a brand is fun, cool and relevant to an exact age group through a proper media mix is the key strategic challenge that advertising agencies face when devising children's campaigns....
January 1, 1999

Delivering messages that a brand is fun, cool and relevant to an exact age group through a proper media mix is the key strategic challenge that advertising agencies face when devising children’s campaigns.

There have never been more ways in the culture to support marketing toward kids, and there have never been more outlets to study how to speak to them. That makes the competition for kids’ attention significantly greater, forcing advertisers to work harder to get inside kids’ heads.

Stripped down to basics, brands that work best satisfy a timeless emotional need, while being flexible enough to change with the times, according to Gene Del Vecchio, president and founder of youth consulting firm CoolWorks. Barbie, for example, satisfies a girl’s need for glamor, and Mattel keeps it current by dressing Barbie up according to the times, be it as a stewardess or as an astronaut. Kraft Macaroni & Cheese satisfies the timeless emotional need for the taste of its product; it stays contemporary by changing the shape of its noodles to reflect hot licenses.

Advertising, accordingly, must address those twin concerns. Once agencies identify the aspect of a product that taps into a child’s deeper motivation, they can structure messages that connect with kids on psychological and emotional levels, according to Anne Adriance, strategic planning director for Saatchi & Saatchi Kid Connection. Trix cereal’s tag line, ‘Trix are for kids,’ reflects the core emotional concept of the campaign-that Trix, literally, is made for kids. ‘In a world where there’s a lot that’s not for kids, to create a whole product. . .exclusively for [kids] gives children a sense of power, a sense of control and a sense of independence that they don’t always have in their life,’ she says.

Progressive agencies meet with kids on a regular basis to find out the relevant brand insight for new products and concepts. Beyond traditional focus groups, methods employed include ‘friendship pairs,’ in which kids talk to each other about products (see ‘Mad about pizza,’ page 44); playlabs, to observe kids’ play patterns with products; and CAPS (Child and Parents Studies), developed by marketing consulting firm Child Research Services, which evaluates the ‘nag factor’ (the influence kids have in purchasing a product) by determining if the information communicated to a child enables them to convince the parent to make a purchase.

To assess kids’ preference of one advertisement over another, quantitative studies work better than focus groups, according to marketing consultant Craig Spitzer, because they involve larger, unbiased sample groups not swayed by the peer pressure that focus groups may inadvertently create.

It boils down to how to differentiate fun and brand the kind of fun being sold to kids, says Paul Kurnit, president of Griffin Bacal. ‘Our job is to make sure that the fun that we’re selling is inspired by and comes from the heart of the product.’ For its part, CME KidCom, the kids marketing unit of Campbell Mithun Esty, developed the ‘Taste you can see’ campaign for Cinnamon Toast Crunch Cereal after conversations with children revealed that what most appealed to kids about the product was that they could see the cinnamon swirls on every piece of cereal-an indication that it would taste good.

Although kids are usually divided into four age brackets-preschoolers (zero to four), young kids (five to seven), tweens (eight to 12) and teens-agencies are using more exacting one- or two-year age increments to direct messages toward bull’s-eye targets. ‘Speaking to them in the most motivating way requires real precision in targeting,’ says Adriance.

Teens pose the most difficult challenge because of their media and marketing savvy. ‘If you are trying to act like a teen, as opposed to truly being teen-like, they’ll deem you a phony and walk away,’ says Del Vecchio. Standard TV plans may not reach teens effectively because teens tend to gravitate toward more nontraditional media vehicles like magazines, movies and the Internet.

Agencies are cautiously eyeing the zero-to-three demographic, a group that poses tremendous challenges and opportunities because research has indicated that children are capable of understanding brands at very young ages. ‘Traditionally, it’s been a parent target, but we’re going to see that change in a big way,’ says Kurnit. ‘We’ve been seeing it in programming [Barney, Teletubbies]; it’s just a matter of time before we see it in advertising as well.’

Television will always remain the primary medium to reach kids, but print has shown strong growth over the past few years as agencies have learned the differences between how kids and adults consume print. Similarly, agencies are now seeking ways to deploy radio, in-school, outdoor and on-line advertising to supplement TV campaigns. On-line has created much buzz, but whether the Web can be used for sales pitches raises privacy issues and concerns by industry watchdogs over potential exploitation that have yet to be ironed out.

Understanding kids from the inside out, and speaking to their timeless emotional needs in ways that are relevant and fresh, gives kids the handles to hold onto a brand, and perhaps build a foundation to remain loyal to it as they grow older.

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