Making the grade – Kids put brand managing execs to the digital test

When it comes to kids brand building these days, the mantra goes something like this. You need to be where the mobile phone-toting, iPod-obsessed kids are: On-line, on the go, plugged in. But when you look at the brand managers crafting digital strategies aimed at forging the kinds of bonds with kid consumers that propel properties into the merch stratosphere, you have to wonder whether they're fully aware of how kids use the tech. After all, aren't most adults 'like, so out of it' when it comes to learning the nuances of this ever-evolving landscape? Is there anything they can learn from the kids themselves?
September 1, 2006

When it comes to kids brand building these days, the mantra goes something like this. You need to be where the mobile phone-toting, iPod-obsessed kids are: On-line, on the go, plugged in. But when you look at the brand managers crafting digital strategies aimed at forging the kinds of bonds with kid consumers that propel properties into the merch stratosphere, you have to wonder whether they’re fully aware of how kids use the tech. After all, aren’t most adults ‘like, so out of it’ when it comes to learning the nuances of this ever-evolving landscape? Is there anything they can learn from the kids themselves?

U.K.-based on-line marketing and production firm Digital Outlook asked just that and conducted an informal experiment over one Saturday this past summer. Principals Jens Bachem, managing director, and creative director Dino Burbidge rounded up three brave brand managers.

‘We assume a huge amount about how kids are communicating these days,’ says Burbidge. ‘But most of us sit in offices all day and don’t have the time to understand.’

As for the guinea pigs, Disney VP of corporate brand management EMEA Charlie Cain, Allan Stenhouse, marketing director at Jetix, and Chorion MD Jane Turner willingly put their digi savvy to the test and faced the harshest of critics – teenage teachers. And Elliot, Tom and Sasha, all in their early teens, ran the brand gurus through their paces, measuring their ability to master multiplayer on-line gaming, instant messaging and social networking and, in the process, taught them a thing or two about how kids really use technology. Let’s see how they made out.

The Teachers

Sasha, the social networking guru. She cut her teeth on Piczo – an on-line photo-based community site – and is now a veteran of more sophisticated, self-building networks such as MySpace and Bebo.

Tool of choice: Bebo (, a web-based teen-oriented community boasting 25 million members. Users set up their own homepages using graphics, music and text.

Elliot, the Xbox Live king. Spends several hours a week gaming, swapping banter and tips with fellow competitors through the headset and uploads his favourite music to accompany gaming sessions.

Tool of choice: Xbox Live’s Project Gotham 3, a fast-paced, high-def driving game involving players in multiple locations worldwide. Players use headsets to talk to each other in groups and for private conversations.

Tom, the Instant Messenger (IM) expert. Boasts knowledge of a beguiling array of acronyms, winks and short cuts. He uses the service to keep in touch with friends and family as far-flung as Israel and Spain

Tool of choice: Instant Messenger (, the on-line messaging service that allows users to chat in real time using text, winks, sounds and animated graphics.

The big day: Feeling a little jittery, old dude?

With two minutes to go Sasha, Tom and Elliot were seen limbering up and partaking of a few soft drinks. The young experts looked quietly confident. Meanwhile the trio of senior execs appeared little short of petrified. They make critical decisions based on their understanding of kids’ behaviour at the click of a Blackberry button everday, but how did they rate their chances that Saturday?

‘We’ll probably feel like complete Luddites,’ said Stenhouse. ‘I think that technology is such an integral part of their day-to-day life. They don’t even think of it as technology…and that’s terrifying and fascinating.’ Additionally the group of marketers gave props to the kids understanding of how brand marketing works.

‘I think kids these days are much more engaged in brands than ever,’ Turner said. ‘But [loyalty] can change really quickly. They absolutely recognize when they are being sold to.’

The set up

Each youngster stuck to his/her area of expertise, and put the three marketers through a half-hour session. Sasha looked after social networking, Elliot claimed the title of reigning Xbox Live King and Tom put his fast fingers into schooling the class on Instant Messenger. To add to the fun the kids got to write up report cards, awarding points to the adults for their grasp of technology, coolness and general performance. News of this scoring system naturally made the panel break into a cold sweat. (To find out who made the grade see the three report cards on pages 76 to 77.)

Class diary -

a report on the action

After a five-minute crash course in IM, Disney’s Charlie Cain started conversing with Tom on-line. ‘wubu2′ popped up on Cain’s screen. ‘It’s really simple,’ Tom said encouragingly. ‘What does that mean?’ muttered Charlie. Then it clicked. ‘Ahh, what have you been up to? Right.’ Tom was using compressed-text speak and symbols to coverse at lightning speed, while Cain’s first instinct was to use full words. But soon he started reeling off the vowel-free language of teens on-line. That said, ‘lmao’ stops Cain in his tracks. That’s pretty basic, Tom said ‘laugh my arse off’.

Meanwhile Stenhouse tried coming to grips with the on-line community, Bebo and Turner was off wheeling through the virtual streets of London while playing Project Gotham 3.

‘I know it’s a really obvious question, but why?!’ Stenhouse asked Sasha as he registered on Bebo, in an effort to create his own home page. She explained she’s grown out of youth clubs, so Bebo provides a great way to keep in touch with friends – who number well into the hundreds. He does well until a casual mention of Skype loses him vital style points. ‘My Dad uses Skype. It’s for business people,’ Sasha said dismissively. For Sasha and her pals, MSN Messenger’s video chat option does very nicely. After a few minutes, Allan sat back to admire his handiwork – a passable personal page complete with photograph. Sasha summed it up. ‘A bit slow, but understood it all’.


Three hours of instructing, testing and marking later, the sessions ended. The kids looked fatigued, the adults visibly relieved. But the final scores reveal the marketers in fact performed rather well – scoring all A and Bs, with just 11 points separating first and third place. ‘They did better than we thought,’ commented Tom. ‘Although our mates picked it up quicker. I think they know more about what kids know now, but they could do with a bit more tutoring.’

Charlie Cain (aka Live for today)

VP corporate brand management EMEA, Disney

Pre-session: ‘I didn’t get much sleep last night. I’m entering this with trepidation, but with good humour.’

Xbox: Charlie didn’t get the steering, but he appeared quite cool. His top speed was only 74 mph. – Elliot

Instant Messager: He did get confused over what to click sometimes, but ended up getting the hang of the language – Tom

Social Networking: He tried to register three times and it was quite confusing even for me just watching him. Charlie’s quite cool though. He did finally get everything – Sasha

Cain’s post-session takeaway: ‘It went better than I thought. I’m amazed at how much interactivity there is; you could spend hours personalizing your website. As for marketing, it was interesting to see that the kids looked at a pop-up if it was a cool piece of video or an image of their favourite band, but other than that they weren’t interested. Also, they were interacting with a lot of people; it wasn t just one or two. I personally felt out of touch with what was cool and not cool and quite nervous to express my usual tastes.’

Biggest lesson learned: ‘We’ve been toying with idea of personalization and community and I was a bit cynical, thinking why would anybody do that? I can see now that kids definitely would, providing you give them the tools. They absolutely love that kind of thing.’

Allan Stenhouse (aka Riproar)

Marketing director, Jetix

Pre-session: ‘My feelings? Terrified and no chance at all. Bottom of the class.’

Xbox: His control of the car was good. He picked it up pretty fast. He didn’t chat over the headset much though – I think he was concentrating so much he forgot. Allan got the top speed of 156 mph…and then he crashed his car into a wall. – Elliott

Instant Messaging: He picked it up really well. He got the emoticons and the slang, too. He was perfect. – Tom

Social Networking: Overall he picked everything up, although did click on the wrong thing – Skype. Ahh!! – Sasha

Stenhouse’s post-session takeaway: ‘The ability to empower self-expression – albeit in a different kind of language – is incredible. At 13 or 14 you can really express what you think about things. It isn’t really a wonder that things become un-cool and unpopular so quickly, because all it takes is one person to diss something and the whole community is prepared to back them. I also wonder how kids fit it all in: Homework, TV, gaming, keeping up with their friends.’

Biggest lesson learned: ‘It isn’t that mysterious, but I’ll definitely be thinking differently about how kids interact with one another. It is quite different when comparing how we as adults with jobs interact with one another.’

Jane Turner (aka Jetspeed)

Managing director, Chorion

Pre-session: ‘I look forward to being thoroughly humiliated, but I think it should be fun.’

Xbox: Jane did pretty well. She was interested in choosing a cool car, too. She didn’t lose control that much and wasn’t always turning off or breaking. Definitely had the best cornering in the group. She even overtook me once. Top speed – 140 mph. – Elliott

Social Networking: She got just about everything and didn’t click on anything wrong. She understood everything. – Sasha

Instant Messaging: She styled her account well and started to pick up short words. But she was using

long full words most of the time. – Tom

Turner’s post-session takeaway: ‘The content crossover, I thought, was interesting – using pictures from my mobile phone which I can use to personalize my web page, for instance. What also struck me was the closeness between languages across technology. We were all typing as if we were at work and kids were typing as if they were texting. They’re kind of into retro-cool too, which is quite interesting. There was a huge distinction between 13 and 15.’

Biggest lesson learned: ‘I’ve learned that allowing a user to construct a picture of me is an essential part of any on-line space or community. Self-developed content is a really interesting area. Rather than say ‘here it is’, [ you should be able to ] build a place where you can upload photographs, pick your favourite band, pick the things that you like doing. I was also impressed with the way kids at 13 really engage with a large community.’

The headmaster’s assessment

Dino Burbidge, creative director at Digital Outlook

It’s been such a worthwhile exercise. The general reaction has been ‘there’s so much we don’t know about this.’ It’s also made us think that although we have good insight into kids behaviour, these sessions should be a regular part of what we do for our clients.

In many ways kids today are behaving no differently than the way they were 10 or 15 years ago: Taking elements of brands and creating their own personalized spaces. But now, posters on bedroom walls and stickers on bags are joined by homepages and graphics, and schoolyard banter has extended to national and international networks. So these new networks have created major threats and opportunities for the industry. The good news is that brands can actively engage with fans and more easily quantify the impact of their efforts. The bad news? Negative publicity travels equally fast. If you get it wrong, your new game or TV show can be trashed within hours of release.

Another lesson clearly highlighted today was there’s a fine line between positive engagement with kids and covert manipulation – the latter in our opinion is unethical and should be avoided at all costs. Kids today are so used to making choices and not receiving messages passively, they become very suspicious if they feel they are being cajoled. And as there’s so much choice, they have no qualms about dumping you. Giving fans a reason to stick with you longer-term then becomes more important than ever.

One way to do this is to give fans more access. Certainly, youth brand owners are nervous about providing digital assets to kids for fear their IP will be misrepresented. This session proved kids are appropriating things like trailers and graphics, whether the brand manager likes it or not. Smart marketers are actively providing assets to kids, thus maintaining quality and strengthening relationships with their core audience. If they don’t, the kids will end up using lower-quality assets, or engaging more with the brands that do pony up parts of their IP.

Finally, our experiment showed there’s no such thing as a homogenous kids audience on-line. There are numerous strata and sub-strata, many kids have multiple homepages with subtly different identities, and their tastes change at break-neck speeds.

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