The ability to teach life lessons might not be exactly front of mind when it comes to defining the attributes of today’s top character/entertainment licenses, but that may be exactly what modern moms are looking for. While kids grow up in a more media-centric, property-saturated world than ever before, their parents are also a lot tougher to please. This group is adamant about raising their kids in an environment that teaches good values, habits and behaviors that will serve their offspring well later in life. And a property’s perceived ability to help parents impart important life lessons may help it get a leg up in today’s competitive market.
As director of consumer insights at Strottman International, a toy premium and custom retail product design and manufacturing company based in Irvine, California, I had the chance recently to sit down with two groups of moms – 14 women in total with kids between the ages of three and 13. We discussed what they like and dislike about the characters their kids connect with, and what would compel them to bring licensed goods into their homes. I discovered these moms strongly favor entertainment properties that they feel can help them teach their kids a thing or two.
SpongeBob SquarePants, Dora the Explorer, Elmo, Care Bears, Thomas & Friends and That’s So Raven ranked quite highly on the groups’ approval lists. In fact, the moms seemed genuinely grateful to have licensed characters they can rely on to help instill the following values and characteristics in their kids:
• Personal hygiene
• Healthy eating
• Social interaction skills, such as how to work through a quarrel
• Value of a dollar/money
• Importance of family
• Chores/helping around the house
• Caring for animals
• Good sportsmanship
So, for licensors and marketers with characters that play into any of these life lessons, it would be worthwhile to tout these attributes in an overt way in places where the message will reach moms, even if they’re not very familiar with the character. For example, one of the moms told us she uses a plastic Disney plate with three sections as a tool to teach her child proper portion sizes. She thought of this on her own, but if the product’s package or POP display advertised this potential benefit, more moms might latch onto that idea. Another of our panelists uses a Barbie ATM machine toy to teach her daughter about the value of money, and how to save money for the future. But again, the potential of that product to teach this lesson was nowhere to be found on the packaging. A perfect complement to this toy would have been a little booklet showing Barbie talking about the importance of saving and spending money wisely.
Some might contend that moms don’t want to be told how to raise their kids, but Strottman’s extensive research on today’s Gen X-aged mom indicates the opposite. Today’s moms welcome advice and information – much more than previous generations. Many of today’s moms grew up as the first generation of latchkey kids, whose parents both worked full-time and had fewer chances to spend time with their kids. They often had to muddle through typical kid challenges on their own and want to provide more guidance for their own children.
We also asked these moms to tell us about why they don’t like some characters. One mother of four (three boys ages four, six and nine and a girl, seven) told us that preschool character Caillou is a bit too whiny in the way he goes about problem-solving, and in her view, doesn’t have enough respect for his mother. ‘The way he behaves is not a way I want my child to behave,’ she said. ‘What he says to his mother is not acceptable, and I worry my kids would emulate what they see.’ Interestingly, SpongeBob, who rated quite highly with some of the mothers, had his share of detractors as well. A 32-year-old mother of five kids under age eight said, ‘I think SpongeBob is too crude. I don’t let my kids watch the show.’ Similarly, some moms did not appreciate the boisterous quality and broad comedy of The Fairly OddParents. One viewed the characters as ‘rude and obnoxious.’ She added, ‘I don’t like the tone of voice they speak to each other in, and it’s just violent all the time.’
It was clear from talking to these moms that they can form strong, permanent impressions of a character based on a single experience. Almost every single panelist who expressed a strong dislike for characters including Spider-Man, The Simpsons and SpongeBob, admitted they had only ever seen one episode of the series or a few minutes of the movie; and none could articulate very specifically why they didn’t like it.
It seems like there’s an obvious opportunity for licensors to educate parents about the positive qualities their characters exude. But when it comes to constructing marketing plans, they must keep in mind that many moms may never take the time to watch more than a few minutes of footage before making a one-time yes-or-no decision about whether they will ever buy products featuring that character, or let their kids watch their screen vehicles.
As I introduced a wide variety of characters from TV, movies and books into the discussion, a classification emerged that placed any given character property on a spectrum in terms of its likelihood to, and appropriateness for, teaching kids life lessons. (See ‘Mom’s Property Spectrum’ on the opposite page.)
Virtually every mom in the two groups voiced concerns about some girls’ properties they believe encourage ‘materialism’ and ‘bratty behavior,’ and boys’ properties that produce ‘too much testosterone,’ but most also admitted that their children own licensed products branded with these very properties. Whether they had purchased them directly or their kids had received them as gifts, our moms’ reasons for having them on hand ranged from ‘the kids just play so much with them,’ to ‘I don’t want to deprive [my kids] of having fun.’
Not surprisingly, it was also clear from the list each mom made of all the licensed character products they found in their homes that they buy far more products featuring properties from the positive end of the spectrum. Dora, Thomas, Barbie and Disney Princesses and Fairies dominated their lists, with products featuring SpongeBob, Power Rangers, Bratz and Spider-Man showing up much less frequently.
Along these lines, the moms agreed that it’s more difficult to teach values to boys than to girls, and individual panelists had an especially hard time pointing to characters they thought could serve as role models for boys. And none identified classic superhero characters like Spider-Man and Batman as having this potential.
‘With superheroes, the stories themselves don’t teach anything,’ said one mother of five- and 10-year-old boys. ‘All the superheroes do, honestly, is get my boys all riled up,’ another commented. ‘I guess they teach good versus evil,’ she added, ‘but there’s too much testosterone. I buy them Star Wars stuff, and they like it. It’s not real violence, but then they’re constantly battling with light sabers or whatever, and it ends up going one step too far.’
Superhero licensors should take note of this insight’s impact on sales because many moms said they don’t buy licensed superhero merchandise because they don’t see the value of these properties. An opportunity exists to educate moms and change their minds!
On the other hand, Christian book stores came up in both groups, without prompting, as a place where moms could find the kind of characters they’re looking for. Veggie Tales, The Wiggles, Hermie and 3-2-1 Penguins were cited as examples of characters moms like, but that don’t have much of a merch profile in large discount and mass retail outlets. Licensors might do well to pay more attention to the growing Christian retail channel and look for successes that might transfer well to the mass market.
Finally, we asked moms which single life lesson they need the most help with when it comes to teaching their kids. Acceptance (‘accepting that everybody is different and has their own special talent’), manners, tolerance (‘understanding different cultures, ethnicities, cultural and religious traditions’), honesty and appreciating the value of money (‘understanding why you can’t just buy a new one when something gets broken’) came up the most.
Well, licensors – you’ve got your work cut out for you! Today’s moms are tough nuts to crack. If you already have a character that is about values, make sure moms know it. If you don’t, you now have a framework to use in developing your next hit character property.
Brady Darvin is senior director of consumer insights at Strottman International, a full-service agency specializing in the kids and family market that creates and manufacturers in-pack premiums, toys, plush and other products for a variety of packaged goods, food service and retail clients. You can reach him at 949-623-7929 or firstname.lastname@example.org.