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What do characters like Mario from Mario Brothers, Zack and Cody, and Puss in Boots all have in common? The results from California-based E-Poll Market Research's latest edition of its E-Score Character Kids study reveal they each have above-average awareness and strong appeal among US tweens (kids ages nine to 12), but barely register a blip on the radar of younger siblings and teens.
June 8, 2010

What do characters like Mario from Mario Brothers, Zack and Cody, and Puss in Boots all have in common? The results from California-based E-Poll Market Research’s latest edition of its E-Score Character Kids study reveal they each have above-average awareness and strong appeal among US tweens (kids ages nine to 12), but barely register a blip on the radar of younger siblings and teens.

At E-Poll, we evaluate the awareness and appeal of live-action and animated characters with kids, tweens, teens and adults on a monthly basis. In most current research tweens tend to be lumped together with teens, and sometimes younger kids, making them a challenging consumer segment to target. Tweens form a discrete segment in their own right for a number of reasons, including the enormous income at their disposal, their high levels of media consumption,* and their influence on household purchases and the tastes of younger siblings. For better or worse, tweens are also at an age where they build brand associations on a conscious level, and brands make strong impressions that can last a lifetime.

Understanding this target is critical to building character-brand equity as well as identifying characters with potential. However, tweens can be fickle and unpredictable given the tremendous social, physical and emotional changes they’re experiencing. In order to accurately capture the opinions of tweens, E-Score Character Kids uses proven research methodology, asking kids to evaluate character attributes using their own words like ‘boring,’ ‘cool’ and ‘popular.’

Several things make tweens unique as consumers.

1. They are more brand loyal than teens and younger kids.

2. Parents provide the bulk of their spending money, so they are less price-sensitive than teens.

3. Family is more important to them than it is to teens.

4. They still share many attitudes in common with younger kids.

5. Establishing and ‘fitting in’ with a peer group is much more important to them, with conformity to peers peaking between the ages of 11 and 12. The importance placed by tweens on being part of a group, means many feel most comfortable in environments where peer pressure conditions behavior.

In general, tweens still have one foot in the world of children and one in the world of teens. This split is reflected in their preferences for products, brands and even characters. So which characters have the strongest appeal among tweens?

It’s worth noting that gender plays a distinct role in character recognition and preference at this age. While there are characters that enjoy broad appeal with boys and girls, they are few and far between. Most top-ranked characters with this demo are driven by one gender that finds them very appealing.

As of the latest fielding of E-Score Character Kids survey, where we have evaluated more than 700 unique names in the last two years, characters with the highest appeal among tweens are a mix of live-action and animated. The live-action characters tweens find appealing tend to be ‘funny,’ ‘cool,’ ‘good’ and ‘popular.’ Generally, characters that appeal to tweens have traits that they can either identify with, or aspire to, and that are important for social acceptance.

Coming in at first-place this time around is Carly from iCarly, (72% aware, 58% ‘like a lot’) with the characters from Disney’s Wizards of Waverly Place (56% aware, 56% ‘like a lot’) ranking second, and Phineas and Ferb landing in third place with 48% awareness among tweens and a 56% score on the ‘like a lot’ scale.

Age-appropriateness also helps propel characters to the top of the heap with this demo. The tweens we polled said the character must be ‘for my age’ to be considered appealing. Girls are a little more likely to accept younger-skewing characters they describe as ‘cute’ (like Webkinz and Alvin and the Chipmunks), but overall high-appeal characters are those considered age-appropriate by at least 75% of tweens.

While tweens require the live-action characters they find appealing to be multi-dimensional (i.e. interesting, popular, cool and funny), animated characters can often get by on being considered ‘funny’ and ‘friendly, like SpongeBob Squarepants, who consistently has high appeal. Animated characters in the top 10, behind Phineas and Ferb, include Scrat, the breakout Paleolithic squirrel from Ice Age, Up’s Dug, Donkey from Shrek, Tom and Jerry and Alvin and the Chipmunks. These top-rated toon characters also have fairly universal appeal and appear on both girls’ and boys’ lists, with the exception of Alvin and the Chipmunks – unlike boys, girls rate them as ‘funny’ and ‘cute,’ putting the little rodents at the top of girls’ lists.

The distinct differences in taste and attitude between male and female tweens, reflected in their character preferences, are important to consider when targeting this demo as consumers. Girls tend to want to see more characters with socially desirable traits like those possessed by Sam Puckett and Carly from iCarly, The Twilight Saga’s affable wolf boy Jacob Black and Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter franchise. Girls believe these characters are cool, popular, funny, a good friend and, in the case of Jacob Black, cute. In contrast, boys want to see more of characters usually described as cool, powerful, heroic, interesting and boy-centric. These include Mata Nui from Lego’s Bionicles, Bumblebee and the Autobots from Transformers, Iron Man and Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Notably, the most important characteristic when assessing appeal for both boys and girls is ‘cool.’

In many respects tweens have more in common with their younger siblings (ages six to eight) than they do with teens, particularly since many of the characters that resonate most with younger kids are aspirational and have already been embraced by tweens. Younger kids tend to favor animated characters they consider ‘friendly,’ ‘fun, ‘a good friend’ and ‘nice.’ At the top of the list of characters they find appealing and want to see more of are Alvin and the Chipmunks, Phineas and Ferb, SpongeBob SquarePants, Dug from Up and Sid the Sloth from the Ice Age films.

Marketers looking to extend their character brands or promote their products using licensed characters to the tween market will need to develop a deeper understanding of this consumer segment and the things that differentiate it from other age groups. The unprecedented growth in media consumption among this demographic in the last five years means marketers have many more potential points of contact. Precise targeting with an eye to the characteristics that make tweens unique and a worthwhile demo, can maximize results.

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