Think back to your childhood, when your room was covered in posters and products featuring Fonzi, Pac-Man, NSYNC, Lizzie McGuire, or (insert your embarrassing past obsession here). You bought everything you could find based on your favorite characters or brands, spent tons of time adoring them and talking about them, and you valued them more than chocolate or ice cream. All the kids in school were bonding over the same handful of brands or IPs, and sharing fandom was primarily a local, face-to-face experience.
Fast forward to today, when the digital world provides kids with many more diverse ways of learning about and fueling their obsessions, and countless, even anonymous ways to express their fandom. For media creators, the competition is exponentially more intense. To get a kid to latch onto your brand and dive in deeply, you have to help them find it in the broad pool of options and meet nuanced needs that no other brand is fulfilling quite so well.
In addition, getting kids to like your brand is only the first step. When it comes to media passions, there are fans, and there are superfans. And the difference between the two could make or break your success in our crowded industry. The superfans will not only hyper-engage and buy everything they can, but they will also shout your merits from the rooftops.
So where to start?
The answer lies in understanding fandom’s relationship to child development, and how you can fit naturally into kids’ work of growing up.
In response to client requests to understand how to beef up the engagement levels of the kids who interact with their brands, Insight Kids conducted a study into fandom to parse out the difference between “I kinda like it” and “I can’t live without it.” We developed a FanPrint™ algorithm to identify fans and separate them from the superfans, which will help media creators understand their current and potential audiences and what will drive fandom for them.
The results showed that fandom plays a key role for kids in fostering identity, with superfans three times more likely than fans or non-fans to consider fandom an important part of who they are. This means that child-targeted brands have an opportunity to play a major role in childhood.
In addition, our factor analysis revealed three tiers of kid needs fulfilled by fandom—Grow Myself, Build My Team, and Navigate My Community.
What to prioritize
By a wide margin, Grow Myself is most important to kids. This makes sense developmentally, considering that a main part of kids’ lives is spent figuring out who they are individually. Fostering individual growth involves helping kids discover what they like and what they’re good at, building their confidence, and sparking their imagination.
Second in importance is Build My Team—fandom’s ability to connect kids with family and friends. In this realm, brands help kids learn right from wrong, how to treat others, and how to collaborate and compete. Connecting with family is important for all kids. As kids age, fandom is more and more instrumental in connecting them with friends.
And finally, kids see the benefits of their fandom to help them Navigate Their Community, which is made up of people they have never met but align with over their common interest. The benefits include learning how to stand out and being inspired to create stuff that others will admire.
Brands that carefully plan how to help kids in these three realms will have an easier time inserting themselves into kids’ lives.
- Do I have characters and story elements that kids can relate to?
- Do I demonstrate qualities and situations that kids can aspire to?
- Do I show kids navigating challenges, including social ones?
- Do I provide kids tools for safely sharing their passions with their team and their community?
What fandom looks like
Of course, it’s also crucial to understand how kids want to interact with the brands they love. First off, they may not enter your brand from its original incarnation, so each product or piece of media you create has the potential to get kids interested. There are kids out there who think Star Wars originated as a version of Angry Birds (true, I swear!). And kids who are not old enough to read Harry Potter may first enjoy the video games or the movies, appreciating the magic and the exciting good vs. evil story.
In addition, you can’t expect kids to be fans of your brand exclusively. Media is a top category for fandom, with 43% of kids five to 12 stating that they are a big fan of at least one content-driven IP, as opposed to, for example, 27% for music artists/bands, 21% for sports teams/players, or 13% for authors. Within media, kids are fans of multiple entities—87% of kids agree that they are fans of lots of different things.
Kids naturally mash-up the brands they love in their play, having Spider-Man come to a sleepover at Barbie’s, or Elsa battle Darth Vader. While some brand managers shiver at the thought of this, others have embraced the opportunity to find brand allies—brands that their fans also like, which could potentially be good partners and ways to increase their fan base. Lego, for example, aligned with Minecraft, another construction brand.
Once kids have embraced a brand, discovering more about it is part of the fun, and the digital universe provides a great playground for digging deeper. Fans love to actively search for their favorite characters and stories to uncover secrets, Easter eggs, inside info, and to put puzzle pieces together. Kids want to see under the hood—how the media is made, where the challenges and goofs were, and how favorite brands are connected.
Disney does a great job of fostering the discovery process, hiding references to past movies within new features. Flounder from The Little Mermaid, for example, is hidden in a scene from Moana (see image below).
The top avenues for IP discovery are friends and family—69% of superfans talk about their fandom at least once a week with friends or family members. That said, YouTube is third, proving that while personal endorsements are still essential, digital sources are becoming increasingly credible as discovery channels. When it comes to expressing their fandom and being brand evangelists, kids love to write and draw, make and share videos, and post on social media, including YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat.
How fandom changes by age
As kids begin to get a handle on personal identity, Growing Myself becomes less about finding out their likes and talents and more about building confidence and expressing themselves. Building My Team always involves family, but encompasses friends more prevalently as kids age. And Navigating My Community moves from understanding the broader world to craving to make their mark on it. As an example, a five-year-old might like to watch a YouTube video. An eight-year-old might create one for her friends to see, but ignore the comments from strangers. And an 11-year-old would obsessively track the number of views and public comments, taking the input very personally and letting it influence her self-esteem.
Additionally, the touch-points that kids get involved with for their favorite media brands evolve by age. Kids ages five to six have lots of time, few social inhibitions and broad interests, so they will watch the media, play with toys and video games, wear the t-shirts, carry the lunchbox, and even express their love via art. Kids seven to 10 have fewer categories for brand interaction, with screens gradually replacing the more tactile toys and self-expression products. Self-expression tools like writing and art fall away because kids care what others think, and they have not yet mastered these skills. Once kids are 11 and 12, their touch-points expand again, including social media, music, and self-expression vehicles they are now more adept at like writing fan fiction and making art.
So what to do?
Moving forward, remember both the timeless truths and the timely trends about fandom.
- Fandom helps in the work of growing up, individually and socially
- Kids naturally mash up brands and franchises
- Kids respond to brands that target and represent them specifically
- Digital tools of today help kids connect to others far away
- Smart brands are finding their allies and embracing this pattern
- Kids are craving and expecting representation of their increasingly diverse world
And consider exploring your FanPrint™ when planning and building your brands!
Sarah Chumsky is the VP of Insight Kids, a passionate team of business strategists and developmental experts who spend their waking hours pondering and communicating timeless truths and timely trends. Through innovative qualitative and quantitative market research and consulting, they bring the voice of the child to the creative process, helping their clients create products and experiences that meet kids where they are. Reach us at SarahC@InsightStrategyGroup.com or via InsightKids.com