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Marketing to Kids -- Do's and Don'ts
by Barry Feig

To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald (who said it about the rich), kids aren't like you and me. They're irrational, impulsive, compulsive, and generally feel that the earth spins on an axis that has them in the center. Come to think of it, kids are a lot like you and me.

According to one recent study, children affect over 60% of the family's market purchase. The trick is to find out which 60% they do impact and in what ways they influence the purchase decision. The nice thing about kids is that they are a self-replenishing resource. Really. According to Disney and other licensors of kids' products, the generational cycle is eight years -- from about four to twelve years of age -- just long enough to get a product through R&D. That means that every eight years, there's a new market for Disney classics. That's why Disney is so picky about release dates and video rights. It's an overwhelming equity.

As Disney knows, kids haven't changed over the years. They're more informed because of the grip of mass media, but the same motivations that grabbed kids years ago still work today. The urge to party, to be popular, to stand out in the crowd and to not stand out in the crowd are all driving forces.

But many researchers, brand managers, and even moderators are intimidated by the idea of kids, particularly when it comes to focus groups. They say that kids can't understand concepts. They get bored quickly. They have limited attention spans. They can't make the jump from concept to real-world product (the kids, not the researchers or brand managers.

They're wrong. Kids are only bored if your concepts, products, and moderators are boring. But how can you expect your message or products to break through the clutter on TV or in the supermarket aisle if you can't captivate them in the focus room?

Kids will vividly respond to full-color concepts and even rough-drawn storyboards when you have an idea that either turns them on or turns them off. Kids are not afraid to let you know how they feel about something. The middle ground of concepts -- the "so what" concepts -- are going to be a failure in the marketplace anyway, so you can read children's glazed eyes as a negative.

We conducted several sets of focus groups with kids for Pepsi-Cola and after we picked popcorn from the windowsills, sponged corn syrup from the walls, and plucked peanuts from the moderator's hair, we left with a winning positioning. Here are key dos and don'ts to successfully marketing to children.

Don't show a child in a solitary setting. Kids are social beings and when you show a kid all alone in a commercial, no matter how cute he may look to you, it makes your product (and the user) look like an outcast.

Do Show a kid older than your target audience. Kids look up to older kids. They easily identify with them. To be like the big boys is an essential kid-like feeling. It's anathema to show kids younger than your target group. It makes your product look "babyish" and unsophisticated to your target audience.

Don't screen out kids who aren't erudite in focus groups. Too many researchers do that and it makes for terribly misleading groups. Most kids aren't particularly well-spoken, but that's not their problem. Look for kids to react, not to intellectualize.

Don't talk down to kids. They know it immediately. I see ads written by thirty-five-year-old copywriters using words like awesome and far-out, even when those awesome, far-out slang expressions went out years ago. Unless you're sure of your slang, stay away from it. Like dig?

Don't forget mom's role as gatekeeper. Children expect mom to make the key purchase decisions on "serious" products. Most kids instinctively know how far they can expect mom to bend.

For instance, while creating a new toothpaste for kids, we developed "frivolous" concepts that kids loved. But they knew good old mom wouldn't buy them, so they turned to a middle-of-the-road compromise they had a chance of getting.

Then we spoke to the kid's moms and showed them the identical concepts. The mothers not only knew what products the kids wanted, they also knew that there was no way in hell they were going to buy it. Both groups settled on the identical compromise choice.

Don't think getting past the gatekeeper is simple. No way. The dynamics change according to what parenting stage the parent is going through, the age of the

First Born: "Isn't this whole wheat and almond cereal going to be nutritious?"

Second: "Maybe you can have Fruit Loops, but just this once."

Third: "Eat your damn Breakfast With Barbie and shut up."

Do Watch cable. That's where the new trends are showcased. From small companies who can't afford network TV to larger companies who appreciate the concentration of kids -- especially on MTV and Nickelodeon -- you can get a handle on what's happening.

Do play with your food. Kids like ichky yucky things and they like to play. That's part of the success of the Jello Jigglers promotion. Kids also like to feel that they can be grown-up and cook for themselves. That's why the new microwave kids meals have been so successful. Even though, in focus groups, parents say they don't trust kids around the microwave, it's proven to be a fertile growth area.

Don't use the word gourmet in dealing with teenagers. It's almost always an immediate turn-off up to age eighteen. (It sounds elitist and snobbish.)

Do be enthusiastic. Do have fun with your product. Lighten up. If you don't think it's fun, then the kids probably won't either.

Barry Feig is president-creative director of New Products Workshop Inc. This article is one of several that was published in international marketing magazines.

Barry Feig has helped launch products for the likes of PepsiCo, Colgate Palmolive and American Express.

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