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It's always been taboo to think of children as consumers or customers, and marketing directly to them brings with it criticism from many different parties.

Of course, it’s important that brands don’t exploit the vulnerability of children, as they cognitively don’t always understand they are being advertised to. However, the avoidance of communication aimed at children means that they are being excluded from brands’ dialogue.

Currently, brands aimed at children and families focus communication and campaigns towards parents. But this feels out of kilter, as it assumes they are the key gatekeeper. Even the term ‘pester power’ feels like it’s lost traction, as it assumes kids need to nag to get what they want. However, we’ve noted that children are far from silent voices in decision making at home, with parents acting more as their partner or enabler.

As parenting styles have evolved, many households are becoming non-hierarchal with the power divide between parents and children diminishing. Children have much more say in purchasing and family decision-making than previous generations. So why is this happening?

Expectations on kids

In a world of economic pressures, it’s become much more common for both parents to work and that means kids are being expected to help out more at home. This is not just isolated to lower SEG, but is a shift that transcends classes. In addition, parents feel it’s important to equip their offspring with a strong work ethic and life skills that will help them navigate an uncertain world. One way they are doing this is by encouraging independence.

Children are much more active than previous generations when it comes to helping around the house. From a young age, children are learning to cook simple dishes, clean and tidy the house and babysit for their younger siblings. Monetary reward for doing ‘chores’ varies by country and family but, regardless, this is helping children to feel a more valued household member — and with it brings empowerment. It is also means kids are gaining understanding and empathy into the demands of running a household. Like their parents, they need to find time to fit chores into their schedule. This this can be a bit of a bore for kids, but it makes them feel trusted and responsible which, in turn, promotes self-esteem and confidence.

Children have purchasing power

In a stagnant economy, children are also learning the value of savings. Rather than spend their pocket money or monetary gifts straight away, they’d rather save up to buy bigger purchases. Kids are showing signs of self-imposed financial restraint and this means that their purchasing value is growing and, in some cases, overriding their parents’ opinions. In a recent study, a child told us how he bought the parrot he’d always wanted, regardless of resistance from his parents because he had the money. These stories are not uncommon.

As children become the chief purchaser, it has become much harder for parents to put their foot down — particularly as they are actively encouraging their children to demonstrate independence. Equipping children to make the right decisions is important. Nationwide Education does this well with a range of work packs and schemes to help kids of different ages understand the value of money with practical examples of how these skills are important in their life.

In need of a rethink

With greater autonomy and a more active contribution within the household, children have more influence in the home. In turn, they’re starting to be more involved in family-based decisions. From studies we’ve worked on, we’re seeing children’s socialisation of consumer behavior happening from as young as 6 years. This could be something small like what to put on the shopping list through to bigger purchases like holidays or a car.

This fundamental shift in purchasing influences and pathways has implications for how brands should be talking and reaching families. We tend to think of children as vulnerable beings, but in-home observations and parents’ verbatims indicate that they are becoming competent, confident, and capable customers. The opportunity for brands is ripe.

Brand implications

Children are developing relationships with ‘adult’ brands at a much earlier age and yet many of these brands aren’t directly talking to or engaging with them. Finding ways to foster loyalty and connect with them is important. Apple does this well in offering a dedicated kids’ table in their stores and, in some markets, providing free coding classes and holiday camps to their future young customers. It’s a great way of building affiliation with kids and goodwill with their parents. While this sounds a rather worthy example, there’s no reason why all brands can’t find ways to chat more directly with children.

Thinking about the right environments to connect with children and families is also important. As media consumption has become increasingly personal, tapping into the potent times when families sit together is key. Be it media spots on Bake Off or Britain’s Got Talent — or tapping into Friday night movie night, finding ways to bring families and brands closer together helps foster loyalty.

Physical space in the home where families connect, however, is shifting from the living room to the kitchen. Samsung has recognised this with its smart fridge range called Family Hub, where features include TV, music, electric shopping list that all the family can add to and voice activation to allow for hands-free and non-reader commands. Partnering with AI devices and electrical appliances may be another way brands will be dialoguing with families in the not-so-distant future.

So, perhaps it’s time for brands to start acknowledging the growing role of kids in the household. This could lead to various brand opportunities. Beyond comms, innovation opportunities could include a launch of household cleaning products for little hands, a food brand that makes it easy for kids to prepare healthy, simple meals or a back of pack, on family-aimed brands that have a cut-out reward system that reflects children’s responsibilities at home, more accurately. Whatever the category, it’s time to recognise children as consumers and customers in their own right and find ways to engage responsibly with them.

 

Lesley Salem
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2017