More Companies Market Directly to Kids

At first glance it looks like a pizza party — a circle of pre-teens munching on thick slices slathered with melted cheese and pepperoni. But between bites, these Stamford, Conn., youngsters are enthusiastically engaged in a conversation about corporate logos.

"Tell me all the car brands you know," says Wynne Tyree, the adult leading the discussion, and hands shoot up all over the room. She points to a young boy with a paper plate on his lap and he begins rattling off names. "Miata, Fiat, Mitsubishi …."

This informal gathering is actually a focus group organized by the Just Kid Inc. market research group. It's designed to help companies gauge how much children know about their products. Based on their responses, these children know what they like.

Some concerns are practical. They look for cleanliness in hotel rooms, fast service in restaurants and perks to keep them entertained when traveling. "Jet Blue has like leather seats that are nice and each person has their own individual TV with 25 channels," says a blond boy, waving his hands around for emphasis." Other concerns are more highbrow, such as chocolate on the pillow in the hotel at night.

Courting the Kids

The children in this group are a decade away from buying their own cars or planning their own vacations, yet these youngsters are aggressively courted by a growing number of companies whose services have little or nothing to do with childhood.

"Security companies are targeting kids, airline companies are targeting kids, gasoline companies are targeting; those things that we traditionally think of as adult products are targeting kids," said James McNeal, author of the Kids Market, a book that examines children and their spending habits.

Brand awareness is keen among the pre-teens in the Connecticut focus group. Tryee asks the group to "think of a logo that has a red ball and a yellow ball. And they kind of go together." Before she even finishes the sentence, the kids shout out, "MasterCard!!!"

‘More Market Potential’ in Kids

Markets are motivated by research conducted by McNeal and others, showing that children begin to recognize corporate labels as early as 18 months. About a year later they are able to associate the items in their world with a particular brand name. For example, when they think about juice, they don't just think about the beverage, they think about the brand name associated with the beverage.

"By the age of 2 or 3 years old, when you ask kids to draw things, they tend to draw brands, ... they will not draw a generic doll, they will draw a Barbie; they won't draw a computer, they will draw a Dell Computer," said George Carey, president of Just Kid Inc.

By first grade, most American children have learned 200 logos, and research shows they are much more likely to stick with those brands throughout their lifetime. That's why companies are eager to expose their logos to as many youngsters as possible, stamping corporate logos all over children's toys and hanging their banners at children's events like the circus or ice-skating programs.

And if you think commercials for cell phones or cars that run during the cartoon hour are there to entice parents, you're wrong. Little kids are the big catch. "Kids have more market potential than any other demographic group," McNeal said.

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