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.

In addition to being consumers of the future, children already spend $30 billion on everything from clothing to video games. On top of that, they influence how their parents spend their money. That accounts for another $600 billion in sales.

So companies are crafting ad campaigns with kids in mind. The Embassy Suites hotel chain (a division of Hilton Hotels Corp.) runs a commercial featuring smiling happy children running through the halls and playing in-room video games. The ad is based on the assumption that youngsters tip the scales when choosing a vacation spot.

Field Trips to Companies

A growing number of businesses, including several large retail chains, have hired a Chicago firm called the Field Trip Factory to deliver schoolchildren to their sites for real-world lessons on everything from nutrition to health care.

"It's a really easy, viable way to reinforce classroom lessons in a real-life environment," said Susan Singer, president of the Field Trip Factory.

The program has been phenomenally successful, growing from eight to 43 states in just two years, in large part because the programs are free. Because of budget cuts, many schools now charge a small fee for traditional field trips to the zoo or museums.

Educators and kids give the field trips high marks because they allow children to learn in a hands-on environment, and they turns the local community into an extension of the classroom. At a recent trip to a Saturn Dealership in Dundee, Ill., children learned about car safety by learning how to change dirty car oil or how to correctly buckle a seat belt. The highlight of the visit was an unusual exercise where children were asked to jump up and down on top of a car door to test the strength of steel.

The field trips give retailers a chance to invest in education, but it's also an opportunity to invest in future earnings, recognizing that today's school children could well be tomorrow's customers.

"We get to market to local areas, to local schools," said Mary McHugh, from the Dundee Saturn dealership. "We are reaching teachers, we are reaching parents, we're reaching the children. This becomes dinner conversation: 'What did you do today?' 'Well we went to Saturn, we got to see this.'"