April 12, 2010 -- Alexandra Noailles' son doesn't want just toys. Julien covets merchandise from the animated film "Cars" and Nintendo's Wii video game system. When it comes to yogurt, he opts for Dannon's Danimals. And when he wants fast food, more often than not it's McDonald's that he asks for.
Barely five years-old, Julien has developed some pretty specific brand preferences.
"I figure he just picks it up in commercials," Noailles, of Peekskill, N.Y., said.
For years, understanding brands and logos was thought to be the province of older children, but a recent study has found that the preschool set also has the ability to identify and distinguish among different corporate products.
"Young children are ready learners and are learning about their brand environment just about everywhere," said T. Bettina Cornwell, a professor of marketing and sports management at the University of Michigan. Cornwell and Anna R. McAlister, a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin, published their study "Children's Brand Symbolism Understanding" in the journal Psychology and Marketing last month.
The study, which involved 38 Australian preschool children ages 3 to nearly 5 years old, found that while the children were not yet able to read, they often knew exactly which logo corresponded with which brand. Certain logos -- including those for fast food chains (McDonald's), entertainment companies (Disney, the parent company of ABC News, and Warner Brothers) and cars (Toyota) -- proved especially recognizeable. Others, including those for clothing (Nike) and personal care (Kleenex), fared considerably worse. (No children in the study recognized the Kleenex logo. Kleenex spokesman Joey Mooring said he was unfamliar with the study but added that Kleenex's "primary consumer demographic" is "moms.")
The researchers were especially surprised to find children identifying brands whose marketing doesn't appear to target kids, including Toyota, which was recognized by 80 percent of the study's participants, and Shell, which was recognized by nearly 53 percent.
McAlister had a couple of theories to explain why brands like Shell and Toyota get kids' attention. For the former, children might associate trips to the gas station with stops for treats at a gas station convenience store, she said. For the latter, children may recognize car brands because they've learned to distinguish between their parents' cars and those of others.
Before ABCs, Toddlers Learn Toyota, McDonald's, Disney
"My feeling is that a lot of this has to do with positive emotions -- children recognize things that are self-serving and enjoyable," McAlister said.
McDonald's was the most recognized brand, with nearly 93 percent of children correctly identifying the restaurant chain by its golden arches.
But here's a detail that may come as a surprise to parents and proponents of the recent "Retire Ronald McDonald" campaign: During the study, children were never shown pictures of Ronald McDonald, the McDonald's clown mascot who critics say encourages unhealthy eating habits among kids.
It turns out they didn't need Ronald to clue them in to the allure of Mickey D's. When children were asked to assess how popular certain brands were among their friends, they gave answers like "McDonald's has a playground so you can play there and everyone likes you." (To the clown's credit, McAlister said she's since showed children pictures of Ronald McDonald's red boots and striped socks -- omitting the rest of his body -- and found that some could identify the mascot by just his legs and feet alone.)
Of course, recognizing a brand and liking it are two different things: Not even McDonald's received universal approval among kids. McAlister said one child declared that you will have no friends if you go to McDonald's "because all they have is hamburgers and you'll get fat and nobody likes you."
Some children in the study were able to demonstrate not just why they personally liked or disliked a brand but also what the brand might mean to others.
"Kids this young are using brands as indicators of popularity or success," McAlister said.
McAlister and Cornwell are performing similar studies in the U.S. today, including one that tracks how children's attitudes towards brands change over time. The researchers hope their work will ultimately inform both parents and policymakers considering the issue of advertising to children, including ways to improve the marketing of healthy food options to kids.
Their research involving young children shows that "the power of communication is not lost on them," Cornwell said. "It can be used to forward public policy aims."