With billions of dollars at their disposal-and a say in how parents spend household income-tweens and younger kids are increasingly the targets of brand-building efforts by marketers of everything from cereal to air travel.
The goal is to create brand loyalty early, so marketers can develop lifetime customers for their products.
To reach kids, today's trend is toward "surround marketing," says Paul Kurnit, president of New York ad agency Griffin Bacal and its Kid Think division.
MAKE IT MEANINGFUL
"Twenty years ago, you put a premium in a package, and life was good," Mr. Kurnit says. "Today, marketers are trying to touch kids' lifestyles in as many ways as are relevant and meaningful. The goal is not just to get someone to try my product but to get them to feel a relationship to my brand."
There were 39.8 million children in the U.S. ages 5 to 14 in 1999, and they spent $33.9 billion, according to MarketResearch.com/Packaged Facts. These kids also influenced about $196 billion in purchases by their parents.
"The game is how do you get kids to prefer your brand over someone else's while being responsible," says Dan Acuff, a psychologist at Youth Market Systems, a West Coast company that helps marketers target children. "Kids below 6 are very vulnerable. We have to be careful."
Advertisers spent an estimated $2 billion to get their messages out to kids through the media in 1999, says James U. McNeal, president of McNeal & Kids Youth Marketing Consultants. Young children are targeted three ways: first as spending their own money, second as influencing parental spending and third as a steady stream of new customers.
"You can usually justify the expenditures on kids as the future market with the income earned in the first two," Mr. McNeal says.
To build kid appeal for their products and also attract parents, marketers are adding new ingredients to familiar items, sharing brand space with other marketers and lending their brand names to a wide range merchandise, from books to pajamas.
Quaker Oats Co. targets kids ages 6 to 9 with Dinosaur Eggs, a brown-sugar flavored hot oatmeal sprinkled with "eggs" that "hatch." Quaker, via FCB Worldwide, Chicago, also appeals to moms by emphasizing the cereal's value as a nutritious breakfast in TV and print advertising, supported by a strong in-store presence and coupons.
"We recognize that those are both audiences we need to make aware of this great product," says Eric Skubish, Quaker marketing manager for kid households for hot cereal.
Shared space draws kids' attention, too. A food marketer would not have considered sharing space with a TV programmer just a few years ago, Mr. Kurnit says. But since 1998, Nickelodeon and Burger King Corp. have linked in eight tie-ins.
"Our strategy is to deliver added value," says Richard Taylor, Burger King VP-U.S. marketing. "We know for a fact that kids will come to Burger King because of Nickelodeon toys."
"The great thing about a fast-food company is that they have 8,000 places where our audience can experience our brand every day," says Pam Kaufman, senior VP-promotions marketing for Nickelodeon. "Burger King does a tremendous job of partnering."
In a shared effort geared to parents as well as kids, Delta Express painted a likeness of the Cartoon Network's "Powerpuff Girls" on one of its airplanes. The promotion, created in-house by Delta and Cartoon Network, began last July and runs through December. It also includes a Delta Express/"Power-puff Girls" co-branded banner on CartoonNetwork.com.
"We went for a high-profile marketing partnership that sends a specific message," says Stacy Geagan, manager-marketing communications at Delta Express, the discount service of Delta Air Lines. "We're trying to convey that we are family- and kid-friendly. We want to appeal to the parents via the children and vice versa."
Books that spotlight brands also appeal to both kids and parents. General Mills has sold millions of copies of Cheerios-branded books including "The Cheerios Counting Book" and "The Cheerios Play Book," says Leigh Ann Schwarz-kopf, manager of trademark licensing at the cereal giant. The books reinforce the nurturing and parent- child interactivity that are core values of Cheerios itself, she says.
"My job is to enhance my equities and create a stronger relationship with consumers," she says. "If I violate consumer trust, it won't work."
General Mills rival Kellogg Co. is on bookshelves with "Kellogg's Froot Loops! Counting Fun Book," as are other kid-friendly marketers including M&M/Mars with "The M&M's Brand Counting Book," Kraft Foods with "Oreo Cookie Counting Book" and Camp-bell Soup Co. with Pepperidge Farm's "Goldfish Counting Fun Book."
Julie Halpin, CEO of WPP Group's Geppetto Group, New York, sees such books as a relatively benign marketing tactic.
"For the marketer it's creating affinity for the brand," Ms. Halpin says. "For parents, the kid is learning to count. There's no downside."
But such branding efforts aimed at children also attract their critics, especially for those projects targeting younger children.
Children under 8 don't understand that someone may be taking a position that doesn't have their best interests at heart, says psychologist Allen Kanner of the Wright Institute, a clinical psychology school based in Berkeley, Calif.
"It's unfair to be using these techniques on developmentally gullible kids," Mr. Kanner says. "Many of the things being advertised are worrisome. There's an explosion of childhood obesity that parallels junk food being advertised and the problem of marketing violent products and media to children."
But many parents are not unaware of what marketers are up to.
"I would be surprised if marketers did not view my kids as potential long-term customers," says Rozlyn Engel, mother of three in Millburn, N.J. "That's their job, after all. I consider it my job to make my kids into savvy customers capable of making distinctions between advertising and actual quality."