Kids rule? Think again

Christmas is coming and children are turning on the `pester power'. But, says Roger Trapp, brands will need more than hype before parents give in
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The Independent Online
With the advertising and pro- motion of kids' merchandise and toys al-ready picking up pace weeks ahead of Christmas, it may seem that the marketing phenomenon of "pester power" has taken hold once again.

However, influential as the notion has undoubtedly been over the past decade, it may have had its day. According to Nick Pye of The Value Engineers, a strategic brand consultancy, it has become "an increasingly irrelevant tool which fools too many marketers into simplifying the complexities of marketing to kids and their families".

Moreover, it has become counter-productive and the subject of a parental backlash - not least because it conjures up images of brow-beaten parents forced into submission by child tyrants.

While this may happen, it is "unrealistic and unproductive" to think that it represents most relationships, says Mr Pye. Rather, he sees it as "an extreme form of behaviour" that is at the opposite end of the spectrum from parents demanding that their children eat their greens.

There is, he says, "a massive range of behaviour in the middle". And getting a grip on this requires a better understanding of the interaction and compromise that exists between parents and children.

In other words, there needs to be an acknowledgement that the relationship between the two groups is much more complex and dynamic than a concept such as pester power would suggest.

Mr Pye believes that this middle ground is chiefly characterised by dialogue and negotiation - though he insists that it is "not necessarily overt, conscious or verbal" (as in the cliched image of a family sitting round a table).

Instead, much of it is subtle, subconscious and non-verbal and is inherent in the way in which parents and their children relate to each other on an everyday basis.

In such a situation the balance of purchase power ebbs and flows between parents and children depending on such factors as what is bought and what is affecting the relationship.

For example, the parental view of a would-be purchase might be conditioned by how well the children have been behaving recently, how well they have done at school, or the length of time since their last treat.

Equally, the children's perspective might depend on their impression of how good a mood the parents are in, their view of whether they deserve a treat or not and how expensive the item in question is.

Some might doubt whether children, and in particular younger ones, are sufficiently aware of the value of things. But Mr Pye suggests that children are a lot more value-conscious than is often supposed.

Indeed, the impression that it is relatively cheap, and therefore "gluggable", is one factor behind the astounding success of the drink Sunny Delight, he says. According to trade press reports, the brand value of the product, launched by the consumer goods company Procter & Gamble, has risen by 5,200 per cent in the last year and it outsells all other soft drinks except Pepsi and Coca-Cola.

In Mr Pye's view P&G aligned the positioning, pack, price and product itself so that it appealed to both parents and children. Using his negotiating model, both parties can latch on to certain attributes of the product as "leverage in the negotiation". These assets might include the number of vitamins it contains or the fact that it is sold from the fridge and so seems fresher and healthier than other soft drinks.

Some might consider the Sunny Delight example a happy accident where the alignment is more an after-the-fact explanation than the result of careful planning.

But Mr Pye considers that it works too well to just be a coincidence.

Accordingly, there are ramifications for all involved in marketing. And the Value Engineers, based in Beaconsfield, are al-ready applying the thinking with clients in the consumer goods field as well as other sectors.

Brand marketers must understand where their brands and products lie in a spectrum that has at one end children de-manding things and at the other parents dictating what they can have, says Mr Pye.

He also says it is essential that those involved in this process realise that all aspects of communication will play a role in the child-parent negotiation and that, by shifting the balance of the communication, it is possible to reposition the brand within the spectrum.

"We must look beyond the restrictions of pester power and develop a wider understanding of how kids and their parents relate to each other," he says.

Negotiation, and its inherent notion of both sides having a "mental balance sheet" so that they build up "credits" and then spend them, appears to be an attractive way of broadening the outlook.

In particular, by introducing some element of parental free will to a process that has been characterised by parents giving in (often against their better judgement), brands must be better able to make purchasers feel positive, or at least less negative, about them.