Get 'em While They're Young : With Kid Flavors, Bright Colors and Commercials That Make Children Masters of Their Universe, Advertisers Build Brand Loyalty That Will Last a Lifetime

Karen Stabiner is a contibuting editor to this magazine. Her book about the Chiat/Day advertising agency, "Inventing Desire," has just been published by Simon & Schuster

I took my 3 1/2-year-old daughter grocery shopping recently, to a market we have walked through dozens of times. We rolled past the yogurt case that we always pass on our way from free-range chickens to lowfat milk--and like a child possessed, she screeched to a halt, pointed to a package on the uppermost shelf and announced, "I will like that. Let's get some."

This from a child who willingly ate plain yogurt only until she was able to hold the spoon herself, who has never so much as glanced at this display before. Why did she want a four-pack of Dannon Sprinkl'ins, two strawberry-banana and two cherry-vanilla four-ounce servings, each topped with a clear plastic envelope of rainbow-hued candies?

"It has sprinkles," she explained, as though our house were not a candy-free zone, as though she knew what a sprinkle was.

"Have you seen them before?"

"Annie has them in her lunch box." She was fairly quivering with desire. "Put them in the cart, mommy."

So I did. Just to see what would happen.

For The Dannon Co., that purchase represented a successful step into the marketing equivalent of the Promised Land. Children are among the few consumers who still have time and money on their hands. The recession gnaws away at adult discretionary income and at the exalted position that name brands have always held over their discount competitors. The children's market continues to grow: American children between the ages of 4 and 12 spent $8.6 billion in 1991, and their spending power is on the rise. According to James U. McNeal, Texas A&M; University marketing professor and co-author of a recent magazine article entitled "Born to Shop," children with two working parents have become involved in an increasing number of purchase decisions. He estimates that the 12-and-younger set has a vote on about $147 billion in spending each year.

More to the point, children have decades of buying power ahead of them--and unlike their parents, who carry awareness of 1,500 brand names in their heads, they have no preconceived preferences. They are a blank slate.

The combination--money to spend and an open mind--makes children irresistible to American business, and places them at the center of a heated controversy over whether, and how much, to sell to an audience whose critical faculties are still in the caterpillar stage. Critics like Peggy Charren, whose Action for Children's Television advocacy group waged a 25-year war for regulation of programming and commercials, believe that advertising takes advantage of impressionable youngsters. "Children," says Charren, "are the only unpaid sales force in the history of America. Advertisers don't expect kids to buy the product. The kids are being used to sell the product to the parent."

"The point is not that advertising is wrong, but that often it plays unfair," says Cynthia Scheibe, assistant professor of psychology at Ithaca College and director of the Center for Research on the Effects of Television, until recently a joint project with Cornell University. "Some of the tricks are really outrageous. Makeup artists, to make food look better? Kids are taught it's wrong to lie, but they have to mature enough cognitively to understand what's happening."

The opposing camp, the business community, believes that advertising sparks the commercial equivalent of patriotism--a pure faith in the value of certain brands, one that fosters the growth of a competitive economy. It is hardly ever too soon to start building allegiances. "Every kid is different," says Kidvertisers Creative Director Deyna Vesey, who opened her eight-person New York agency in 1989 with the motto "The Agency that Majors in Minors." "But the general rule of thumb is that when a kid is 3, you can go after them on television."

What no one argues about is how important children are. Advertisers annually spend about $471 million on children's television advertising, according to recent trade estimates, and the investment grows while the rest of the advertising industry attempts to extricate itself from a three-year decline. Convenience-food manufacturers, toy companies and fast-food restaurants spend the most to reach kids.

"We have living proof" of the long-lasting quality of early brand loyalties "in the cradle-to-grave marketing at McDonald's, and how well it works," says McNeal. "We start taking children in for their first and second birthdays, and on and on, and eventually they have a great deal of preference for that brand. Children can carry that with them through a lifetime."

If Dannon Sprinkl'ins, which went into national distribution this past spring, succeeds, it guarantees both short-term sales increases and long-range customer loyalty. Liz Paley is an account supervisor at the Manhattan office of Grey Advertising, an international agency with $4.5 billion in billings that has established itself as an authority on children's advertising. Grey won the Dannon account in January, 1991, just as the company was beginning to develop a product for children. Paley knows what the mandate is. "The hope is that when kids get to the point where the sprinkles seem a little babyish to them, maybe they'll try Dannon blended, which is a bit more subtle. Then they can move on to Dannon's fruit on the bottom yogurt. When we say, 'a healthy habit for life,' " says Paley, quoting the Dannon tag line, "we mean it."

GETTING KIDS TO EAT YOGURT IS A TOUGHER MARKETING PROPOSITION than getting them to buy a Barbie doll or a Nerf Master Blaster. As soon as they can wield their own cutlery and have enough words to object, most children abandon it--and they tend not to eat it again until teen-age weight concerns click in. "Kids don't like the tart taste, the runny texture, the pieces of fruit in it, the uneven texture," Paley says. "They like more intense flavors. They taste a real grape, it's not a grape to them. Grape is grape Kool-Aid."

But Dannon, a $400-million company owned by BSN, the largest food company in France, was determined to start the yogurt habit--and the customer's relationship with Dannon--early. The very future of the brand was at stake. This was a chance to form a lasting alliance with consumers just at the developmental point when they became receptive to commercial messages. According to McNeal, "Children start asking for brand-name items at 2 years old," usually because they associate a brand name with an object. "Mom says, 'Eat your Tony Tigers,' not 'Eat your Kellogg's Frosted Flakes,' " he says, "so when the child sees the picture on the box, they recognize it.

"By age 4, they are making evaluative judgments about brands, saying, 'I'll eat Cheerios and I won't eat anything but Cheerios,' " McNeal says. "Once they start school, they associate brands with people. It's, 'Billy eats Cheerios so I want to.' "

All of these factors--parents' habits, which amount to an endorsement; commercial messages and peer pressure--contribute to a child's preference for a specific brand, and make it difficult to dissuade him. Dannon, as well as competitors Light n' Lively and Yoplait, who have children's yogurts too, wanted to exploit what one Grey executive calls "the yogurt trough," a wasteland of 4-to-14-year-olds who would rather eat almost anything else. The White Plains, N.Y.-based company had been trying to figure out how to make yogurt fun, without abandoning Dannon's reputation for making healthful foods.

Grey Advertising provided the missing link. "Our typical process when we develop a new product is to create a team," says Bob Wallach, vice president of marketing for Dannon. "The company's marketing person is the hub of the wheel. We have supporting experts, and our communications experts are the people at the agency. We like to bring them in early. The interaction improves the concept. Maybe they'll say, 'Hey, if the Sprinkl'ins come in more than one color, we can do better ads.' "

"We wanted to integrate an element of fun right into the product, and not just do a smaller adult product," Paley says, "but we were careful not to step over the line. There was no chocolate chip cookie yogurt."

What got out to the focus groups and taste-test sessions? During the year of testing, there were sweeter, thicker, more vividly colored yogurts with kid-friendly gimmicks. There were Dannosaurs, fruit-flavored yogurts enhanced by dinosaur-shaped gummy bears, with names like Bananasaurus Rex and Tricherrytops. There was yogurt that came with funny-shaped spoons attached to the cups, to be called either Crazy Spoons or Spoonatics. There were Cool Cups and rainbow layers of yogurt. None of them survived: Kids liked them, but they didn't like them enough.

Finally, Dannon came up with Sprinkl'ins--added sweeteners, added color, added flavors and a clear envelope of sprinkles attached to the top of each serving cup. "Sprinkl'ins seemed to break the bank," says Grey's Rob Mizrahi, a starched-shirted, perfectly coiffed art director. "It's not just yogurt--they didn't take blueberry blended yogurt and give you a sprinkle pack," says Mizrahi's partner, copywriter Andy Bohjalian, a young, slightly rumpled man who has worked on children's products for more than a decade. "It's a little sweeter, a little more fruity tasting. It's richer in color. A better kid flavor, and then these little sprinkle packs were the deal-breaker."

"Or," he says, breaking into an impish grin, "the deal-maker."

Dannon had done everything conceivable to please the pre-adolescent palate, but the fact remained that most kids hate yogurt. Advertising had to build the bridge between target consumers and a product they didn't want. "Can advertising create a want in children? I think it can, if it presents a product in such a manner that it creates a desirable attitude in the child," McNeal says.

"The most important need for children under 7 is play," he says. "If a product is presented in such a way that a child might say it's a lot of fun, then children might seek the product." All that Grey Advertising had to do was figure out the one thing that children wanted more than they didn't want yogurt.

GREY'S SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT, GROUP CREATIVE DIRECTOR BOB SKOLLAR, tosses a navy double-breasted blazer over his shirt and jeans, a nod to his executive status, but everything about him shouts kid-at-heart, from his long auburn hair to a mischievous smile. Toys litter his corner office. Skollar has worked on the Kool-Aid account for six years, and he knows all about inventing fun. Kool-Aid's reputation as the best powdered fruit drink for kids is so strong that it has survived two devastating associations--with hallucinogenic drugs in the 1960s and with cyanide in the 1978 mass suicide in Jonestown.

About five years ago, it began to take heat from an unexpected adversary, the cheaper store brands that made sense in a tight economy. Suddenly there was a new advertising challenge--to explain to the consumer why to "take Kool-Aid rather than some(thing) else," according to Skollar.

There were qualities that would appeal to parents: Kool-Aid was cheaper than carbonated beverages, and unsweetened Kool-Aid allowed parents to control the amount of sugar their children consumed. The drink was fortified with Vitamin C. And there was what Skollar called "the "nostalgia" factor" of a drink parents had drunk when they were children. But it wasn't enough. There had to be something that appealed to kids and got them to ask for Kool-Aid instead of any other drink. What the product needed, Skollar says, was "a value added"--some benefit that derived from drinking that brand, and only that brand.

That is where brand advertising comes in. Essentially, it suggests to the consumer that there are advantages to a product that are not necessarily inherent in it; that drinking Kool-Aid will do much more for a child than merely quench his thirst. The image that Kool-Aid was trying to communicate, Skollar says, was "wacky and wild and fun and just for kids. The drink that's just for kids." So Grey developed a promotion called the Wacky Warehouse--an imaginary place, featured in the television campaign, that was full of gifts ranging from Kool-Aid hats to Nintendo games and Mattel troll dolls. All that children had to do was save up purchase coupons from their Kool-Aid packets, and they could send away for the prize of their choice. The promotion lured parents away from bargain brands by offering them a new way to save money: "After a couple of months, all of a sudden you turn around and give your kid a Nintendo gift," says Skollar. "That's pretty important for mom."

The agency also tweaked the Kool-Aid Man's personality, to make him seem a bit more modern. "When we started out, he was just a guy who brought Kool-Aid," says Skollar. "He's a cool kid now, he's in jeans. He has his jams. He has some sunglasses. So kids can identify, have something they can make part of their world." Today, Kool-Aid is the No. 1 powdered drink mix.

Andy Bohjalian worked on the Kool-Aid account 10 years ago, in what he calls "the dinosaur days of kid advertising." When he started working on Dannon 2 1/2 years ago, he remembered the seminal lesson of his days on the fruit-drink account: Make a kid feel like he rules his universe, and he will likely desire the product that makes him feel that way.

"We discovered that if we had adults doing these slapstick reactions, falling on banana peels, wigs falling off, if we made adults look silly because they saw Kool-Aid Man and were shocked and frightened--the kids loved it because they were in control," says Bohjalian. "They called the Kool-Aid Man and he created chaos in the adult world.

"In the real world, kids are at the bottom of the food chain," he says, "and one really successful way to advertise to kids is to give them a sense of power, give them a place where they call the shots, instead of everyone telling them what to eat and when to go to bed and clean up their room."

"A key component of the advertising, which is probably true of anyone that works on kids' stuff, is 'kid mastery,' " adds Mizrahi.

The two men figured they were just the guys to make yogurt a mastery product. They share a uniquely appropriate dietary heritage: Bohjalian, whose family is Armenian, and Mizrahi, whose family is Turkish, grew up in homes where yogurt was a staple. They never knew about the yogurt trough until they became adults; they ate it as children, like to talk about its "probiotic" ability to nourish healthy bacteria in the body, and approach their task with almost messianic zeal. They felt they were in a position to improve the overall health of the youth of America, as soon as they figured out how to make Dannon Sprinkl'ins the food of choice for kids in charge.

So the team devised the Creation Station as a setting for Sprinkl'ins commercials, what Mizrahi calls "a Willy Wonka chocolate factory kind of thing," where children in lab coats and wild hairdos come up with the kinds of flavors they like to eat, where rainbow-colored sprinkles pour down from the heavens. It is a land where children who eat a particular brand of yogurt find themselves free of mundane constraints, where product and power are inextricably bound up together.

Do kids get the message? Dannon introduced Sprinkl'ins in test markets in one-third of the country last year, and expanded to 60% last September. A few months ago, Grey Advertising conducted focus groups to see what effect the Creation Station campaign had on its target audience. "The kids remembered the song, they remembered the name," Mizrahi says. "And they remembered the Creation Station."

"They could play back the copy, some of the kids," adds Bohjalian. "We like that."

Second-grade students at a Los Angeles-area school who were shown the commercials recognized them, and the product, immediately. Their consensus about the world of the Creation Station? "Impossible," about 40 children shouted in unison. They knew it wasn't real--but they thought it was a fabulous place.

"They're living out the fantasy of 'what would happen if Dannon came to me and I made a product for them?' " says Dannon's Wallach. The product, which cost $13 million to launch, is now available nationwide, for a suggested $2.19. And Wallach, extrapolating from regional sales figures, expects sales of 2 million four-packs per month. It is "a small but growing part" of Dannon's sales, a company spokeswoman says.

"More than 10% of Sprinkl'ins volume came from new consumers, people who just didn't eat yogurt at all anymore," says Grey's Paley. "It's the, 'A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down' approach. The product is going like gangbusters."

IN THE PROCESS OF LAUNCHING Sprinkl'ins, Dannon and its advertising agency learned a happy lesson about brand loyalty. At the outset, Grey planned a two-pronged approach: the Creation Station campaign for children's television and a simultaneous print campaign in what Paley calls "mom magazines." Children are always nagging their parents for things they see advertised on television. There had to be a way to communicate to parents that this product was a worthy one; that Sprinkl'ins was the newest offspring in a brand family they already trust.

"Kids are still under the thumb of a gatekeeper," says Paley. "If you can convince parents that the name they trust has found a way to make yogurt palatable--that it tastes so good they won't know it's good for them--that was the big idea.

"With kids, you have to sell that it'll taste good, it'll make you the most popular kid in school," she says. "You have to sell it to the gatekeeper by saying, 'It's good for them.' The mom says to herself, 'Oh, that's the new yogurt from Dannon, so it must be OK.' "

What the agency found, to its delight, was that Dannon had a foundation of brand loyalty that made the mom campaign unnecessary. They were preaching to the converted. The company decided to cancel the magazine campaign and use that money, instead, to increase the amount of children's television time it bought.

People tend to think that advertising is designed to increase sales, but that is only part of the bargain. Ronald Goodstein, UCLA assistant professor of marketing, believes that the best result of advertising is a lasting brand equity. "If you want to boost sales, put a product on a promotion and you'll sell a lot more," he says. "Advertising talks about brand equity, about the value of a name. That equity can be used for premium pricing, the lifetime loyalty of the customer, and it helps with brand extensions. Brand advertising is equity building."

Once a brand has its hooks in the collective psyche, it is likely to hang on indefinitely, unless it becomes a casualty either of technology or of a misguided attempt to redefine the brand (Coca-Cola's market share has suffered ever since its decision, in 1985, to reformulate Coke). Martin Mayer, in his 1991 book, "Whatever Happened to Madison Avenue," lists companies that owned leading brands in several categories in 1923, and again in 1984. From Swift bacon to Wrigley chewing gum to Ivory soap, 16 of the 18 companies maintained their stranglehold. Only Hershey chocolates and Colgate toothpaste slipped, and only from first to second place.

This is not to say that the American public will buy anything that looks good in ads. Consumers might try a product once on the strength of an ad, but if the product doesn't meet their expectations, no amount of advertising will be able to persuade them to buy it again.

What brand advertising can do is enhance an acceptable product, wrap it up in what Goodstein calls "an image and a mystique." The consumer comes to believethat all athletic shoes, or cosmetics, or cars, are not created equal; that only a particular brand will successfully communicate who he is to the rest of the world.

Distinctions based on image have become ever more important to a product's success, because the consumer landscape is littered with parity products--goods that are essentially identical, whether they be batteries, midsize sedans or blue jeans, goods whose share of the market depends on created differences.

Image also persuades customers to pay the inflated price a particular brand demands, and is an important weapon in the war against anonymous discount brands. If the recession has proved a tenacious foe of brand equity--R.J. Reynolds recently rocked the business world by announcing a price reduction on its Marlboro cigarettes, in effect a capitulation to cheaper brands that were stealing customers, and leading diaper manufacturers are locked in a price war--the possible weakening of brand identities has made advertisers ever more concerned with shoring them up.

McNeal believes that successful advertising convinces the audience that a given product "potentially satisfies a need or set of needs." What distinguishes children from other viewers is not so much what advertisers show them, but how they interpret it. Children are literalists, which makes them more vulnerable to advertising's message. For them, seeing is believing.

Kidvertisers' Vesey has noticed that her year-old son loves the TV campaign for Michelin tires that features babies. "He's not buying a tire for a while," she says, laughing, "but can you imagine the brand loyalty?"

According to Ithaca's Scheibe, "Children can't distinguish the persuasive intent of commercials. There is enormous evidence that young children have various difficulties in understanding the nature of commercials. They give more credibility to the person speaking than they should, especially if it's someone they like, like Cap'n Crunch or Ronald McDonald, or someone who is a role model.

"Adults understand the purpose of advertising. They come with skepticism: These people may lie to you or distort the facts. Kids don't have that skepticism because they don't have what's called 'real world knowledge,' " she says.

But the notion that advertising somehow seduces youngsters into wanting things that they don't need irritates McNeal. He says that parents who complain about advertising, and the endless litany of product requests they get from their kids, ought to think about where they really learned to want what they want.

"What do you satisfy your appetites with?" asks McNeal. "With those things you've learned about, mainly from your parents. There is not a separate world that exists between marketers and kids, and the parents are omitted. I've never envisioned a helpless parent who couldn't say, 'No, you can't watch television,' or 'No, you can't have what you see in commercials.' "

"The wants children have, they've learned from somebody," he says. "They weren't born wanting Tony the Tiger."

PEGGY CHARREN, UNTIL last year the head of the Cambridge, Mass.-based advocacy group Action for Children's Television and the sharpest thorn in commercial television's side, emphatically agrees: No one was born wanting Tony the Tiger.

Her position, however, is that television, not parents, has taught kids to want that and other brands. Her criticisms of both programming and advertising aimed at children culminated in the 1990 Children's Television Act, which requires informational and educational programs from any station wishing to maintain its federal license--but she still despairs at how little is being done.

Charren doubts that even the most determined parent could withstand the onslaught of commercial messages a child encounters on TV. The Children's Television Act sets a limit of 10 1/2 minutes of commercials per hour of programming, but even at that level, Charren worries that parents lack the skills to fight back. As far as she is concerned, television created a wild frontier for marketers, and products sprung up, not because anyone needed them, but because there was a new, improved way to sell them. "With TV, suddenly the toy business started to do a year-round business, not just on holidays. The Barbie doll was an overnight success, and convinced the industry that television was the way to go. Television brought the picture with the message, and that's what kids respond to," Charren says.

She resents the "barrage" of commercials children see. "It's sort of incredible," she says, "to talk kids into spending money they don't have, on products that may not be good for them, when they can't yet cross the street alone."

Marketers insist that the proliferation of brands is simply proof of a healthy economy. Agency people complain that it is up to parents to screen their children's requests and decide what is a worthwhile purchase. Parents critical of children's advertising point the finger at the marketers, who point right back at them.

"Parents have to take control," says Skollar, who has two young children. "If you don't want your kid to start saying, 'They have $100 sneakers, why can't I?' teach them very early on that that's not what it's about. I had the sneaker thing with my son. It wasn't kids' advertising that he saw, it was prime-time, adult advertising. But he sees whoever it is, Michael Jordan or Shaquille O'Neal, jumping up and doing the slam dunk, flying through the sky, and he says to me--this is when I think advertising's scary--he says to me, 'But, daddy, with those you could jump higher and run faster.'

"And I said, 'No, you can't. It's not the sneakers that do it.' "

Charren says that parents have to become more involved in their children's viewing habits--that the TV set is part of popular culture, not an electronic baby-sitter. But she chuckles at the idea that the people who make the advertising are innocent bystanders. "Then maybe the problem is with society as a whole," she says, "and not just the brand managers."

MY DAUGHTER DIDN'T CARE for Sprinkl'ins, once she got past the brightly colored cardboard package, the thrill of spilling the candies in herself and the visual jolt of watching them leave pastel trails in the strawberry-banana yogurt. She decided that it was too sweet.

She loved the concept: Rather than abandon the yogurt on the first try, she insisted on sampling all four containers in the pack. But she didn't like the product; each cup went into the garbage three-quarters full. Now she prefers a recipe of her own devise, plain yogurt mixed with pesto sauce, a combination not likely to be mass-marketed at any time soon. Still, it was hard for her to give up her romance with the brand. I kept the cardboard outer packaging, in the interest of research, and every now and then she pulls it out of the cabinet, studies it, and wonders when we might buy Sprinkl'ins again. Reminded that she didn't care for the yogurt on the first try, she suggests, "But I will like it next time," already loyal to her brand of choice.

Helping Children Beat the Blitz

Peggy Charren closed down her advocacy group, Action for Children's Television, last year. But she continues to critique programming and commercials, and to find them wanting. So Charren, a grandmother of four, has devised ways to help parents and children navigate through the sea of advertising. Her suggestions:

1. Avoid commercials by watching public television.

2. Use home video.

3. Make a game of learning about commercials. For young children, Charren has made bingo boards that use products sold on children's television in place of letters. Each time there is a commercial for a particular product, the child puts a bean on that square. "It gives them a sense of how often they're sold something," says Charren, "so you can talk about what is advertised the most, and does that make you want it the most? That helps undermine the message."

Ithaca College's Cynthia Scheibe also has a strategy. She recommends a game she calls "What are they selling?" "As soon as a commercial comes on, I say, 'OK. They're selling something. Who can be the first person in the room to say what it is?' My 2-year-old daughter could do it--and even if she was wrong, at least she understood that they were selling something."

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