Current Paper



Please Please Please
Understanding Purchase Influence.


Speech by Dr. Langbourne Rust to the SRI Marketing to Kids Conference, September 22, 1994


There is a ground-shaking trend in our society for parents to involve their kids in marketplace decisions at earlier and earlier ages. Children's marketers have enormous opportunities, and those of you who really understand parent-child interactions will have the edge in the competition for market share.

The Puzzle: Should you sell to the kids or sell to the parents?

So, if the parent child interaction is so important, how do you sell to the family? How do you sell to the kids and how do you sell to the parents? That is a huge and complicated puzzle.  The key to the puzzle can be found in two of the most important truths I know about parent-child interactions in the marketplace:

The Keys:  The first is that the best salespersons to sell your product to children are their parents, and the second is that the best persons to sell to parents are their children.   Parents and children interact a lot with each other in the marketplace, and by and large, their interactions are positive, mutually supportive experiences for both. The trick is to get their interactions going in a way that is favorable to your product.

The Nag & Gatekeeper Model

Lots of kids marketers see parent-child interaction in terms of the "Nag & Gatekeeper Model" where the kids nag moms to get stuff and moms tend the gate, letting some products in and keeping the others out.

The nag (the kid), it is believed, 

Hungers for pleasure benefits,
Compares available products based on the promised benefits,
Decides on a favorite based on that comparison, and
Nags mom to buy the favorite.

The gatekeeper (mom), according to this view,

Allows the kid to express a preference, but
Closes the gate if the choice is not approved, or
Opens the gate if it is acceptable.

Marketers who see the kids market this way typically advertise by communicating the key product benefits to mom and kid, with the objective of persuading them of the superiority of the product and in hopes that will change their marketplace decisions.

But here is another way of looking at the consumer which suggests some different strategies might work better.  I'd like to begin describing this view of children by reviewing some key facts about kids as I've gotten to know them.

Image1.gif (258150 bytes)


The cartoonist here has great insight into children's thinking.   Kids have room in their heads for only one thing at a time, and they lose track of one thing as soon as their attention shifts to something else: "out of sight, out of mind."  This is one of the important truths about children.

Key kid facts

Did you ever, as an adult, come across an old toy of yours - one you had really really loved - and not seen in 20 or 30 years - and thought to yourself how dinky or everyday or unexceptional it really seems now - and wondered what was it that could have made it so magical? Or have you eaten or drunk something, again, after a long time, and thought - this really isn't so exceptional - another sweet sticky thing?

I remember my Lionel Trains and Sugar Corn Pops. I  feel nostalgia for them - but looking hard at their objective benefits - I'm not sure I could say now that those 3-track O-gauge trains were better than the more realistic HO's - or that Corn Pops were truly better than Frosted Flakes.

Many a great kid product has had mediocre attributes. There are good reasons for this.

Kids don’t notice attributes.  They react to products as indivisible units. They do not look to pieces or elements to help them understand what something is like.

Kids have a limited channel capacity.   They can only notice one thing at a time. That is why they don't compare alternatives and make rational decisions.

They go for what they notice.   The marketing corollary of "Out of sight = out of mind" is, "If they notice it, they will buy it"

What they notice is what they know.  In the clutter of a market, the things they see are the things they are recognize. Everything else is lost in the clutter. Advertising’s main function, to kids, then, is to make sure the products are recognizable to them.

Favorites change from day to day and moment to moment. It depends on what they are noticing.

They are insecure about predicting the consequences of something new. They are not good at anticipating what will happen with a product they have never had before.

Kids as consumers

As a result of who they are and how they think, kids approach the task of getting products more as a process of steering their way through a cluttered environment, going from one target to the next, than as a process of weighing a range of available alternatives and deciding among them.

Most of the time, at home or in the store, kids are purely spontaneous, and grab whatever grabs their attention at the moment. To marketers, this means that their job is not so much to persuade kids to like their products better than the competition, as it is simply to get them noticed - so that kids steer in their direction.

Kids are conservative. One consequence of the hard time that kids have in anticipating the future, is that they are extremely conservative. They stick to what they have already experienced. That way they are secure about what the consequences will be.   This shows up in lots of ways.

They love repetition.  There is a lot of data that shows that young children will usually pay closer attention to a commercial the second time they see it. And the love of repetition is the drive behind the enormous sales of kid videos. Little kids get a lot more pleasure from a purchased tape they can play a thousand times than from a rented tape they can only see once or twice. I would expect videogames and interactive programming to show the same pattern - under age 6 or 7, kids will want to own, not to rent these products.

The first time a young child sees Wile E Coyote drag the catapult to the edge of the overlook, she will pay only a little attention to it because she has no way of knowing anticipating what might happen next. But the second time the cartoon is seen, the response is entirely different. The kid is on the edge of her seat, fit to bust with the excitement of knowing what is just about to happen.

They are reluctant to choose new products - even when they have seen an ad for it. Brand new products get consistently lower request rates from kids than products that have been out for a little while. (Michael Caffrey, the National Marketing and Sales Manager of the Duncan Yo-Yo company was right on the money when he stressed in his speech, this morning, that "Too new is the kiss of death.")

They rely heavily on their parents.  Kids are apprehensive about new experiences, and rely heavily on their parents for guidance and reassurance.

A 4 year old and her mom had come in to talk about some new clothing products. The child and mom entered the interview room together. The mom stopped near the door, making small-talk with the moderator. The little girl moved ahead, very hesitantly. She looked back at her mom, caught her gaze, and, reassured, ventured a little further into the room. She went over to a table. Stopped, looked back. The mom, still chatting, gave her an almost imperceptible nod. The girl continued to explore the room, checking with her mom at each step of the way - looking for feedback, and clearly confident that her mom would keep her safe.

In supermarkets, many young children appear to be attached to their moms by a sort of invisible rubber band - which stretches and contracts as they move through the store, but maintains a more or less constant contact between the two - and when the child loses that reassuring contact, she scampers back to reestablish it.

A couple months ago a 7 year old boy was being interviewed with his mom. The interviewer was probing the child's feelings about some established cereal brands. At one point, the boy turned to his mom and asked, "Do I like that one mom?" He couldn't remember, but he trusted his mom's judgment. In the real world, lots of kids don't know what they want and look eagerly to mom to direct them.

Key facts about parents

There are some key facts about parents that often get ignored by children’s marketers, too.

They feel their kids' feelings, and they love it when their kids get pleasure from a product.

They are usually on their kids' side, not opposed to them or their desires.

They do the rational part - if anyone does. When it comes to new products, where their kids are insecure, the parents will step in and be rational - analyzing, comparing alternatives and making considered decisions - but they aren't so likely to do that with a familiar product - especially one from their own childhood - if it feels familiar, it feels safe, so they don't worry about it.

The consumer is not an individual - it is a family unit

In children's marketing, the consumer is not usually an individual, nor even two individuals, but a social unit in which the individuals act and feel differently than they would do if they were separate.  As an example of how an interacting parent and child behave differently than either of them would alone, consider what I call the Novelty Paradox.

The Novelty Paradox

Kids are conservative but they buy novelty products When it comes to new products, market research shows unequivocally that kids are extremely conservative. They almost never choose something new over something they know. But in the marketplace, it is children that drive the market for novelties. A paradox. How could the least adventurous people be drawn to the most adventurous products?

Moms alone wouldn't buy kids' novelties. Neither would the kids - if they were alone. But something happens when the two of them are together. And what happens is quite wonderful for them both. For each of them can experience things through the other that they could not experience alone.

Explaining the Novelty Paradox. The key to the paradox lies in the nature of parent-child interaction. The kid side of the paradox should be clear: Security. Kids are drawn to novelty products when their parent is present because the parent serves to reassure them and to defuse their normal apprehensions about a new product. The existence of that tension, and its resolution, make new product trial much more exciting than it would be without any initial tension at all. In the right social context, then, novelty products become more interesting than familiar ones.

This is part of the story. There is a parent side to the Novelty Paradox as well: Feeling.

I was watching an interview with a young mom and her 3 year old daughter. The interview was over. Mom, child and interviewer were standing near the door, about ready to go out. The interviewer leaned over to the little girl and said, "April, we are all through now, and when you go out that door there is a lady there who has a present for you." The mom, standing behind her child, bending over so her head was almost next to April's looked up, threw out her arms and exclaimed at the top of her voice, "WOW!!!! THAT'S GREAT!" Now stand back from this scene a second. Take the child away. How would mom react? Perhaps with a tight smile and a "thankyouverymuch." No more than that. And she would have felt no more than that, either. But with April there, she not only acted differently, she felt differently. She felt a pure, uninhibited, primal rush of emotion.

Anyone who has had a child knows how she felt. Having a young child lets you open up and feel things that you may not have allowed yourself to feel since you were a kid yourself. Having a kid gives you license to be a jerk again. It is one of the great experiences of life.

This ability to feel emotions through a child, to feel emotions that you otherwise would inhibit, is the other element in the Novelty Paradox. And it is at the core of a lot of parent-child interactions that are important to marketers.

Parents can feel emotions through their children: newer, stronger, purer emotions, than they can feel alone. In the novelty paradox, the child, through the parent, feels safe with novelty. The parent, through the child, feels excitement and joy.

This is one kind of parent-child interaction that drives a lot of purchases. There are others.

Both qualitative research and psychographic market segmentation studies can give insights into how different families approach buying children's products. I have found a number of basic patterns.

Different families have different interactions:

Young Explorers. Young Explorers are strongly novelty-oriented. They typically feature young parents who are raising their first child. Everything in the marketplace is new to them, and they get a real rush out of trying out all the new products with their children. They and their kids are like a couple of puppies in a field, chasing scents every which way, getting distracted immediately, picking up clues from the other, and wagging their tails like crazy. They will be the first ones to try a new brand.

The joy of shared exploration is the key. The newer it is the better. But Young-Explorer families show very little product loyalty, and will move on to the next pretty box. They are an easy mark for a product appeal like this one - but while you may expect high trial for them, you may not get much repeat.

Retired Explorers. These are young explorers grown a little older. They typically have one or more children of an older age. The parents buy many of the same kinds of products as the young explorers, and they hold many of the same beliefs about parenting, child-rearing and provisioning. Their kids know what they like, feel their mom knows their preferences and are happy with their moms' choices. But these kids are not so involved in the day to day shopping decisions. And the family's choices are not nearly so volatile. They buy a lot of product, but stick to a pretty narrow range of familiars. They have been through the exploration phase, found the products that work for them, and settled in to a routine. They are a wonderful market for any manufacturer to have. They buy lots of product and they are very loyal. Marketing to them is a matter of getting them to remember and notice you - to keep from getting out of sight and out of mind. Although the kids are important to reach, in most categories the moms do most of the actual purchasing - so reaching them is usually a higher priority.

Guardians. The role of mom as protector is a strong one in many families. Some products really bring out the guardian profile: candy, sugared cereals, high-fat foods on the one extreme (to be avoided),

And on the other side, some products are sought out, like peanut butter, fruit, hot cereals and low-fat food. Some moms resonate strongly to the opportunity to express their love for their children through their consumer choices.

One important fact about the guardian families is that their kids appear to be just as happy with the low-indulgence mix of products that their families get as the kids from other segments are with higher-indulgence selections. Another important fact is guardian homes get little nagging from kids.

The guardian segment sometimes separates into distinct sub-segments: based whether the product fits into treat-giving scenarios.

High Control Guardians. This is a high-control subgroup of families where kid requests are seldom solicited, offered or responded to. These appear to be very loving homes, where moms like hanging out with their kids and spending time with them. As a rule, these are families with younger and fewer children. They buy a small selection of products and are not very open to new ones. In this social environment, moms have more power and get more pleasure from their dominant role. There is something about little children that brings out the protector in all of us.

Treat-Giving Guardians. In some gatekeeper homes, kid requests play a larger role, and food products are used as tokens of parent approval. These treat-giving families also tend have fewer and younger children, like the high-control segment, but product-purchasing serves a different role. Giving products is a way of communicating affection and respect. These families buy a wider selection of products than the high-control group, and are more responsive to kid requests. But they are no more likely to buy "unhealthy" products, and their children are no more likely to crave them.

Uninvolved permissives. In this segment, the parents seem to be disengaged from the whole process of getting things for their children. They do it, but with little interest or enthusiasm. They let their kids make the choices, and go along with any sort of products the kids get. Although one might expect such homes to be prime targets for new products - because kids dominate the consumer choices so - the reverse is true. Kids from homes like these tend to be especially conservative - and show little interest in trying new things.

Deal stalkers. There are some families where getting a good deal - a coupon, a discount price, or whatever - is of paramount importance. In these homes, other considerations like novelty, healthiness, or kid preferences get short shrift. Everything takes second place to price. They buy whatever they get the best deal on. They are likely to buy new products - if they get a sample or a big coupon. But they are equally likely to drop it as soon as another one comes along. They are sort of like the Young Explorers this way, except the parents are not responding to their kids requests, and they are not sharing in their kids' pleasure to nearly the same degree.

Tradition bearers This segment of homes has a strong sense of cultural identity and the parents are strongly motivated to share the experiences of their own youth with their children.  Symbols like Winnie evoke memories of childhood that these parents want their kids to have, too.

Or consider Barbie. With products like these that they knew and loved as children the tradition-sharing parents can anticipate their children's feelings, and share with them in the full richness of it to an extraordinary degree. And this sharing of childhoods that takes place with traditional products, is extraordinarily powerful to kids as well.

These different people respond to products differently. Who is responsive to your product depends a lot on the kind of product you are dealing with.

* Young explorers
* Retired explorers
* Guardian Controllers
* Guardian Treat-givers
* Uninvolved Permissives
* Deal Stalkers
* Tradition bearers

Who, on this list, is most open to new products? I would think it would be the Young Explorers and Deal Chasers.

Which two groups are least open to new products? Retired Explorers and Tradition Bearers.
Who has the highest product loyalty? Retired Explorers, Tradition Bearers and Uninvolved Permissives.
Who has the lowest product loyalty? Young Explorers and Deal Chasers.

Now to make it a little more complicated.... What if you were responsible for launching some brand new, highly kid-indulgent product? Which segments would be most responsive?

To get Young Explorers, reach out to kids &/or the moms.
To get Deal chasers, reach to mom
You will get Uninvolved Permissives only if you can reach the kid

None of the groups are likely to be very loyal - which is a problem. In the long run, your best bet will be to hold onto some Young Explorers until they retire, or become a familiar product to the kids of Uninvolved Permissives and get built into their narrow repertoire. But the category as a whole is a tough one, if longevity is hoped for.

If you had an already established kid-indulgent brand and wanted to build volume, which groups would you expect to respond to your appeals?

Retired Explorers.  - if you bring it top of mind to kids and/or moms.
Uninvolved Permissives - if you can reach the kid

and if the product had been established back in mom's time:

Treat-giving guardians - you should reach both kid & mom
Tradition-bearers - again, if you reach kid & mom

Or say you were responsible for launching some new all-family product - one that kids liked fine, but was not a super-indulgent, object of craving? Which segments would be your most likely prospects here?

High-control guardians - reach out to mom.
Treat-giver guardians - reach mom & kid

Young explorers - reach mom & kid
Deal chasers - reach mom

Get the idea? And can you see how the marketing strategies would depend on the segments you are trying to reach?

Family dynamics segment out differently for different product categories because each product has a particular set of roles it can play. The important thing is to realize that families use shopping and consuming to express who they are and how they feel about themselves and each other.

Products for interpersonal expression

The products that succeed with people are the ones that let them communicate what they are trying to express.

Remember when Cabbage Patch dolls first came out? I was doing product development research on some other dolls at the time they appeared. The dolls I was studying had intrinsic attributes whose tangible benefits were every bit as good - I rather suspect better - than Cabbage Patch. Know what they look like?


wpe2.gif (264989 bytes)


Our dolls were a better size, had faces kids liked more, a better body, and nicer clothes. But having a better doll was no help to my client. Cabbage Patch clobbered them in the marketplace. The fundamental reason was that attributes are seldom what sell dolls. Look at what Cabbage Patch had going for it:

The Cabbage Patch look.   Cabbage Patch got noticed. It had a really unique appearance, which, once it was identified, could be recognized at a glance. I remember reading the learned pronouncements of psychologists in the popular press to the effect the key to the Cabbage Patch success was the ugly little faces which made kids feel reassured about their own less-than-perfect appearance. Nonsense. The faces were important because they were unique. They stood out. They got noticed. And what kids notice, they want.

There was a tremendous amount of social support for noticing the product, too - both inside and outside the family. The press served to make parents more aware and built the craze. Word of mouth went like wildfire. Success at acquiring the product, overcoming all the obstacles of crowded stores and short supply, took on the social meaning of caring for your child and being a loving provider. Getting Cabbage Patch for your daughter became a symbol of being a good, attentive parent.


Mom-child scripts. But beyond the hype, there was still another powerful thing about Cabbage Patch. The naming ritual. When a little girl got this doll, the first thing she and her mother had to do was send in a letter to get the doll's "birth certificate" - which bestowed a unique and unduplicated name upon it. This may not sound like much to you, but to little girls, it was dynamite.


wpe7.gif (15316 bytes)


First of all, it reinforced the absolute uniqueness of her doll, there is nothing more central to the uniqueness of a thing - where kids are concerned - than its name. Names literally have magical power. They give life to the inanimate.

Secondly, it put the doll at the center of an interaction between parent and child that was extremely meaningful and gratifying to them both. Mom helped daughter help her baby doll. The name-endowing ritual brought them together and made the product more unique and more distinctive than it was before.

The average little girl probably had a roomful of dolls at the time. But here comes this doll that your mom takes aside and the two of you send in the papers and get them back, giving this doll its social seal of uniqueness and identity. With this kind of drama, and this kind of attention from mom, is it any surprise that the doll most kids chose to carry with them was Cabbage Patch?

The larger point here, is that Cabbage Patch succeeded in the long run because it successfully brought mom and daughter together - and did so in an absolutely unique and memorable way. It did not have the best physical attributes. But it was unique, and it created a history for itself, within each family, that made it meaningful and important.

Products as props

Products are props that support the kinds of interactions that people want to have with each other.

Rob Mareso, Director of Advertising for Tyco Toys, made this point in his speech yesterday, He said a very strong advertising is to "Use the toy to represent the giving of emotion from the parent to the child." He is right. Products are one of the most powerful vehicles people have for giving, or sharing emotion with each other.

I was speaking last week with a young dad who had gone grocery shopping with his 9 month old daughter. This child is just beginning to speak recognizable words. As they went down the cold cereal aisle, his daughter reached out towards a box of Ghostbusters cereal and spluttered, "Ghooose!" He was thrilled. He bought a box. It was a prop that triggered a special interaction between the two of them. I suspect that Ghostbusters Cereal will always have a special place in that family.

Take the case of baseball cards for a moment. Ever wonder why the stars of the 60's and 70's still do well with the kids of today? Because baseball cards, in a lot of homes, are props that stimulate very special dad-son interactions - and the old-timer cards are especially good at getting dads going.

Parents buy kids a lot of Disney licensed product - not because of the intrinsic quality or play value of the product, but because getting a Disney thing is a way of parent and child saying to each other, "Keep remembering the good time we had at Disneyland." or "at the Little Mermaid Birthday party we held last year." These products are tokens, much like words, that say: this is what is important, this is what we share. And unlike words, they are permanent, and keep reminding people of who they are and what is important to them. There are staggering numbers of children's bedrooms in this country decorated in Aladdin themes, Lion King themes, or Mickey Mouse themes. More often than not they were set up by mom and child together, side by side, having a great time - not by a nagging kid with a passive gatekeeper.

How far would Disney get if they just focused on getting kids to nag their parents? How far would they get if they focused all their efforts on the assumption of gatekeeper resistance that had to be overcome? Either strategy would miss the real opportunity - which is to enhance the shared experience that child and parent get together - and the pleasures each derive from the other.

I'd like to focus now on the scene where so many of those expressions are made: in the store.

Kids & parents in stores together

If you watch parents and children interacting in stores, you will see another side of the picture. You will see that parents actively seek products that their children will like. Sometimes the child helps them search, other times the parent seems to know in advance - and the children appear confident in their parents' choices. In many households, the children's and parents preferences are quite similar - whether they are picking wholesome products or indulgent ones.

Stores are where a lot of it happens

In kids marketing, the store environment is key. It is where most of the critical interactions take place, and it is where the action is. One of the most important factors, at any age, affecting whether kids make purchase requests is whether or not they go shopping with their mom.

Kids are more than three times as likely to ask their parents to buy an advertised product for them if they go shopping together. So if you want to get kids to ask for your product, first get them to go shopping with a parent.

Then, I urge you, think through the ways in which your product might trigger the interactions that consumer families find rewarding - in the store and in the home. If you can make a product that does this, if you make a product that enhances parent-child interactions, you will have a product that stands out, gets felt, and gets remembered. You will have a product that succeeds.