Conference review: Children – Seen and heard

Last week I visited the MRS conference on children research in London. Apart from interesting chats with the legendary smart cabbies (‘you know what MTV should do to cope with the YouTube competition, mate …’), I was quite enthusiastic about the following three contributions.
Claudio Franco of Dubit and Julie Adair, director online operations of Disney Europe brought a story on trends in online entertainment for kids. On UK TV screens Disney channel is head on competition with cbbc and Nickelodeon for the age group 7-14. In this age group 62% watches videos on the internet, 60% plays games with their favorite TV characters and 40% went to websites after on-air calls for action. Where online gaming is the absolute killer entertainment application for 7-10 year olds (with around 90% actively fond of gaming on the web), the interest for games start to decline slightly when they get 11 in favor of online videos, chatting and social network sites. Especially at the age of 13 SNSs like Facebook and online chatting are the main online activities.
These figures are also reflected in the most popular games in the UK. Under 11 cbbc, Cartoon Network, and Disney’s Club Penguin are the most popular game sites, above 11 Facebook and SNS games (like FarmVille, CaféWorld, Stardoll) and Miniclip (casual games) are more popular than virtual worlds like Club Penguin. Disney is active in different gaming types. In casual games they offer up to 250 games in the Disney website catalogue (adding 50 new ones a year) including top titles such as Cars, Up, Bolt and Mickey. They also own ToonTown, The World of Cars, Club Penguin and (bright new, for girls and related to Tinkerbell) Pixie Hollow. Almost 11% of all kids are paying for monthly gaming subscriptions (Club Penguin for instance has a monthly price of €4.95), 13% buys virtual goods (add-ons like furniture, clothes, …). Those who pay, spend up to £5 per month. The biggest spenders in both categories are 11-12 year olds.
An interesting topic that is heavily under researched in kids marketing is dad’s role in the family. Pete Maginn, head of child & youth at Illuminas shared his work on this subject (a combination of in-home qualitative interviews with dads as well as online quantitative) in his cheerful presentation. Most dads have a multi-faceted role in the household. They are an economic platform for family life (the breadwinner), they bring fun and a rough and tumble element in kids’ lives, help to care for kids (e.g. bedtime stories) and at the same time represent the strong, male role model. Dads see themselves as instillers of morals and also as a rational, calming presence (Mr. Peacekeeper). One dad’s citation referring to this role was quite striking: “Don’t get me wrong, I would lay down my life for my children but unlike my wife I might consider if there was another option first…”
The product categories in which dad’s role in purchase decision making is higher than mum’s are still explained by traditional gender roles: financial products, family cars, electronics and mobile phones compared to clothes & shoes, the area where mum’s opinion and choice is dominant. On the other hand today dad’s involvement has increased in certain areas leading to joint decision making in family holidays, entertainment, eating out, nurseries and schools, toys and games and food and groceries.
Carrick James (CJMR) and Marie Laver (formerly insight and strategy manager of Children’s and Licensing BBC) told a story about the evolution of licensed characters. The UK market of licensed toys has been booming in the last 10 years. Today more than £1 of every £3 is spent on licensed toys (compared to less than £1 in every 5£ 10 years ago). License lifecycles vary heavily, with typical “flash in the pan” characters such as Ninja Turtles, Ghostbusters, Teletubbies which were highly successful for single year sales figures compared to slowly growing features such as Thomas and friends or the regularly rebirth of evergreen characters such as Winnie The Pooh and Bob The Builder. Interesting elements of the ones that have survived illustrate what is required to build a longer lasting character.
Both Thomas (the blue train) and Bob the Builder were acquired by HIT in 2004 and underwent a re-birth treatment including new CGI animations, digital formats, direct to video features, and new themes/music. Moreover the brand immersion was expanded to theme parks for Thomas in the UK and the US and 4D movies of Bob the Builder at Legoland. Next to this, HIT initialized branded events such as Bob’s educational programmes in schools and a railway ‘Day Out with Thomas’. The latter is quite important since James & Laver demonstrated that children today access an average number of around 3 touchpoints (TV, DVD, magazines, cinema, toys, clothes, food & drinks, online games, …) when engaging with their favorite characters. Future trends in licensing ended the presentation. Reverse vertical integration: e.g. toy brands such as Transformers now producing movies. Secondly, a decrease in second party licensing especially in food as a result of governmental and parental pressures e.g. McDonald’s moving from using licenses as Happy Meal toys to creating their own Fairies & Dragons characters of which they own total control. And thirdly an increase in third party collaborations between two equally strong brands, e.g. Star Wars and Lego.

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