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Research Shows Even Young Children Can Be "Branded"


"Branding" is a common marketing term that indicates our ability to recognize a particular brand and associate it with the products it represents. It's a powerful advertising tool because once a company is able to create this association in a consumer's mind, there's a good chance he or she will turn to that brand every time they are hungry, thirsty, need a cleaner, or want to buy a variety of other products and services. There is also evidence to support that when we attach to a brand, we are less likely to buy other manufacturer's products.


Obviously, convincing us as early as possible that certain brands are superior is the primary objective of any good marketing department. But while adults are typically brand conscious (and my own observations would indicate teens are even more brand particular) how possible is it for very young children to recognize a brand?


A recent study may leave you surprised.


According to a two-part study in Psychology & Marketing, children as young as three-years-old are able to recognize brands and understand what they represent.


Bettina Cornwell, a professor at the University of Michigan, co-authored the study in which she and a team of researchers began assessing brand recognition levels in 38 children between three and five-years-old. The group took the logos of popular companies and put them on white cards, without any other identifying products or clues as to what the brand meant. Then the kids were asked questions like, "Have you seen this before?" and "What types of things do they make?"


Recognition rates were an amazing 92% for some of the 50 brands in 16 product categories. Not surprisingly, brands belonging to fast food and sodas were the top recognized symbols with McDonald's topping the list. Toys were another popular category.


Next the children were given a collage task that took two competing brands -- for example McDonalds and Burger King -- and looked to see if the young consumers could recognize subtle differences between other trademarks that belonged to those brands. The test began with the two major corporate logos. Then the young participants were given cards with other related images on them, like a McDonalds French fry box, a drive-thru sign and the Hamburglar figure. For brands that were primarily targeted towards them, the majority children were able to sort these images and form a collage next to the corresponding brand.


Delving deeper into the study reveals a couple of additional surprising points. First, the researchers discovered children were able to recognize many brands from products not typically marketed toward children. Brands from three categories (cars, entertainment and fashion) were presented to the participants. While few recognized the fashion symbols, many were able to relate to automotive and entertainment brands and trademarks. Researchers assume this is due to the prevalence of car symbols on children's toys and entertainment logos on television shows.


The second point is even more important. Through questioning, researchers discovered that these young children can and do make value judgments based on brands. Many participants expressed the belief that owning a certain toy or eating at a certain restaurant would make you more likely to have friends. Likewise, not using these brands may make another child appear boring. This is truly peer pressure in the pre-school crowd!


These same judgments can be projected toward eating habits. Fast food brands, with their exciting characters and colors, are seen as fun and tasty. Cola brands were often described as "fun" because "the bubbles are fun" and "lots of people like them." The researchers note that, "These findings suggest that values associated with food choices are formed early in life." They continue, suggesting public policy targeting eating habits should focus on educating and intervening during a child's preschool years.


Frankly, I can't say all of this is too surprising. A trip down the cereal aisle in a grocery store usually provides a witness to the powerful branding influence on children. With arms outstretched, many a child has screamed for a mother's mercy to provide them with a brightly colored box to clutch in their arms.


Yet, for those of us with very young children in our homes, it would be wise to consider how our actions help to solidify a child's belief that certain brands will bring them friends and security. While it's next to impossible to raise a brand-neutral child in our consumer culture, it's never too early to begin explaining why happiness doesn't come from a box -- no matter how good it smells.


Rod Gustafson


Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.

Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org

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