Li Mei Foong
Oct 30, 2018

The art of marketing to kids without treating them like adults

The childrens' digital media market is growing as kids spend more and more time online. But how they interact with brands and what they look for when shopping isn't always obvious.

Children in Asia typically spend two hours a day on screens, finds a study
Children in Asia typically spend two hours a day on screens, finds a study

In Asia, it is getting harder to tell where childhood ends and where adulthood begins. Stress, thought to be distinctly linked to adulthood, is now a prominent feature of many Asian childrens’ lives. In the Marketing to Teens 2017 China Report by Mintel, which surveyed 800 teens aged 13 to 19, 84% of respondents reported feeling stressed. Their top worry was academic achievement, followed by what the future looks like after school.

Another sign of early-onset ‘adulting’ is overwork. According to the Lego Play Well Report 2018, children in China spend an average of seven and a half hours a week on homework and six hours in after-school clubs and activities, about three hours more than the global average.

Asian children also find that parents organise too many activities for them outside of school: 66% of children in India, 48% in China and 41% in South Korea lament this, according to the Ikea Play Report from 2015.

These taxing schedules are not always suitable for children growing up. Dr Lixian Cui, an assistant professor of psychology at NYU Shanghai, points out that children’s mental development has traditionally been bolstered by play time. Playing with friends is how they learn important social and emotional skills including empathy, as well as to express and modulate their emotions.

With their free hours increasingly squeezed, children are now seeking alternatives to traditional play, reaching for the ‘quick fixes’ provided by screens instead. It is easy to see why. “Social media such as WeChat substitutes face-to-face social interactions,” says Dr Cui. “On the internet, children can communicate with friends, watch funny videos and play games, which provide social and emotional support to them. More importantly, online friends don’t nag them as parents do, [which makes] online activities the sources of their happiness and help them release pressure.”

Screen slavers

While Cui thinks technology is not all bad, he does worry that childrens’ over-reliance on screens may affect the ways their still-developing brains process information—and children’s screen time is ever increasing. According to a report this year by kid-safe content platform TotallyAwesome, children aged from 4 to 16 in Asia Pacific park themselves in front of electronic screens for around two hours per weekday to watch shows or go online. On weekends, it is 2.5 hours.

In the same study, 77% of children said smartphones were their favourite devices. Tablets followed at 44%, overtaking television at 42%. In fact, about one in two kids uses multiple devices at the same time.

Above: the official trailer for Honour of Kings, China's most popular mobile game, which is trying to work out how to limit kids' time on it following reports of addiction

Of course, more time on screens means more opportunity for ads. PwC estimates that global kids digital advertising spend will reach US$1.2 billion by 2019 and the children digital media market is seeing 25% year-on-year growth.

Marcus Herrmann, COO of TotallyAwesome, says that brands need agility to keep up with the latest trends online, particularly given how quickly childrens’ preferences change. “Digital [brand communication to children] is very mobile-driven in Asia,” says. “It’s mobile-first, if not mobile-only. And mobile is fragmented. Kids are doing a multitude of activities, whether it is watching content, playing games or connecting on social media, on multiple screens, platforms and apps. So it’s a lot more difficult for advertisers to reach them all in one place.”

Power consumers

If they can be reached, however, children can be a significant source of income—all thanks to ‘pester power’. According to a global study by Viacom, almost nine out of 10 parents claim that their children influence all their household purchase decisions.

More than half of the children polled by TotallyAwesome this year also said that they have asked parents for a product because they have seen an influencer on YouTube, Facebook or Instagram using it.

But children have their own spending power too. Kids in nine Asian markets (Australia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) receive an average of US$53.80 in pocket money monthly, according to TotallyAwesome.


A post shared by 1958 (@songilkook) on

Above: five-year-old 'kidfluencers' Song Dae-han, Song Min-guk and Song Man-se from South Korea, who have over two million followers on Instagram

Herrmann observes that when a country improves economically, children’s spending habits also tend to shift from easy consumables like snacks to aspirational purchases like toys and clothing.

“A trend that has appeared over the last year in Asia is eating out—it’s now among the top three things that children here spend their money on. Fashion is following closely. We have seen clothing and shoes continuously move up the ranking and it is now in the sixth place, and we expect it to move to the top three spend category within the next few years,” he points out.

Similar to eating out, Herrmann says, fashion apparel conveys status for kids, who are “very brand conscious.” Strong brands like Samsung and Adidas score about 90% recognition among children.

Telling it as it is

For Cui, this means that brands have more responsibility than ever about the content and messages they convey.

In a discussion panel organised by Initiative China at the recent ROI Festival Awards, he pointed out that child-related brands must understand kids’ developmental needs and design their products accordingly, so that the products are not divorced from the realities of their target audience.

But the conflation of commercial-driven businesses and the best interests of children has always been knotty. In January, for example, the US Federal Trade Commission took legal action against VTech, a popular toy firm based in Hong Kong, for collecting children’s digital data without permission from parents via its content platform and apps. It also failed to secure these data from hackers.

Sammy Xu, strategy director of Initiative China, observed that the leading children brands she works with do follow strict internal regulations to ensure ethical communications and privacy practices in regards to their child consumers. Smaller companies, she conceded, may not be quite so careful. 

Xu also agreed with Cui that brands should look pertinent child-related issues in the eye. This is why Initiative China has adopted a new principle in marketing to children, advocating for media owners and marketers to produce age-appropriate digital content for kids as well as encouraging a balance of high quality physical play time and digital screen play to ensure the next generation’s healthy development.

Marketing communications featuring characters who are self-confident or feel that they have it all could actually alienate today’s teens

“It’s about treating kids as consumers, because they will continue to be a brand’s consumers even after they grow up. Brands that are sustainable and cultivate good relationships with their consumers for a long time are those that have a higher purpose for social good,” Xu explained.

There is greater pressure for brands to play this social role because superficial sells like celebrity endorsements or an association with ‘coolness’ are wearing thin for the younger generation, it seems.

Mintel’s survey revealed that only 13% of teens in China associate themselves with being ‘trendy’ and only 24% of teens said pictures of their favourite celebrities on packaging would motivate them to make a purchase.

“Marketing communications featuring characters who are self-confident or feel that they have it all could actually alienate today’s teens,” says Alina Ma, associate director of research at Mintel.

A better way, she explains, is to speak to teens’ fears of not having control of their current lives and future, while appealing to their sense of humour.

“Identifying the pressures from peers or parents, brands can show […] how life can often be absurd, and that overcoming those absurdities needn't be all about struggle,” says Matthew Crabbe, regional trends director of Mintel in Asia Pacific. “What the brands offer is an understanding of the issues and a willingness to help young people solve their problems by converting frustrations into fun.”

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