Parents and peers shaped the values of previous generations while the most powerful influence on today’s children is most likely to be marketers and the media. The power of the brand and the battle for the individual mindset and values will pre-occupy us for years to come.

The question of whose values will your child adopt, came to mind after some enlightening conversations with my 10-year old son Ryan, recently. As a family we are probably more brand conscious in our pantry that in our wardrobes. I have always worked on the theory that clothing that is the right colour, cut, style and size can make you look like a million dollars versus a branded article that may be none of the above. Whenit comes to groceries, however, coffee is always Nescafe, mayonnaise is Cross & Blackwell and tomato sauce is All Gold. Ryan has always been a great shopper and is blessed with good number skills and natural financial intelligence. We are starting to come to blows in the supermarket as he argues the savings to be achieved if I would only buy Pick ‘n’ Pay Choice coffee and milk in sachets! Milk is milk, mum, what’s the difference? On such occasions how can I not relent and give in to his superior and sensible wisdom even though my inner voice is screaming No, no, no! based on years of ingrained buying habits and brand loyalty?
In the interest of encouraging his spending savvy, I owe it to my child to support his thinking skills so that he can continueto make wise purchasing decisions once he is independent of his dad and I one day. Needless to say, if I want a quick, peaceful shopping experience these days, I do it before I pick my children up from school!
Much to my amazement, Ryan recently started applying this logic to clothing too, which is not actually a typical tween thing to do. Tweens are children between 8 and 12 years old – they are the new ‘cool’ group, active and sophisticated consumers, the most brand conscious generation in history and the new target of marketers. I have written about branding for clients but have never thought to have a conversation with my son about it, but then, being a tween I didn’t have to.
Out of the blue a few weeks ago, Ryan piped up: Mum, you know some children refuse to wear anything that isn’t branded. I think that’s so silly. Why spend R600 on a pair of DCs when you can get other takkies for half the price?Now, was my son communicating his awareness of brands and that he is either not buying in to them, or is more immune to them than most children his age, or was he trying to give me a message that he only has two branded T-shirts in his cupboard (Lizzard and Quicksilver) and thinks he should have more?! A few days later after returning from a birthday party, he made another comment that really got me thinking. Mum there was this girl and everything she was wearing was branded she had Billabong trousers and everything else was Roxy. Was he thinking, And I was just wearing Pick ‘n’ Pay and Woolies clothes? But it got even better with his parting shot: Mum, she was branded!
This comment blew me out of the water as it really exposed the underlying intention of branding as opposed to traditional marketing. Marketing strategies wanted you to usethe product, while branding strategies try to ensure that you live the product, ultimately and hopefully becoming a walking, talking, living ambassador for the brand. They even use words such as ‘becoming a product disciple’.
A brand wants you to identify not just with the product but with the whole brand experience – to buy into the brand values being offered, to commit a share of your mind and your wallet to a particular brand. If you want to be perceived in a certain way then you must align yourself with particular brands to communicate the image you are after, or that you believe fulfil various emotional needs. Some examples are Barbie vs Bratz, Yu Gi Oh vs Spiderman or McDonalds vs Nandos. What is your child’s take on these brands, what messages are they getting and as a family are you okay with this?
Tweens need our help because they have developing, fragile self-esteems and are vulnerable and full of contradictions such as wanting independence but still being very dependent on their parents on every level. Where have the slogans like Free to be me gone? In a warp speed world that has gone slightly mad, our children are being bombarded by a minimum of 5000 marketing messages via a multitude of different media each week form billboards, to radio and TV, email, websites, street posters and brand logos to name just a few.
Marketers and brand managers are spending a fortune researching how their brand and their message can stand out. Of course, the younger they catch the consumer in the net, the deeper and more long-lasting the relationship is likely to be resulting in automatic brand preference or brand loyalty.
With this in mind, are our children in danger of adopting values that come from outside the home / family? And if a child doesn’t have a well-developed sense of personal values by the time they become tweens, who’s value system will they adopt anyway? Might it just become easier for parents to hand over the acquisition of values to an outside source that is more attention grabbing than they are, and let the brands they or their children elect to support, become their value guides? Or do parents want to remain the source of values and hold on to their role and responsibility as gatekeepers, facilitating the shaping of their children’s lives?
If parents choose the latter, one thing is for sure. They will be challenged to be more active and conscious parents than ever before, and will be required to be in touch and in tune in order to remain the relevant adult in their child’s life. I don’t think this is such a bad thing actually. As much as we will have to develop our mentoring and coaching abilities to facilitate our tweens development against a backdrop of ‘what is’ and not necessarily ‘what we would like it to be’ we are going to be educated and better prepared for the world of the future which has in fact already arrived, whether we know it or not.
I am not in any way judging the merits of branding, but rather encouraging parents to be aware of the power branding, and the fact that they have to look at their children in the same way as marketers do if they want to remain relevant and communicate their messages and values through all the noise and clutter surrounding their children.
Marketers are being given plenty of advice about tweens and perhaps as parents we should take note and adopt a similar strategy to ensure that our children buy into our values first, enabling them to make intelligent partnerships with commercial brands second:

  • Talk and respond to your kids directly
  • Empower them, give them a platform to discuss issues important to them (take your child out to lunch or dinner once a month, talk in the dark at bedtime, or do the walk and talk or cycle and talk number, share the highlights and lowlights of the day over dinner)
  • Use a variety of contact points to communicate with them (round the dinner table, play sport together, watch TV or movies together, listen to their music with them, via cellphone, email etc.)
  • Understand your child’s stage of emotional, psychological and physical development
  • Educate them about their environment (making sense of, and coping with the everyday problems and challenges in the economic, commercial and social world in which we live)
  • Use humour
  • They love activities, play games with them, take them to events and shows
  • Understand that objects appeal to boys and relationships to girls
  • They are still thinking very much on a concrete level so real experiences and real things they can feel and touch have a high impact
  • They want to be treated as slightly older than they are and they want to be taken seriously
  • Be consistent with your messaging
  • Catch their attention quickly
  • Use fun, get kids involved
  • Use kids language
  • Remember that they want to be taken seriously
  • They value intelligence and will look for activities that challenge them to think and interact with others (e.g. computer games, boardgames, online chat rooms etc)
  • They are able to multi-task and do lots of things at the same time (e.g. watching TV while doing homework and sending SMS messages at the same time)
  • Tween girls are often motivated by messages related to beauty, glamour and the desire to master a particular task
  • Tween boy are motivated by messages that express power and conquests of good versus evil and bravery
  • Allow them to participate in an interactive manner and give them an opportunity to share their opinions (setting of household rules, homework, TV and other habits etc)
  • Remember that technology has placed information and knowledge at their fingertips but that doesn’t replace experience (you have the opportunity to contextualise information for your child)
  • Don’t develop an us and them mentality, rather stay involved and relevant in your children’s lives
  • Give them opportunities to become brand disciples for your brand of family values (e.g. choosing a charity to support, physically getting involved in some kind of care organisation, looking after their pets, helping to care for others in the family, acknowledging a family member’s success etc.)
  • Be careful what you allow your child to view and be aware of the messages being communicated (you may need to facilitate a discussion to contextualise information that could scare or confuse them e.g. rape, safe sex, divorce, death, drugs, stranger danger etc.)
  • Know how much is too much for your child

We need to help our children to develop a strong inner core that will be their rudder through the oceans of constant change and bombardment that will characterise this era. You will find that product choices will be based more and more on emotional appeal. We must ensure our children have values to help them make appropriate and wise choices. Take time to connect, relate and communicate with your children today and you will have a better idea of whose values they will be adopting tomorrow – whether they are going to allow themselves to be branded, as my son so aptly put it, or whether they are going to put their own stamp on life.
Nikki Bush is a freelance journalist with a passion for child development and play. She has written for magazines in this field and has edited the Smile Family Club magazine for the past five years. She can be contacted via lynda@tomorowtoday.biz

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