When Does Brand Loyalty Start?

Juliana Rose Tully knew exactly where she wanted her cart to stop in the cookie aisle of her local ShopRite in Livingston, N.J. The assertive 3-year-old was on a mission for chocolate Teddy Grahams. But just as she was about to secure her prized snack, she spotted her hero, Dora the Explorer, on a different box. Teddy didn’t stand a chance. “I want those,” she proclaimed.

“She had no idea what kind they were,” says her mom, Robin Tully, who tried unsuccessfully to persuade her daughter to get both in case she didn’t like what was in the box. But Juliana’s steadfast loyalty made her certain she would love whatever it was. Why? ” ‘Cause I really love Dora,” says Juliana. (She did like the cookies—they turned out to be the same as her staple, just in a different Nabisco package.)

Young, fickle, easily influenced kids like Juliana are expressing brand preference at an earlier age than previous generations. Marketing experts say children can express brand awareness as early as age 2, an awareness encouraged by a world that offers more choices than ever before. And kids are now more exposed to the world, both physically and virtually.

“Kids are getting older younger,” says Carol Herman, a principal at strategic and creative consultancy The Acme Idea Company in Norwalk, Conn., and a 20-plus-year veteran of Grey, where she worked for clients including General Foods, Kraft and Playskool. “We’ve always known that kids are impressionable and brand-conscious, but it’s dribbled down.”

“We’re a brand-conscious society, and kids are following in their parents’ footsteps,” says Phyllis Ehrlich, svp of promotions marketing for the Cartoon Network.

Jim McNeal, a retired professor of marketing at Texas A&M University who heads a youth marketing consultancy called McNeal & Kids, says American children become “brand- conscious” at about 24 months, and by 36-42 months they make the connection that a brand can say something about their personalities—they are strong or cool or smart. “They have learned brand names from Mom and from TV, and use them to identify products that they like,” says McNeal, in Beijing studying children’s consumer behavior. “In China, the kids’ brand habits look very much like those in America. They can write the ‘M’ for McDonald’s before they can write their name.”

Last year, American kids 4-12 spent around $30 billion of their own money, according to McNeal, who says they also “directly requested around $310 billion of purchases from Mom and indirectly influenced another $340 billion of parental spending, and thus were responsible for around $680 billion of household spending.”

A study conducted in 2000 by former toy marketing specialists Griffin Bacal found that 2-5-year-olds demonstrate brand knowledge and influence similar to that displayed by older children in decades past. Today’s 3-5-year-olds behave like kids 5 and up when playing with action figures and dolls. The LiveWire e-mail study of 107 mothers attributes the kids’ sophisticated perceptions to “pervasive access through technology to information and branding messages … from television and advertising.”

Paul Kurnit helped build many Hasbro brands while president of Griffin Bacal— folded into Moss Dragoti in 2001—and was a creator of LiveWire, the proprietary research tool now owned by DDB. Kurnit, who runs a marketing-trend consultancy in Chappaqua, N.Y., called KidShop, says nearly two-thirds of the mothers in the 2000 study thought their children demonstrated brand awareness before age 3, while one-third said their kids were aware at age 2 or earlier. Brands that kids were most aware of included Cheerios, Disney, McDonald’s, Pop-Tarts, Coke and Barbie.

But while most toddlers may be familiar with the Golden Arches, and even smile and point at the McDonald’s logo when passing a restaurant, it takes a lot to make them loyal to a brand.

Popular TV, book, movie and videogame characters help attract youngsters, as do bright colors and songs. But what hooks kids the most, say experts, are positive experiences with a brand.

“Early on, when a kid is 3 or 4, it’s all about comfort and fun,” says Joel Ehrlich, svp of advertising and promotions for DC Comics and Warner Bros. consumer products. “They will remember if they enjoyed a toy or whether the restaurant had a playground.” How a food product, for example, actually tastes doesn’t mean much until the child gets older. “A kid is going to say the apple juice out of the fun, colorful bottle tastes better,” says Ehrlich, a former fourth-grade teacher in the South Bronx who has served as publisher of Parenting and American Baby magazines. “When they’re young, they’re much more impressionable about the experience.”

That’s the strategy McDonald’s follows with its restaurants and in its ads, whose youngest target demo is kids 2-7. “You’ve got to deliver great experiences and keep the experiences special,” says Cheryl Berman, chairman and chief creative officer of Leo Burnett, one of McDonald’s lead U.S. shops. Ads often feature colorful spokesclown Ronald, but they also speak to parents by highlighting the family fun to be had at the restaurants.

Even in categories like cereal and cookies—where it’s harder to ensure long-term loyalty because of the plethora of choices—it’s possible to win loyalty with the right approach. “Show them the brand is for them—that it is fun, cool, attractive and desired among other kids. Give them a good experience with it and you’ve got them,” says McNeal.

Linking a brand to a popular character helps brings it to life and leverage the relationships kids have already formed with icons they see around the clock on the Web and 24-hour channels like Cartoon Network. Companies that don’t already have characters that help promote their brand—like Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger, General Mills’ Trix rabbit and Mars’ M&Ms, to name a few—often tap into the power of established stars. Sargento Cheese, for instance, just entered into an agreement with DC Comics to use the Justice League characters—Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman, et. al.—on packaging and promotions. Burger King recently started offering toys with its kids meals that feature the characters from the Cartoon Network’s Powerpuff Girls and Dragon Ball Z, who also star in Campbell Mithun spots for the fast-food chain.

“Registration of a brand starts very early in a child’s life,” says Deb Sawch, a Connecticut-based consultant who works for Kraft and other major marketers. “The more familiar a brand, the more emotional connection and recall you are going to get.”

Creating meaning in the mind of a child is the way brand awareness is turned into brand loyalty. “It’s up to the brands to continue to proliferate what attracted people to them from the beginning,” says Joel Ehrlich.

McNeal says that by the time kids reach first grade, they are typically loyal to one brand within each of the major product categories they regularly consume, such as cereal, candy and soft drinks. At the same time, they have allegiances to specific TV shows and vacation spots, and can even impact a family’s choice of big-ticket items such as cars.

Early affinity to a brand can lead to a lifelong relationship. “There’s lots of evidence that the brands you are emotionally connected to as a child you remain connected to as an adult,” says Rachel Geller, a partner and chief strategic officer at youth-oriented agency The Geppetto Group in New York.

Ehrlich points to adults who seek comfort from that feel-good, familiar red and white Campbell’s Soup can on cold days, just as they did when they were kids. “The stronger the connection, the harder it is for the bond to be broken,” he notes. “It takes something jarring” to do it, he says, like a doctor advising against the product because of, say, high sodium.

But as kids approach their teens, they start to experiment with brands and depart from their parents’ choices. Allyson Clarke, research director at New York-based market research firm RoperASW, says that at around 11, kids tend to break away from brands their parents like. Between 13 and 17, they often test the No. 2 and 3 brands in a category. “They may come back to Coke and McDonald’s if they found the other brands disappointing,” she says. By 18, teens begin to narrow again and pick favorites.

Marketing experts like Herman contend that among adults, blind loyalty is a thing of the past, and consumers often stray from familiar products to discover whether newer offerings are better. Kids today are exposed to so many more products in part because “this generation of mothers is more willing to try new things,” she says. “They had more options than the generation before grew up with.”

That’s why, adds Kurnit, “owning them is tougher than ever before.”

The notion of marketers’ owning kids’ affinities may be alarming to some, but Elizabeth Lascoutx, director of The Children’s Advertising Review Unit, the New York-based division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, says she’s heard “very few” such consumer complaints in the 12 years she’s been there. Staffers tape 6-12 hours of kids programming each day to monitor commercials, and average 140 inquiries a year to marketers, most of which involve product performance and privacy issues arising out of online ads.

Lascoutx says CARU doesn’t take a position on how low marketers can set their target demo and that it’s up to parents to make their kids media savvy. “Teach them to be discriminating consumers,” she says. There is, after all, little choice in the matter. “Kids, clearly like the rest of us, live in a brand environment.”