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Don't kid around when researching children

Children ages 4-12 pose unique challenges and opportunities for package research.

Sterling Anthony, CPP
Sterling Anthony, CPP
Children are highly influenced by packaging. If anything, children become enthralled with packaging at preschool age, thanks to birthdays, holidays, and other events that occasion the receipt of gift-wrapped presents. That indoctrination, teamed with a natural attraction to certain visual stimuli, explains why children so young as to have to ride in the grocery basket constantly attempt to grab items from the shelves.
Sure, there are CPG companies that exclusively market products for children; however, since children have the same basic needs as adults, many other CPG companies make child- versions of products. Even those CPG companies that don't consider their products to be child-oriented at all, nonetheless can benefit from an awareness of how their products might present unintended or undesired appeal to children. The preceding statements represent two major arguments in favor of conducting research targeted at children: 1) it enables marketers of children's products to effectively design to the propensities of children, while avoiding allegations of exploitation; and, 2) it enables marketers of products not geared to children to effectively design away from the propensities of children, while avoiding allegations of negligence.
Children are complex
Innocent, pure, naĂŻve, unsophisticated──take your pick of the characteristics typically attributed to children──and they apply, to varying degrees, throughout childhood. Those simple characteristics, however, belie the complexities that children embody.  Were that not so, there would be no need for the training acquired by educators, doctors, psychologists, and other professionals who specialize in children. Researchers are no different; in other words, someone experienced in conducting research with adults (or even teens) is not necessarily competent regarding children. If the expertise doesn't reside in-house, the CPG company that outsources should, nonetheless, be acquainted with fundamentals, so as to be able to instruct, evaluate, and overall be a better partner.

Those fundamentals will be discussed subsequently, but first some comments about some basic distinctions regarding children as consumers. Although in the latter part of childhood they do make certain purchases themselves, the major portion of childhood is spent being requesters and influencers (as parents know, all too well). It's this family dynamic that researchers have to take into account. Depending upon the product, the CPG company shouldn't focus singularly on making the packaging irresistible to children because the parent (or other adult) has to, at some minimum, find something redeeming about the packaging, in order to succumb to the child's wishes with a clear conscience.

Intra-familial workings can affect the reliability of the research. An example is that children are seldom indifferent to the presence of their parents within the research setting, said presence tending to exert either a stimulating or subduing effect on the young subject. On the other hand, parents are reluctant to drop their children off at the research site and pick them up later. Parents want to know how their children are being researched: what types of questions are being asked, for example, and what types of tasks are being assigned. A savvy researcher knows that parents shouldn't be in the room with the children; a workable solution is for the children to be told that the parents are nearby and accessible and for the parents to be provided an observation means, whether live video or the old one-way mirror.


Any discussion about the fundamentals of conducting research on children should be built on the limitations of that demographic. Although it's no revelation to state that there are tasks that children don't, and can't, do as well as older people, it might be less obvious that those limitations basically fall under two categories: mental and physical. The insightful researcher acknowledges those limitations and designs a protocol that doesn't exceed them; otherwise, the results are certain to be unreliable at best, misleading at worse.
On the qualitative side, a methodology such as a focus group──beyond the inherent challenge of keeping participants of short attention spans "focused"──also faces a variety of other challenges. One is gender; prior to a certain age, it might be advisable not to mix boys and girls, because even within the same age range the genders are known to display different levels of maturity (I'll leave it unsaid as to which gender typically matures faster) that can prove to be a distraction and/or annoyance to either gender. Another challenge is keeping the age differences between participants at a practical maximum. A package that states that the product is for "6-years and up," for example, shouldn't be tested with a group of "6-years and up."  It's better to divide them into groups wherein the age difference is, say, no more than 2.  It's more time- consuming and therefore more expensive; however, it's likely to yield more actionable results. Children perceive age differently than do adults and react to age differences differently, too. How many adults, for example, give their ages in terms of "X-and-a-half years?"

On the quantitative side, methodologies that utilize scales and rankings should be designed consistent with the limitations of children. Whereas with adults, evaluations might include gradations such as "slightly," "somewhat," "greatly," etc., those terms might be too nuanced for some children. In reflection, it might be better to reduce the gradations, even down to two opposites and a middle. On a related note, younger children typically are familiar with evaluation symbols; for example, a schoolteacher awards a number of stars or a smiley (or frowning) face. If the age of the children warrants, such symbols should be incorporated into the research instruments.

On the observational side, there's a strong temptation to simply watch children's behavior. Why make research more complicated than it need be, right? But only the more overt behavior is going to be interpretable in isolation and likely will inspire trite, me-too packaging. Contrastingly, the more subtle and/or the lesser expected behavior will require some combination of qualitative and quantitative techniques to probe deeper. That's not to say that observational research can never stand alone. An example is a microwavable snack for children, of which those in the upper age range can prepare it themselves. One reliable way to test the preparation instructions (and any associated product warnings) is to give the package to a representative sample of children, let them read and enact the instructions (which can contain text, illustrations, and symbols), and then observe their levels of understanding.

For all their limitations, today's children are more precocious than yesterday's children, especially concerning some computer-related technologies. Also, today's children have a wider means by which they become aware of products and form brand preferences. Children can be a profitable demographic, for which packaging can be an effective marketing tool. That being so, a definite fundamental is this: researching children is not child's play.

Sterling Anthony is a consultant, specializing in the strategic use of marketing, logistics, and packaging. His contact information is: 100 Renaissance Center-176; Detroit, MI 48243; 313-531-1875; 313-531-1972; [email protected];
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