Children as young as three recognize and have preferences for different brands, according to new research published in the journal Psychology and Marketing.
Until recently, it has been hypothesized that children are not particularly influenced by the power of brands until about the age of eight. But this latest study called into question some of the research techniques used to come to that conclusion – such as using fashion brands or asking children who cannot yet read to name their favorite brand. It also looked to extend the scope of earlier brand recognition studies by examining ‘theory of mind’, the ability to theorize about how others might behave, in relation to brands.
The researchers, from the University of Wisconsin and University of Michigan, found that pre-schoolers not only recognized brands, but also gave strong judgments about them.
Brands were divided into two categories: Those targeted at children under 12 and those targeted at adults and adolescents, as assessed by postgraduate marketing students with pre-school children and no knowledge of the study’s purpose.
“Preschool children probably have little if any experience thinking about the ‘prestige’ associated with various teen/adult brands,” the researchers wrote. “However, the present results clearly show that preschoolers do make attributions about user popularity and perceived product quality of ‘children’s’ brands that are salient and relevant in their lives.”
The 3 to 5-year-olds in this study generally thought of fast food, for example, as “fun, exciting, and tasty”, and thought of cola brands as fun for reasons such as “the bubbles are fun,” and “lots of people like them.”
The researchers wrote: “Contrary to conclusions drawn in prior research, the present findings suggest that children aged 3 to 5 years have an emerging capacity to understand the symbols of brands for which they form part of the target segment. Preschoolers can and do judge others on the basis of brand use. This finding has clear public policy implications in relation to at least two issues: materialism and the formation of eating habits.”
They also found that children thought differently about consumers of different food brands, suggesting that values associated with food choices are formed early in life.
“Therefore, it is suggested that public policy targeting eating habits should focus on intervention during the preschool years,” they wrote.
Source: Psychology and Marketing
Vol. 27, Iss. 3, pp. 203-228
“Children’s Brand Symbolism Understanding: Links to Theory of Mind and Executive Functioning”
Authors: Anna R. McAlister and T. Bettina Cornwell