Family Shopping: What About the Kids?

Traditionally, the focus of shopper marketing has been mom. Given that most shopping is done by moms despite the recent increase in fathers’ contributions, this seems to make sense. However, if you look at the bigger picture, we argue that it’s important to broaden our focus and reframe our thinking to encompass the larger family, especially the role of kids.

The purpose of this white paper is to provide marketers with a broader view of the family shopping trip, and insights around the role, attitudes and perceptions of children, to optimize their marketing efforts.

Here’s what we found>>


Today’s kids are being called many names – digital natives, iGeneration, Net Generation – reflecting the rapid growth of technology during their childhood. In The Marketing Store’s Global Kids survey, we found that kids use a lot of technology and that many of their favorite activities involve electronic devices.  However, we also see that their ownership and the frequency with which they are using many of these devices are still catching up with these digital preconceptions.  Even in kids’ eyes, these devices are no substitute for “real, face-to-face physical interaction” with friends.  Looking for the vanguards in youth digital interaction?  Rather than look to the western world, perhaps we should look to developing countries.

Global Kids Enjoy Technology

When asked about their favorite activities in the survey, global kids’ top 3 choices involved electronics.

They also use a wide range of electronic devices.  As shown in the chart below, most global kids (aged 6-12) have experience with devices ranging from digital cameras to game consoles to mobile phones.  A substantial number also have used newer devices such as tablets and e- books.

Across most of these devices, usage rates are very similar for both younger (6-8) and older (9-12) kids.  The only exceptions here were tablets (40% v. 63%) and MP3 player/ iPod (65% v. 82%), which were used more often by older kids.

Kids Are Using Digital Devices For Many Activities

Similar to adults, kids use their digital devices for many different activities.   What’s the most popular activity?   Playing games!   This is the #1 thing that kids like to do on computers.   For mobile phones, it is almost as popular as the original purpose of “making calls”.

Watching video clips is also widely popular, thanks in part to YouTube – which happens to be the most popular website.  Kids, of course, love watching video clips – especially the funny ones. They are also increasingly using it as a “search engine” to find video clips on specific topics of interest. While many countries have some of their idiosyncratic favorites (e.g., for Poland and for Brazil), the other most popular websites (or destinations) include Facebook and Google.  It is true that some of the kids do have their own Facebook pages (often set up by an older siblings).  However, many of the kids are using their moms’ or a family member’s Facebook page – mostly to play games or keep in contact with distant relatives.

While this list is based on responses by kids across the globe, U.S. kids’ activity preferences mirror the rest of the world.  The only noteworthy difference is that American kids are more likely to do homework on the computer (83% vs. 76% for global).  From our qualitative observations and teacher focus groups, we suspect this partly reflects teachers’ attempt  to raise test scores by directing their students to educational websites (where they can practice math and reading skills).

As we would expect, how kids use their devices changes as they grow older.  While “playing games” and “watching video clips” remain the most popular things to do on the computer, older kids are more likely to use it for a broader range of activities.  Three activities that really increase with age are: doing school/homework, listening to music and surfing for fun.  (The later partly reflects relaxed parental restrictions).  In terms of mobile phone usage, older kids also use it for a wider array of activities.  But, the most significant difference is that older kids are much more likely to “text” (72% vs. 44%) than “make calls” (91% vs. 84%).


Kids’ Frequency of Usage and Ownership is Less than Expected

It is widely believed that kids are on their computer every day.  However, there are many more kids (aged 6-12) on their computers “3 or fewer days a week” compared to those on them daily.  As expected, frequency of usage increases as kids age, driven by their greater need and desire for the computer’s capabilities (e.g., for homework and for communication).  Still, only 39% of kids 9-12 years old are on the computer daily.  In terms of the amount of time kids are actually spending on the computer, it averages about 1 hour a day (7.4 hours per week for kids 6-12).

Furthermore, even though kids use many electronic devices, it doesn’t mean that they personally own the devices. With the exception of handheld gaming consoles, relatively few global kids actually have their own.

Looking at the U.S., these ownership numbers are fairly similar, except that game console ownership is significantly higher than the global average (46% vs. 35%); while non-smart mobile phone ownership is lower (27% vs. 37%).


Global Kids Mostly Receive Their Digital Devices as Gifts 

While kids spend their allowance on many things, electronic devices are likely not one of them. Instead of saving up or working for them, most kids say they get them as gifts. This is not surprising given their relatively high cost.


Contrary to Stereotypes, Kids’ Digital Usage is Often Social

While digital devices are often cast as “asocial”, it appears that’s not necessarily the case. Many moms (60% globally; 57% U.S.) agree that “technology keeps me close to my kids”. Our qualitative research concurs.  The major impetus for moms to provide their children with mobile phones is to keep in touch with them once they start becoming more independent.  We also find that a number of the primary activities that kids use digital devices for (e.g., calling, texting, sharing photos, playing games or chatting with others on the Internet) are inherently social.  Additionally, their top two websites have strong social elements. This is obvious for Facebook.  But, even for You Tube, kids love to share and bond by watching cool videos together.

When asked about various technology-enabled activities, there are clear social components.  Watching TV is mostly done with others, and so are playing video games and, to a lesser extent, surfing the Internet.  The one activity that tends to be more solitary is “listening to music”.

Not surprisingly, many of these activities are done with family members.  And it’s not just siblings.  Take video gaming.  Many kids are now playing videogames with their parents. For example, about a quarter (27%) of kids say they play videogames mostly with one or both parents.  There seems to be a direct correlation to the fact that many of today’s parents grew up playing videogames and they enjoy sharing their children’s passions.

Perhaps most importantly, digital devices have not taken away kids’ desires for “real, in-person contact”.  In fact, when we asked kids whether they prefer “talking to friends face to face” or “talking to friends through the computer or mobile phone”, MOST kids (89%) choose “face to face”.  This was true for both younger and older kids (92% for 6-8 year olds and 87% for 9-12 year olds).


Kids in Developing Countries are Leading in Technology

Looking at kids’ technology usage around the globe, we see that western nations are NOT leading the way.  Rather, kids in developing countries appear to be the vanguards.  By developing countries here, we’re referring to China, Brazil, Mexico and Poland.

One of the key differences is that kids in these developing countries are more technically savvy and better equipped.  For example, kids in developing countries are more likely to own mobile phones (54% vs. 29%).  And, parents in these countries often give their kids mobile phones at a very young age.  By the age of 6 years, at least one-fourth of kids in developing countries own a mobile phone (versus an average of 8% across the other countries).

Kids in developing countries also use computers more frequently. On average, they use computers 10.4 hours a week versus 6 hours a week (for kids in developed countries).

And, they use them for a wider range of activities (e.g., chat, making video calls, watching films, email).  In China, this has given rise to a high incidence of blogging. Over half (61% vs. 17% globally) of Chinese kids are blogging on tumblr, Twitter and other platforms. And, it has created “mini celebrities” like Han Han, a boy who wrote a novel on his blog when he was 8 years old.

Japan:  Living on a Different  Digital Curve?

Across nearly all technology measures in our global survey, Japanese children fall short.  Not only are they less likely to own many of the electronic devices; they are also less likely to have experience in using them.  There is one exception: handheld video gaming devices.  We hypothesize that this reflects the deep historical roots of handheld videogames in Japan and that their devices have sometimes offered greater functionality, obviating the need for additional devices.  For example,  kids who acquired the PS Go in 2009 (which allows internet browsing, movie watching, playing music and reading books/comics) did not need a number of other electronic gadgets.


Based on these findings, a few things to keep in mind when marketing to kids are:

– Don’t assume an all-digital world for your young consumers.  Traditional communication and tangible interactions/engagements are still an important part of the marketing mix (and, in some cases may be a primary differentiator).

–  Escalating usage and ownership of devices will require marketers to integrate digital mediums into their marketing effort in both traditional (e.g., web page, banners, etc.) and non-traditional (game integration, shopper tools) ways.  Not surprisingly, play and mobile technologies should be critical elements to drive engagement.

–   When playing in the digital arena, make sure that a parent/guardian is brought along.  Not only is it a hallmark of responsible marketing, but it also strengthens the relationship between your brand and a critical gatekeeper/influencer.

–  Rather than having your markets in developing countries follow the digital plans/campaigns of their developed country counterparts, consider having them lead.

–   Given the gap between ownership and usage, many electronic devices remain a compelling prize/reward option for kids worldwide.

The Global Kids Happiness Index

Global Kids: Generally happy but vulnerable

Over the past decade, as the world has developed and more people are lifted out of poverty, the pursuit of happiness has become a “hot trend”.  From best-sellers like “Stumbling on Happiness” and a significant amount of social research, we now know that people in some countries are happier than others and that we aren’t very good at predicting who is happy and who is not. However, virtually all of this research has been conducted with adults. So, the question is- how are the kids faring?  In this study we assessed kids’ happiness and found that while happiness is “a normal” state for children, there are significant differences across age, ethnicity (within the U.S.), and countries.

Happiness is a “normal state” for kids

Given the constant stream of bad news in the media and challenging times faced by so many families, you might expect today’s kids to be feeling pretty unhappy.  However, that does not appear to be the case.  Virtually all kids claim to be happy either “all of the time” or “most of the time”.

Part of the reason kids’ happiness is so strong is because they fare well on two major drivers of happiness: family and friends.  Most kids feel very close to their family (99% agree; 82% strongly agree) and have very good friends (98% agree; 65% strongly agree).

Contrary to expectations, U.S. kids are not the happiest.

Consistent with the U.S. obsession with “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, American kids are happy. But they are not the happiest.  In fact, they are basically tied for fourth with Germany.

To examine differences across countries, we created an index of happiness based on kids’ responses to a series of questions.  These questions included an overall happiness measure (How often do you feel happy?:  All of the time, Most of the time, Some of the time, or Never).  They also included 8 other measures that reflect different aspects or key drivers of happiness, such as   “I sometimes feel stressed out”, “I think the world is a good place”, “I am very close to my family”, or “I often feel lonely”. For each country, we aggregated responses to these questions and divided it by the global average (across all countries) to create an index of happiness.

Based on this index, kids in Latin or Spanish cultures are the happiest.  The least happy kids are in Japan and Poland.

These differences appear to partly reflect cultural differences in family orientation.  In this research (as well as other social science research), we see that children’s happiness ratings are positively correlated with family closeness.  Accordingly, in the Latin/Spanish countries, kids reported feeling closer to their families than those in some of the other countries (especially Japan, Poland and China).

Despite general happiness, many kids are feeling some stress- especially in Germany and Japan.

Across the globe, about two-thirds of kids report “sometimes feeling stressed out” and most kids (83%) say they “have too many things to do”.   However, by-in-large, these feelings are mild.  In other words, most kids feel this way “a little”, rather than “a lot”.

Interestingly, Japanese and German kids report being the most stressed. In the case of Japanese kids, it appears that the 2011 tsunami has been a major contributing factor. This is certainly apparent in their responses to open-ended questions like “Imagine you ruled the world and you had the power to make the world a better place. What 3 things would you change?”

  • “Reduce the number of earthquakes” Boy, 6 years, Japan
  • “I would make a town that’s strong against the tsunami” Girl, 9 years, Japan
  • “I would do away with nuclear power plants” Boy, 9 years, Japan

In the case of German kids, a recent article in the Daily Mail (5/2012) explains “.. The strain has become too much to bear for youngsters in Germany, resulting in the first kindergarten for stressed-out under-fives.  Toddlers as young as three chill out with massages, foot baths and by walking through wet grass without shoes and socks…. It comes as childcare professionals warn that youngsters are taking on board the worries of recession, money and security at an age when they cannot understand what the words mean, let alone spell them.”

Some things don’t improve with age: Younger kids are happier than older kids

As kids age they appear to grow less happy.  For example, over three quarters of six-year olds (76%) say “I feel happy most of the time”.  By the time they are twelve years old, less than two-thirds (62%) feel that way.  Correspondingly, younger kids are slightly happier being their age than are older kids.  This contradicts the commonly held assumption that kids always wish to be older.  Perhaps we need to distinguish between the desire for what older kids have versus being older per se.

This decline in happiness coincides with (or is partly driven by) their changing world view and increasing pressures.   At six years of age, the majority of kids (58%) strongly view the world “as a good place”.  By twelve years of age, less than half agree (41%).  Furthermore, kids begin to feel more stressed out with age—which appears to be partly driven by increased social and school pressures. It is commonly known that social issues like “fitting in” and “mean girls” surface during the tween years.  School also becomes more serious. As one older American tween boy (aged 12) told us, “The little kids don’t know how good they have it (in school). They get to play a lot and don’t have much homework”.

Moms are in touch with their kids’ feelings

Similar to kids, most moms view their children as pretty happy.  For example, 95% of moms view their kids as happy most of the time.  At the same time, they are aware of the pressures faced by many of today’s kids.

  • 84% say “Children are growing up too fast today”
  • 59% say “Childhood is much harder than when I was a child”

Among U.S. kids, African American kids are the happiest

While one might expect Caucasian children in the U.S. to be the happiest (given their general advantages), this is not the case.  In fact, they were the LEAST HAPPY.  Instead, African-American kids were the happiest.

This higher level of happiness among African-American children is also shared by their moms, who are more likely to view theirs kids as “happy most of the time”. This positive attitude (for both kids and moms) is consistent with general cultural observations among adults- where African Americans tend to be happier and more optimistic (at least compared to Caucasians).  Interestingly, this greater happiness exists despite the fact that African American moms see their children’s lives as more challenging (compared to other moms).

What makes kids happy?  Many things….

When we asked kids to name 3 things that made them happy they mentioned a wide array of items- from “teddy bears” to “drawing manga” to “ice cream” to “a warm bath”.  However, the most common themes that emerged were:

  • Family/family time (mostly parents and siblings, but also grandparents and cousins)
  • Friends
  • Playing  (e.g., playing outside, playing with others)
  • Participating in sports (e.g, swimming, soccer, dancing, skiing)
  • Traditional Toys (e.g., board games, Pokémon, dolls, Legos)
  • Video games
  • Entertainment (e.g, TV, movies, music)
  • Vacation/Travel
  • Food (e.g., candy, pizza, sweets, fancy meals)
  • Outings (e.g, cinema, beach, park)
  • Competition/Accomplishments (e.g, winning contests, receiving rewards, getting good grades)

Around the globe, the most frequently cited sources of happiness were: #1 family, #2 friends and #3 play. (The one exception was Japan, where playing and video games outweighed family and friends).   Beyond these top 3, there were differences in how frequently they were mentioned across countries.  For instance, competition and accomplishments were rarely mentioned by U.S. kids, but were frequently mentioned by Chinese kids. In addition, kids in some countries considered other things as major sources of happiness. For example, Japanese kids often reported “the arts” (e.g, drawing, piano, crafts) as making them happy, while U.S. kids frequently mentioned “animals” (e.g., dogs, cats, pets, birds).


Do not assume that kids are unhappy or jaded, as happiness tends to be their normal state.   Marketers who focus on the dissatisfied, rebellious child have not only lost touch with the majority sentiment but will find it difficult to connect with kids, tweens, and their parents.

Marketers must be cognizant of global or local events that might impact happiness and stress levels.  Rather than dwell on these happenings, brands can win by understanding how they authentically contribute to the general drivers of happiness, including social connection with family and friends, achievement, or control.

Contrary to commonly held beliefs, younger kids do NOT want to be older.  While they may desire to have some things that older kids have, they are very happy being their age. Brands should celebrate childhood rather than pushing them to “grow up”.  Give kids the opportunity to stay younger longer by encouraging activities that allow them to be (and act) their age.

All I Wanted for Christmas is…a Toy?

It’s EVERYWHERE.  The talk about kids as “digital natives”.  Preschoolers playing on their parent’s iPhones or iPads.  Kids sporting ear buds, listening to music.  What does this say about traditional low-tech toys like dolls, stuffed animals and board games?  Have they been replaced by electronics? Do kids even want them anymore?  Our recent global survey has found that while kids do love electronics, toys are still alive and well in many of their hearts. While kids’ toy boxes have expanded, traditional toys remain part of the mixOver the years, the things that kids play with have expanded.  Not only are they playing with objects found in nature (like sticks and stones) and traditional toys (like dolls), they are also playing with electronics like computers, videogame consoles and handheld devices, mobile phones and, most recently, electronic tablets. Our qualitative research suggests that kids rotate seamlessly among their repertoire of play items.  For example, during a recent two-hour play date involving two 9-year old girls in Chicago, the interaction was as follows:

  • Playing outside on swing set, chasing the rabbits and playing catch (with softballs and bats)
  • Playing a board game (The States Game)
  • Checking out the girl’s bedroom
  • Playing Resort Sports and Dance 2 on a Wii gaming system

Similarly, in our recent global survey of kids 6-12, when we asked about activities, we found that 96% of global kids play “video or computer games” and 91% of global kids play with” traditional toys”.  (For the U.S., these numbers are 98% and 91%, respectively.)  In other words, most kids play with both electronic and traditional toys. Many kids still really like playing with traditional toys—especially younger kids When asked about their top 3 favorite activities (out of a list of 30), many of kids’ favorites involve some form of play—including “traditional toy play”.          Global Kids’ Top 10 Favorite activities

  1. Play video/computer games (27%)
  2. Watch TV (24%)
  3. Explore internet (21%)
  4. Go to movies (15%)
  5. Playing outdoors (15%)
  6. Riding bikes (15%)
  7. Play with toys (14%)
  8. Play a sport (14%)
  9. Outdoor activities (e.g., hiking) (11%)
  10. Reading (11%)

In fact, “play with toys” ranked in the top 10 favorite activities in every country surveyed, with the exception of the U.K., where it ranked #13. Not surprisingly, traditional toy play is much more popular with younger kids (6-8 years) than tweens (9-12 years).  However, the magnitude of the difference is quite significant.  For younger kids, traditional toys are almost on par with videogames.

           % kids selecting activities as a favorite

Kids 6-8 Kids 9-12
Videogame/computer games 25% 28%
Play with toys 21%  8%

We also see a similar pattern in children’s “wish lists”.  When asked “What’s the one thing you would like to get for your birthday?”,  traditional toys (e.g., construction toys, dolls, board games) are more often  mentioned by younger kids (  6-8 years) than any other type of item.  However, this was not the case for older kids (9-12). Traditional toys offer unique benefits Electronic toys can be dazzling with all of their functions and features.  How easy it is to immerse yourself in the battlefield of “Call of Duty”, with its intense graphics and special effects.  Or, how exciting it is to be able to create your own fashion show on Star Doll or make dinner on Nintendo’s “Cooking Mama”. However, traditional physical toys have their own unique benefits.  Three of the most powerful benefits that physical toys can provide are:  immediacy, “total control”, and “physical play”.   With physical toys, the play begins from the moment you pick it up. There is no need to log on or navigate an interface to access the play. Physical toys also offer the opportunity for kids to be in total control of their play experience.   When they pick up a doll or action figure, the play can unfold however the child envisions it.  But perhaps the most compelling benefit is the physical play that toys offer.  Toys provide strong sensory play—especially in terms of touch and smell.  Take classic play dough.  Just close your eyes and take a whiff of its unique aroma.  Squeeze the moist clay between your fingers.  It’s something you can’t get from digital play—at least not yet. Toy popularity varies widely by gender and age As most parents know, girls and boys generally like different types of toys.  In fact, when looking at the 5 most popular types of toys, the only one both girls and boys agree on are board games. Top 5 Girl Toys              Top 5 Boy Toys Board games                              Construction Dolls                                              Sporting equipment Arts & Crafts                             Board games Role play                                    Action Figures Stuffed animals                       Vehicles Many of kids’ toy preferences change as they grow older.  For girls, younger ones love dolls and role play, while older ones are less enthused.  On the other hand, other types of toys (board games, puzzles and sporting equipment) become more popular with age. We see similar changes for boys.  Younger ones love vehicles and action figures, while older boys are much less interested in them.  However, as they age, we see a big jump in the popularity of sporting equipment and board games. Underlying these changing toy preferences are shifting play patterns.  Fantasy play is widely loved by younger kids who enjoy acting out different actions (e.g., battling villains) or pretending to be someone else (e.g., a princess or superhero).  Toys like dolls, action figures and role play items are useful tools for this fantasy play.  However, as kids age, they leave their fantasy orientation where “anything can happen”, and grow into more of a reality-based, logical orientation.  At the same time, their cognitive abilities and knowledge increase dramatically.  Consequently, their fantasy play decreases while  cognitive play (where kids use their mental abilities and knowledge) takes off,  and with it, board games and puzzles become increasingly popular. Toy preferences also vary by country Not surprisingly, there are some differences around the globe in terms of what types of toys kids enjoy.  A few of the more interesting differences were:

  • In Brazil and Mexico, “toys encouraging fantasy play” (dolls, role play items, actions figures) are much more popular
  • In China , kids love stuffed animals, puzzles and model kits—but are much less enthusiastic about board games and construction toys
  • In Japan, kids are crazy about trading cards (after all this is the land of Pokémon), stuffed animals and puzzles—but actions figures are much less popular (which may reflect their lack of identification with many of the super heroes)

IMPLICATIONS FOR MARKETERS Traditional toy companies can win in today’s marketplace.  However, it’s critical that they understand how their offering can out-deliver the multi-sensory experience found within the digital arena. Promotional experiences for kids do not have to rely solely on digital channels.  Kids, especially younger ones, not only appreciate but also actually love the tangible, interactive experiences of traditional play. Think beyond the traditional app or website.  Brands can find it extremely challenging to gain attention and engagement when playing solely in the ultra-competitive digital world.

U.S. Kids and Nutrition: Executive Summary

Over the past decade, the obesity epidemic among children has been growing.  Currently, about 1 in 3 U.S. children are overweight.  15% are considered obese.[1]  With this growing epidemic, there has been a collective call for action for those of us empowered to “do something.”

–        The government has launched a new food guide (MyPlate) as well as new campaigns like Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!”

–        Schools are improving their lunch menus and introducing nutrition education at younger ages.

–        Moms, the gatekeepers for most families, are using more strategies to encourage their kids to eat healthy.

–        Food companies are getting involved—subjecting themselves to self-imposed marketing regulations and launching family-directed advertising and promotional initiatives.

The purpose of this white paper is to provide food companies, as well as broader youth and family marketers with insight and guidance to address the topic of children’s “healthy eating.”

While much has been written on “kids and nutrition” from the adult perspective—moms, educators and academics—we’ve heard little from the kids themselves.  Yet, to effectively reach kids, it is critical to understand them—in terms of attitudes, behaviors and knowledge.  That is why this white paper speaks directly about kids, mostly from their point of view.

Drawing on years of foundational research by The Marketing Store and KidSay, this paper addresses three topics:

1) Where kids stand on “healthy eating”

2) Kids’ awareness and understanding of “healthy eating” fundamentals and principles

3) Effective nutrition education, messaging and three strategies to bring about positive healthy changes in children’s eating habits.

The focus of this paper is on kids 5-11 years old and is based on both quantitative and qualitative research.  The quantitative piece primarily leverages the proprietary KidSay Trend Trackers, including those surveying kids 5-15 years old and moms of younger kids (5-7 years old).  The qualitative piece includes focus groups with hundreds of kids, moms and teachers—conducted by both KidSay and The Marketing Store.



  • Moms and kids want to make additional improvements in their eating habits.
  • Few kids see their eating habits as poor.  Moms agree with them.
  • Kids see the world simply and don’t strive for perfection.  Thus, nutrition messaging and education must reflect this.
  • The importance of eating healthy varies by situation.  Family dinners and school lunches are on the top of the list of situations where healthy foods are most critical.
  • Most favorite foods of kids are those deemed “less healthy”, with fruit being the exception.
  • Kids are learning about healthy eating mostly from traditional influencers—parents, teachers, and medical personnel.
  • Kids’ perceptions of healthy eating frameworks are limited, especially with the newest guide, MyPlate.
  • MyPlate’s concepts need additional texture to be understood by younger kids.
  • Kids have a clear understanding of some food categories as healthy or unhealthy (milk, water, fruits, vegetables), but many (including grains, proteins and “kid foods”) are less clear.
  • While kids are reading labels (even at the younger ages), they seldom understand them.  Nor, do they read them for nutritional purposes.  They often read them for the sake of reading, or because they are bored.  This is an area where we can potentially make a difference.
  • Some product nutritional claims are more compelling to kids than others. The strongest claim tested was “Made with real fruit”, while others focused on “Less of the bad stuff” (such as reduced sugar) appear to foster expectations that the food will taste worse, be less healthy and lower their interest in trying the product.
  • Moms believe the teaching of nutritional concepts should begin early (pre-school).
  • Both moms and kids believe that parents, teachers, medical professionals, and television are the most effective channels to learn about nutrition.  Surprisingly, moms rank television higher than their kids do.
  • Nutrition education needs to be age appropriate.  Younger kids (5-8 years) are literal thinkers and thus, marketers need to be more prescriptive in their approach.  Older kids (9+) can begin to understand the nuances of nutrition frameworks and some of the consequences.
  • Because nutritional education is not motivating for kids, marketers and parents need to employ strategies to further drive kid demand and consumption.  Education alone will not be enough.

Read on: Part 1 of 3: Where U.S. Kids Stand on “Healthy Eating” >>

Download full White paper [PDF]>>

[1] Ogden, C.L., Carroll, M.D., Kite, B.K., & Fegal, K.M. (2012). Prevalence of obesity and trends in body mass index among U.S. children and adolescents, 1999-2010. Journal of the American Medical Association, 307 (5), 483-490.

U.S. Kids and Nutrition: Where Kids Stand

Part 1 of a 3 part series on US Kids and Nutrition. This piece was written in partnership between KidSay and The Marketing Store Worldwide by Terence Burke and Bob Reynolds of KidSay and Renee Weber and Robert Pieper of The Marketing Store Worldwide.


Just ask any kid to rate himself in terms of “healthy eating” and chances are he will rate himself positively.  Most kids think they eat pretty healthy. This is true across gender and age.  For example, about two-thirds of tweens (8-11) say they are “excellent” or “pretty good. Very few will say they are “not very good”. 2

The Marketing Store Global Kids Study

In qualitative research, we’ve also found this holds true for younger kids.  Kids aged 5-7 rate themselves very positively—mostly “excellent” or “pretty good”.  While a few said “just okay”, none of them said they were “not very good”.3,4

Interestingly, from qualitative research (with both kids and their moms), it appears that self-ratings do not necessarily correlate with overall eating patterns.  Some of the kids who had moms that were much stricter about their child’s food consumption tended to rate themselves a little more critically.4 Perhaps this is because greater awareness about “healthy eating” leads to broader perspective on healthy eating and more opportunities for self-scrutiny.

Kids’ positive self-image around healthy eating is driven by 2 things. 

First, they have a very simple conception of “healthy eating.”

To most kids, “healthy eating” means “eating fruits and vegetables” and “limiting too much bad food” (especially sweets or chips) in their daily diets. 3,4  Accordingly, when asked about reasons for their self-ratings on “healthy eating”, typical responses were:

“I eat fruits and some vegetables.” —Girl, age 6

“I don’t eat too much ice cream or candy.” —Girl, age 8

“I like to eat apples. I’m the king of apples.” —Boy, age 10

“I say (that I’m) pretty good because I like to eat chips sometimes.” —Boy, age 7

Second, kids do not strive for perfection.

While they acknowledge there’s room for improvement (especially in terms of eating more fruit and less candy/chocolate), kids do not seek or desire to “be perfect”.   They want to be able to eat some sweets and indulgent foods on occasion. Even those who rate themselves as ”excellent”, take a moderate view.  As one girl aged 8 says:

“You can’t eat just fruits and vegetables all of the time.”

Furthermore, kids recognize that in certain special situations, including school parties, sweets, chips, pizza and other “bad” foods are a mainstay.  Some do mention that this party fare could be healthier or at least include a few healthy items.  However, none of them want to jettison all of the treats.  After all, is it really a party if there are no “treats”?3 (For more information on situational eating norms, please see “Getting real: expectations vary by situation” in part 2).



Most kids think their moms see them as “healthy eaters”

Interestingly, kids think their moms see them as “healthy eaters” too.  When asked how their moms would rate them, virtually all kids (6-12) said she would rate them the same­—and in some cases, better than they rate themselves.4  As kids saw it, their moms would be focused on the healthy food they gave their kids to eat…

“She serves me fruits and vegetables.” —Girl, age 7

“She packs me a healthy lunch.” —Boy, age 8

“She doesn’t see me eating junk food, like candy or chips.” —Boy, age 9

“My mom makes spinach and rice at least once a week.” —Girl, age 10


Most moms view their kids as “healthy eaters”

It looks like kids CAN read their mom’s minds. In our quantitative surveys, moms (at least of younger kids 5-7) generally rate their kids positively on “healthy eating”.5

The Marketing Store and KidSay Nutrition White Paper

More to the point, in focus groups, when we ask both kids and their moms to “rate themselves/their child in terms of healthy eating”, their ratings are positive and very consistent. For example, for kids who rated themselves as “pretty good”, chances are that their moms also rated them as “pretty good”.4



Most moms tell us that they’re working to improve their children’s eating habits. 

63% of moms with younger kids (5-7) say they’ve “made a change to their child’s eating habits in the past year”.5

We also hear this sentiment echoed in our focus groups with moms of older children (8-11).4

The most popular changes are: more vegetables, more fruits, less “junk food”, more variety and more organic.  Other top changes are:  fewer snacks, more water, less sugar, less soda (apparently to reduce sugar and calories) and fewer fried foods.6

Looking specifically at organic, about one-third of moms (of kids 5-7) tell us that they “are buying more organic food than last year”.5 However, this doesn’t mean that they are totally sold on organic.  Most moms report buying organic foods/beverages selectively, more for their kids than themselves.  They also report buying organic for products they consider higher risk.   One of the products often cited as “high risk” is strawberries because moms have heard that they contain high levels of pesticides. Other fruits like bananas are not.  Milk is another “hot button” with many moms, due to its frequent consumption by kids and concerns about the impact of growth hormones on them.7


Kids acknowledge their parents’ efforts (to encourage healthier eating) and say they’ve made positive changes.

80% of kids (8-11) say that “over the past year, their parents have changed the types of food they have made, to be healthier for the family.” 6

And, when asked about their personal eating habits, most kids report taking steps to eat healthier.  Granted, these steps may be small.  But a sizable minority (34%), report significant changes. And, it isn’t just girls.  Over a quarter of boys say they’ve made “a lot” of changes.6

The Marketing Store and KidSay Nutrition White Paper

The primary changes that kids say they’ve made are:

#1 More fruit

#2 More vegetables

#3 Less/no junk food

#4 Eat less

#5 Eat less/no candy


The critical thing in promoting healthy eating, moms say, is to be realistic.

According to moms, it is not realistic to eliminate all unhealthy food.  They accept that kids (and they) are always going to eat some less healthy foods.  These foods are too ubiquitous, convenient and “good-tasting”. So, one of the primary messages moms strive to teach their kids is “balance”.

“You can eat junk, but it needs to be in moderation.”

Most of your food needs to be healthy.”

“If you eat candy or a cookie, then you have to eat something healthy.”


Furthermore, most moms view some less healthy items as serving an important role as “a treat” that makes people (both themselves and their kids) happy.

“Sure I could serve my kids just water and milk. But, when you pull out the juice boxes, it’s all smiles. The important thing is that they don’t have them every day.”

Consequently, moms strive to position less healthy foods or beverages as “special treats” that are to be enjoyed—while moderating when, where and how often kids consume them.

Moms also recognize that it’s a challenge to get some kids to eat healthy.  Within their families, it’s not uncommon to have one child who loves fruit while another child loathes it.  Or, they have one child who is more experimental while another sticks to a limited repertoire of “classic kid foods”—like hot dogs, cheese pizza, mac & cheese, chicken nuggets, French fries, baby carrots and apples.

The bottom line for moms is– getting children to embrace “healthy eating” is viewed as a long-term effort that is best achieved by focusing on incremental improvements.  Instead of setting absolute goals (e.g., eat the quantities of foods as dictated by the food pyramid), moms tell us they set smaller, more achievable goals. 4,7

“I don’t think 5-a-day will work for my kids; so I work towards 3 (fruits or vegetables) a day.”

“I’m just working on them drinking more water than juice.”

“I’m trying to get them to at least try one bite of new foods I serve.”


Getting real:  expectations vary by situation

Part of being realistic about healthy eating is recognizing the power of context. People have different expectations or norms for different types of situations. A Sunday Brunch at a fancy restaurant, a quiet family dinner at home and a quick fast-food lunch—all elicit different expectations.  Both kids and moms clearly see this.  As shown below, healthy eating is most valued for “family meals at home” and school lunches. Snacks at parties or meals at fast-food restaurants are less so. 2,5

How important is it for you/your child to eat healthy ?

The Marketing Store and KidSay Nutrition White Paper

“Eating Healthy” has become “cool”

Within the past decade, there’s been a shift in kids’ attitudes towards “healthy eating”.  And this shift has been pretty dramatic.  The vast majority (80%) now think it’s “cool”; up significantly from 59% in 2004.  Correspondingly, very few (5%) now view it as “uncool”, as opposed to 19% in 2004.

How kids (8-11) rate “eating healthy”
The Marketing Store and KidSay Nutrition White Paper Graph

While healthy eating is now “cool”, it’s important to note that dieting is not.  Kids are significantly less likely to rate it as “cool” (33% vs. 80% for healthy eating) and many (39%) think it’s totally uncool.  Plus, from interviews with kids, it’s clear that most associate it solely with eating restrictions—and that’s highly “un-cool”. 8, 9, 10


Kids also view some “healthier foods” as “cool”.

This positive attitude towards “healthy eating” is also seen in their attitudes towards some foods.  In asking kids to rate a series of different items, it’s interesting that some of the “healthiest items” are also viewed as “cool”. Topping the list is fruit, which is on par with candy and chips.  Healthy drinks and snacks are reasonably cool, which is heartening because it suggests that kids are open to these types of items.  However, veggies, vitamins and energy bars aren’t so cool—likely because they often fall short on taste.10


Cool ratings for Specific Foods/Beverages (among kids 8-11 years old)

The Marketing Store and KidSay White Paper - Coolest Foods

However, except for fruit, many of their favorite foods are less healthy.

To get a sense for what they like, kids (8-11) were asked a series of questions about food.10  In classifying their responses of healthy versus unhealthy, it’s clear that many of their favorite foods (besides fruit) are not that healthy.  In fact, across a variety of questions about their “favorite foods”, the ratio of healthy to unhealthy foods tended to be 2:3 or lower (2 healthy to 3 unhealthy). Below are their top 5 responses to some of these questions:

At the same time, when asked what snacks their parents give them, that they don’t like, the number one item they mention is “fruit”.   So, fruit is not a silver bullet. 10 From qualitative, we’ve heard kids object to specific types of fruit (e.g., I don’t like pears) or the lack of variety  (e.g., She (mom) always gives me an apple).  Sometimes it is just a case of relative deprivation (e.g., I get grapes. My friends get cookies or chips). 4,7

Implications Marketers Should Consider

Companies and marketers need to help reset the appropriate nutrition benchmarks so that kids and moms can more easily understand and act on them.

Simplify your nutrition messaging to kids, focusing on bite-sized, digestible elements at a given touch point.

Be realistic and encouraging in providing the appropriate nutrition targets.

Identify strategies to make the more healthy options more acceptable to kids. (For specific strategies, please see the section on “strategies to help drive kids demand” in Part 3 of 3.


Read on for Part 2 of 3: Kids’ Understanding of “Healthy Eating” Principles>>

Download full white paper [PDF]>>


1 Ogden, C.L., Carroll, M.D., Kite, B.K., & Fegal, K.M. (2012). Prevalence of obesity and trends in body mass index among U.S. children and adolescents, 1999-2010. Journal of the American Medical Association, 307 (5), 483-490.

2 KidSay Trend Tracker, Feb/March 2012

3 KidSay TMS Qualitative Research, June 2012

4 TMS Qualitative Research, July 2012

5 KidSay Trend Tracer:  2012 moms of 5-7 year olds

6 KidSay Year End Trend Tracker, 2011

7 TMS Qualitative Research, January 2011

8 KidSay Trend Tracker, 2004

9 KidSay Trend Tracker, 2007

10 KidSay Trend Tracker, April/May 2012

11 Temple University study, cited in Parent’s magazine 5/2012

U.S. Kids and Nutrition: What Kids Know

Part 2 of a 3 part series on US Kids and Nutrition. This piece was written in partnership between KidSay and The Marketing Store Worldwide by Terence Burke  and Bob Reynolds of KidSay and Renee Weber and Robert Pieper of The Marketing Store Worldwide.


Multiple messengers: Kids are learning about “healthy eating” from many sources.

Today’s kids (and their moms) report being surrounded by healthy eating messages.  In fact, when asked about where they are learning about “healthy eating”, kids (8-11) cite many different sources.2 Of these, traditional venues (parents, teachers, medical personnel) reign supreme.

Despite efforts on the part of so many, kids’ knowledge is still limited.


In June 2011 the USDA abandoned their almost 20 year effort to teach Americans about healthy eating through the use of the food pyramid. The new framework is MyPlate. As the USDA describes it,

MyPlate illustrates the five food groups that are the building blocks for a healthy diet using a familiar image—a place setting for a meal. Before one eats, they should think about what goes on their plate or in their cup or bowl.

From what we know of the brain’s ability to process and interpret information, MyPlate’s graphic rendering is far better at communicating what “healthy eating” looks like than the previous Food Pyramid effort.

Awareness and Understanding of MyPlate is low among kids.

Less than half (41%) of kids 8-11 are aware of MyPlate. This is considerably lower than awareness for the Food Pyramid (73%). Even fewer kids really know anything about MyPlate.  While they may have heard or seen it somewhere, only 23% of kids say they know anything about it.2

Among those who say they know what “MyPlate” is, knowledge appears to be limited.  Virtually all kids (92%) have a general notion that it is related to health and nutrition. But they don’t necessarily know how.  For example, some kids think the plate as an organizing template that tells you about where to put your different foods on the plate. 4,10

“It tells you the food groups and helps kids know where the different food groups go.  You match your food with the name on the plate.  For example, pineapple would go in the fruits column.  Carrots would go in the vegetables”.  – Girl, aged 9

This is a start.  But it will take more than just having a general sense that MyPlate is about “healthy eating” to start to shape kids’ behavior.  Kids will have to know what items comprise each of the food groups.  Almost all kids can easily identify some foods that fit into the sections labeled fruits, vegetables and dairy.  However, our qualitative research indicates that many kids have difficulty identifying grains and proteins. 4,7

–        “A grain is like corn. And umm.” — Boy, aged 8

–        “I don’t know what (protein) is. Maybe yogurt.” — Girl, aged 9

This is important, because while the old food pyramid provided images of different foods comprising the categories, MyPlate does not.

Kids also need to understand that MyPlate reflects portion balance or relative proportions of different food categories.  While older kids (8-11) readily pick up on this concept, it can be a difficult concept for younger kids (5-7) to grasp.  Proportions, fractions or pie charts all require higher level thinking than younger kids are capable of, and these concepts are not typically introduced until 2nd grade.  And, even if they grasp the idea, there’s still often the question of portion size.  How much milk should be in that cup—is it a tall glass or a coffee mug?


Kids are confused about the healthfulness of many foods and beverages.

In qualitative research we’ve seen that kids are pretty good at identifying most sweets (such as candy and ice cream) as “unhealthy” and most vegetables or fruits as “healthy”. Even 5 year olds know that licorice isn’t healthy, while apples are.  Outside of these categories, however, perceptions are more disparate and cloudy.

For example, during recent focus groups where we asked 50 kids (6-9) to sort 43 products into three piles. healthy, not healthy, unsure, virtually all of the kids identified various fruits, vegetables, water and milk as “healthy”.  They also identified various candies and soda as “unhealthy”.  However, for many other categories, there was less certainty. Interestingly, many of these items are classic “kids’ foods”.4


The Marketing Store and KidSay Nutrition White Paper



As kids learn to read, they often start looking for opportunities to read words they know—including on food packages.  By the time they’re 8 years old, many kids (50%) tell us that they’re reading the nutritional facts on food labels.  Consistent with other research showing girls to be significantly more interested in learning about nutrition, we see that girls are more likely to read labels than boys.  But, the fact that almost half of boys say they are reading labels is a bit surprising.6

Q: Do you read nutritional facts on food labels?

Total kids (8-11) Girls Boys
Yes 51% 56% 46%
No 49% 44% 54%


The motive for label reading is seldom “good nutrition”.

If you ask them what they are looking for or why they are reading labels, motives vary.  The youngest kids (5-7) are typically reading them for the sake of reading.  It’s a thrill to be able to look for words they recognize; the message is unimportant.  For older kids (8+), many report reading nutritional information on packaging to help alleviate boredom while shopping with mom.

“It’s sort of boring grocery shopping, so sometimes I pick up things and read the labels.”  Boy, age 10

Occasionally, when helping to select a product (e.g., which soda to buy) or trying to convince their mom to buy a specific item, some kids will also look to nutritional information and claims.

Sometimes when I want to buy pop, I look to see how much sugar there is in different ones.” Girl, age 9

Only rarely (and mostly among older kids 9+) do kids look at nutrition labels because they want to select healthy products. 3,4

While Kids may read labels, most are meaningless to them

When asked what nutritional fact(s) they look for, kids tell us…

#1 Calories

#2 Fat content

#3 Sugar content

#4 Serving size

#5 Carbohydrates

Yet, when asked about these facts, few kids had any bench marks.  For example, when asked “how much sugar is good or bad” (for categories where kids say they look at sugar content, like soft drinks and cereal), very few could answer.  The most common answers were either “I don’t know” or “I look at different ones to see which one has the lower number”. Similarly, when asked about calories, kids struggled to answer what number was “good” or “bad”.  When shown packages with “100 calorie” claims, most kids actually thought that this was a lot of calories and therefore, signified that the product was unhealthy.3,6

In another survey, we showed kids a series of nutritional claims – drawn from the marketplace and using terms that kids are familiar with.  For each, we asked them “When you see these words on the front of a new food item…1) How good do you think it would taste?  2) How healthy do you think it would be?  3) How much would you want to try it?

Of the 10 claims tested, the one that resonated most strongly with kids was “made with real fruit”.  Other strong claims were:  “More vitamins and minerals” and “All natural”.  Interestingly, “made with organic ingredients” was rated as lower on taste, health and desire than “all natural ingredients”. Based on qualitative research, this partly reflects kids’ lack of understanding for “organic” as well as their observation that organic produce often doesn’t look “as perfect” as non-organic produce.  The weakest claims were those that speak to “less of the bad stuff” (e.g., reduced sugar, no high fructose corn syrup, reduced salt).


Implications Marketers Should Consider

To effectively support MyPlate, food and beverage companies:

  • Need to assist in building awareness and comprehension (including food groups and portion sizes).
  • Consider providing concrete examples of how their product fits into the guide.

Food and beverage companies should consider developing a nutrition labeling system that is targeted to kids and fits within the MyPlate framework.

Companies should take care to craft their nutritional claims, using child-friendly terms and when possible, focus on what the product has (or offers), rather than what has been taken away (e.g., reduced salt).

Read Part 1 of 3: Where U.S. Kids Stand on “Healthy Eating”>>

Read Part 3 of 3: Three Strategies to Bring About Healthy Changes in Kids’ Eating Habits.>>

Download full white paper [PDF]>>



1 Ogden, C.L., Carroll, M.D., Kite, B.K., & Fegal, K.M. (2012). Prevalence of obesity and trends in body mass index among U.S. children and adolescents, 1999-2010. Journal of the American Medical Association, 307 (5), 483-490.

2 KidSay Trend Tracker, Feb/March 2012

3 KidSay TMS Qualitative Research, June 2012

4 TMS Qualitative Research, July 2012

5 KidSay Trend Tracer:  2012 moms of 5-7 year olds

6 KidSay Year End Trend Tracker, 2011

7 TMS Qualitative Research, January 2011

8 KidSay Trend Tracker, 2004

9 KidSay Trend Tracker, 2007

10 KidSay Trend Tracker, April/May 2012

11 Temple University study, cited in Parent’s magazine 5/2012

U.S. Kids and Nutrition: Effective Messaging and Strategies

Part 3 of a 3 part series on US Kids and Nutrition. This piece was written in partnership between KidSay and The Marketing Store Worldwide by Terence Burke and Bob Reynolds of KidSay and Renee Weber and Robert Pieper of The Marketing Store Worldwide.


Clearly there’s room for improvement in the area of nutritional education and motivation for kids. This is a huge topic, so we will focus on a few key points that are particularly important.

Nutrition education should begin early

According to moms, kids should be learning about “healthy eating” during preschool years. In fact, 90% of moms (of kids 5-7 years) think that kids should be taught about “healthy eating” by the age of 5 years.    And, almost two-thirds (65%) believe the teaching should begin at 3 years or younger. 5

While these numbers represent moms of younger kids (5-7), we hear the same sentiments in our focus groups with moms of older kids (8-11). 4  As they tell us…

You should start teaching kids (about healthy foods) from the get-go…around 3.  At that age they are old enough to start learning.” — Mom of 9 year old

Start (teaching kids about healthy foods) in preschool.” — Mom of 9 and 11 year old

I would say in kindergarten. That’s when they start bringing snacks to school.” — Mom of 6 and 8 yr. old

Traditional learning channels are more desirable, though TV ranks ahead of “nurse/doctor” for moms.

Given that moms want teaching to begin so early, it’s not surprising that they expect parents to be the primary educator for healthy eating.  The next best educators are “teachers” and “TV”—ahead of medical professionals.  This may be surprising, but moms are well-aware of TV’s huge presence in kids’ lives and its powerful ability to shape attitudes and desires.  At the same time, interactions with their child’s nurses or doctors are generally quite brief and in a sterile setting. 5

Kids’ preferences are similar.  Moms are #1.  Teachers and TV also rate highly.  But, “nurse/doctors” actually rate #2.  While this may reflect deference to their authority, kids are also probably factoring in the role that their school nurse plays in their school’s health curriculum.  2



Nutritional education needs to be age-appropriate

Despite who does the educating, it is critical to ensure that it is developmentally appropriate. While this may seem obvious, many educational efforts and messaging are not geared towards kids.  Our research clearly shows that kids do not understand most of the popular nutritional claims made by food and beverage products.  The reason is simple.  They lack the vocabulary.  Words like “artificial”, “preservatives”, “additives” or “sodium” are unfamiliar to them.  3,4

From 6 to 11, there are also huge differences in children’s cognitive abilities and knowledge, which need to be taken into consideration. Younger kids (6-7/8) tend to be more literal thinkers and struggle with abstract concepts such as “healthy eating”.  To them, foods tend to be “good” or “bad” and healthy eating is mostly a matter of eating the “good foods” while avoiding the bad ones.  As kids age, their brain’s ability to understand concepts and juggle variables improves.  By the time they are 9-11 years old, they have a deeper, more nuanced understanding of “healthy eating”. Instead of classifying foods as entirely “good” or “bad”, they are able to consider them in the overall balance of their diet and lifestyle. They begin to express interest in caloric content, as they understand it’s something that is linked to becoming overweight.  And, they begin to entertain notions of how they can modify their food to “make it taste better”, but still maintain some of its health benefits (e.g., cheese sauce on vegetables, sugar on grapefruit).

Nutritional education is not necessarily motivating to kids

Thus far, we have been talking about nutrition education as pivotal in encouraging kids to eat healthy.  The assumption is that if kids know what foods are healthy, they will eat them. Or, if we teach kids to “make good choices” for eating/drinking, they will do so.  But, as many health professionals, educators, marketers and moms know, this is rarely enough.

One common recommendation for making nutrition education more meaningful to kids is to teach them about the benefits of healthy foods.  The idea is if kids understand the concrete benefits of specific foods, they will want to eat them.  Want kids to clamor for spinach?  Tell them “Spinach makes you strong”.  Unfortunately, the interchange sounds something like this:

Interviewer: “If I tell you ‘Spinach makes you strong’ or ‘Carrots are good for your eyes’, does it make you want to eat those foods?

Kids:  “No!

So, why the disconnect?  Often “bad taste” is cited.  If food doesn’t taste good, kids don’t want it.  But in our research, we also find that many of the benefits being touted, simply don’t register with kids. Yes, they want to grow up to be strong. Yes, they want to have energy, have good eyesight, run fast, play hard, avoid diabetes, have a healthy heart and so forth.  But, for the most part, these are things that kids take for granted. Kids don’t worry about these things.  Plus, many of them are not immediate enough for kids to worry about. So, while they may like learning these things, it is unlikely to impact their food choices. 3,7

Strategies to help drive kid demand for healthy foods:  Nudge, Camouflage and Play

Yet, there is reason for hope.  Aside from nutrition education, there ARE strategies that both moms and food companies can use—to help drive kid demand for healthier food and beverages.

Two strategies that are often used in the kid realm are: “making it cool” (by tactics such as celebrity endorsements) and “reward” (where kids are given prizes or benefits).  Obviously, these can be used to help drive kid demand for healthier items.   However, there are other effective strategies. Three powerful strategies that are less well-known are:  NUDGE, CAMOUFLAGE and PLAY.


One of the simplest strategies involves structuring the environment to make healthier goods/beverages more salient. The underlying premise is that people tend to be attracted to and select items that are visually prominent or the ones that are most convenient. Essentially, healthy options are made “front and center” so that kids are drawn to them. Or, they are automatically given (i.e., set as “the default”) so that kids have to make an extra effort to get non-healthy options.

Using this strategy, one can employ various tactics to make healthier options more salient to kids. Moms who place bowls of cherries or pretzels on their kitchen counter for kids to grab are using nudge.  School cafeterias that place fruit at the beginning of the lunch line or desserts on the top shelf (above the direct line of vision) are using nudge.  Grocery stores that position pre-sweetened cereals at a child’s eye level and food manufacturers that package their products in vivid colors or with a cool promotion, are using nudge. Fast food restaurants that provide fruit as a default in their kids’ meals, are also using nudge.

In all cases, the goal is simple: increase the likelihood that kids will choose healthier options by making them salient and/or setting them as the default.


The second strategy, we call “camouflage”.  This strategy usually involves “hiding” a healthy food (that kids don’t like) within another food (that kids do like).   Mixing spinach into a fruit smoothie or pureed carrots into spaghetti sauce are examples of camouflage. One retail product that successfully leverages this strategy is V8’s V-Fusion, which mixes vegetable juice with fruit juice.   Another variation involves coupling a disliked healthy food with another food or sauce that kids do like.  One of the most popular instances with moms is pairing carrots or broccoli with Ranch dip.  This combination is now  available at retail by Earthbound Farm Dippin’ Doubles Carrots and Ranch Dip.   Though simple, it “works miracles” in terms of getting kids to eat vegetables.  In fact, a recent study conducted by Temple University, found that kids 3-5 eat about 80% more vegetables when given a dip.


The third strategy involves bringing play into food.  Through our extensive work in the area of play, we know that kids are driven to play and look for opportunities to do so.  Some moms and marketers may cringe at this strategy because they envision “food fights” or “kids playing INSTEAD of eating”.  While these are legitimate concerns, we are not talking about food fights or distracting kids from eating.  Rather, we are talking about leveraging play to motivate kids to choose healthier foods.

To see evidence of this power of play in kids’ products. look no further than to some of their favorite foods—Oreos, M&Ms, Goldfish, Fruit Roll-ups, Lunchables and String Cheese.  All of these provide the opportunity for play.  Oreos offer the physical play of unscrewing them and deciding whether to eat the filling or cookie first.  M&Ms let kids count, compare, and trade different colors—or create colorful tongues to show off. Goldfish can be used for fantasy play, such as fishing (where you use a peanut buttered straw to pick up the crackers).  A fruit roll-up lets kids play by unrolling it, twisting it or punching out shapes.   Lunchables allow kids to build their own sandwiches or to “play airplane” by dipping chips into nacho sauce.   String Cheese lets kids pull it apart into pieces and eat it “like worms”.

While most of these examples involve playing with the food, it’s important to note that sometimes the play can be provided through the packaging.  One example of this would be GoGurt (which kids have the fun of squeezing the yogurt out, reading jokes/trivia and sometimes pretending the tube is a snake or a light saber).  Another example is “Go Buddies” (an applesauce in a squeeze bottle with a curvy shaped body) that kids enjoy the sensation of squeezing, pretending it’s a headless body and after it’s eaten, blowing it up with air and then tossing it around or stomping on it to see if it pops.

Implications Marketers Should Consider

Food and beverage marketers should develop age-segmented nutrition education efforts, beginning with their youngest consumers (pre-school).

Marketers and companies are certainly part of the solution.  However, rather than focusing all education efforts through traditional marketing channels (television, packaging, etc.), leverage traditional influencers, including parents and teachers, to help with the nutrition education effort.

Marketers should look to employ the strategies of nudge, camouflage, and play to encourage kids to demand the healthier options.

Download full white paper [PDF]>>




1 Ogden, C.L., Carroll, M.D., Kite, B.K., & Fegal, K.M. (2012). Prevalence of obesity and trends in body mass index among U.S. children and adolescents, 1999-2010. Journal of the American Medical Association, 307 (5), 483-490.

2 KidSay Trend Tracker, Feb/March 2012

3 KidSay TMS Qualitative Research, June 2012

4 TMS Qualitative Research, July 2012

5 KidSay Trend Tracer:  2012 moms of 5-7 year olds

6 KidSay Year End Trend Tracker, 2011

7 TMS Qualitative Research, January 2011

8 KidSay Trend Tracker, 2004

9 KidSay Trend Tracker, 2007

10 KidSay Trend Tracker, April/May 2012

11 Temple University study, cited in Parent’s magazine 5/2012

Global Kids Ready to Take On The World

Ah, childhood. Often portrayed as a time of simple carefree innocence, today’s kids are being equipped to thrive in a more complex, global world.  From this global survey, we see that kids are not only highly engaged in life, but are masters of technology.  They hold “success-oriented values.”  Kids are also encouraged by their parents to develop their own opinions and exert influence.  This dynamic is especially strong in developing countries.

Kids Are Busy

Gone are the laissez-faire days of childhood.  Today’s kids are active.  When shown a list of 30 activities — ranging from reading to camping to sports and crafts — on average, global kids reported participating in 25 of them.

It’s not just the number of activities.  It’s also the fact that some of their favorite activities can be time-consuming.  For example, global kids spend an average of almost 8 hours a week on the computer.  And, among those participating in organized sports, there’s the time commitment that goes with practices, games and tournaments.

Some kids are now busy to the point where they are longing for more unstructured play time.  In fact, 92% of global kids say “I wish I had more free time to play.”

Global Kids Are Connected To and Care About the Larger World

Overall, global kids are embracing technology at high rates, using electronic entertainment and communication devices from digital cameras to newer products such as smart phones.

% of online kids (6-12) who have used electronic devices

Total Global Kids
Digital camera 93%
Handheld video game 84%
Smart phone 63%


And, kids are using them for a wide range of activities.  On their computers, activities range from “watching video clips” (83%) to doing homework (76%) to researching products (54%).  Mobile phones are used for taking pictures (88%), listening to music (73%) and recording videos (60%).  However, it’s important to note that “playing games” tops the list of popular activities.  In fact, it’s #1 for global kids on the computer and #3 on mobile phones.

Embracing technology has opened kids to a world of unlimited possibilities.  It has also made them more caring about the larger world. According to their moms, most global kids (69%) know “a lot” about what’s happening in the world.  And this world view is reflected in their wishes for the future.  When kids are asked what they’d do if they had the power to change three things in the world, few focused on their narrower, more egocentric experiences  like improving school lunch menus, more TV time or no set bedtime.  Instead, kids largely wished to change things having to do with big issues like the environment, economy, and social civility. Here’s a sampling of responses:

“Get rid of nuclear power generation.”
–Boy, 9 years, Japan

That the unemployment in my country would end.”
–Girl, 9 years, Spain

“Find a cure for cancer.”
–Girl, 11 years, UK

“Have freedom for all and world peace.”
–Boy, 8 years, Brazil

“We would stop global warming.”
–Girl, 10 years, Poland

That we could walk alone without it being dangerous.
–Boy, 11 years, Mexico


Global Kids Are Being Encouraged to Develop and Voice Their Own Opinions

In the U.S., children’s influence has grown steadily over the past decade and there’s been a significant focus on teaching kids “to make good choices.”  However, based on the global survey, we see that this not just a U.S. phenomenon. It’s worldwide.

Most moms want their kids to have opinions and to share them.  For example, 94% of Global Kids’ moms say that “It’s easier to shop when I know what my children like.” Almost as many (86%) agree that “I would like my children to tell me what products they would like.”

Accordingly, Global Kids Are Allowed to Exert a Lot of Influence On Shopping

Almost 73% of Global kids’ moms say, “My kids often help me choose what to buy.” Part of this reflects that most moms regularly take their children grocery shopping with them. But their influence extends far beyond juice boxes and breakfast cereals.  Today’s kids exert a lot of influence across many different categories. At the top of the list are items for themselves (e.g, toys, videogames and clothes).  Nearly all kids help choose these items and 20-30% of them act as the sole decision-maker.  But, they also influence many family decisions such as “choosing a fast food restaurant” and “family vacations.”

Kids in Developing Countries May Be Even Better Equipped to Take On The World

In taking a look at differences around the globe, we see that western nations are not leading the way.  Rather, kids in the developing countries appear to be the vanguards, particularly in countries like China, Brazil, Mexico and Poland.

One of the key differences is that kids in developing countries are more technology savvy and better equipped. See cell phones, for example:


Interestingly, developing countries also encourage their kids to own mobile phones from a very young age. By six years of age, at least 25% of kids in developing countries own a mobile phone (versus an average of 8% across the other countries).

We also see kids in developing countries using computers more frequently and for a wider range of activities (e.g., “chat,” “make video calls,” “watch films” and “write/read emails”).

Kids in Developing Countries Are More Globally Aware

According to their moms, kids in developing countries (with the exception of Poland) appear to be a little more in touch with the larger world.  For example, they are more likely to agree with the notion that “My child knows a lot about what’s happening in the world today,” and feel that “children are growing up too fast.”


% of global kids’ moms who agree with statement



Furthermore, kids in developing countries are more likely to hold values often associated with “a drive for success.” Kids in all of these countries also value “traveling around the world,” more than those in non-developing countries.

In addition…

–       Polish kids want to “be rich” and “become famous”

–       Mexican kids want to “be smart”

–       Brazilian kids are driven to “get a good education”

–       Chinese kids want to “be part of the popular crowd” and “have a special talent”

Moms in Developing Countries Tend to Encourage Kid Influence More

According to moms in some of the developing countries, they are more likely to let their children help them choose what to buy.   And, when we actually look at what kids tell us about their shopping dynamics, it appears to be true.

With the exception of Poland, kids in developing countries are more likely to be empowered to make their own choices across many categories.  In other words, they are the sole decision-maker.  This is especially true in China.  A few of these categories are shown below.

% kids say “I choose”

Total Global Kids Poland Mexico Brazil China
Toys 47% 43% 65% 51% 67%
Computer/video games 31% 27% 40% 41% 33%
My mobile phone 19% 17% 33% 24% 33%


Furthermore, kids in developing countries have more of their own money to spend.  The biggest difference is for China, where kids receive almost twice as much money for their weekly allowance ($9.30  versus $5.80).


Marketing to this generation in developing countries will require increased discipline and expertise.  An “anything goes,” less sophisticated approach will not work for these kids who are worldly, technologically savvy, critical to many purchase decisions, and have money of their own to spend (a dream for many marketers).  In addition, parents (and soon stakeholders including government organizations, teachers, and nonprofits) require marketing to their children to be done responsibly. They will (and should) continue to push back on approaches that seem unfair, unsafe, or unnecessary.

Around the globe, kids are not only exposed to more things today, but they also participate in an unprecedented number of leisure and entertainment activities.  Brands must understand how they stack up in kids’ lives and in their minds and why they should even be considered.

World issues, like the economy, social issues, and the environment are not lost on today’s kids. Companies and brands that show how they are solutions to some of these issues can win the hearts and minds of these kids and potentially provide additional social cache.  However, given kids’ exposure to the world, these efforts and sponsorships must be authentic and consistent with other company or brand actions.

There is a broader family buying machine to consider when marketing products and services that are consumed by a member (or members) of a family.  Not only does this affect the audience that marketers should be talking to, and when, but also the messages that are conveyed as family members have distinct considerations, motivations, and barriers.

Leaving kids out when thinking about how purchase decisions are made in the household is ill-advised, even in categories that might seem within the parents’ domain.  More than ever, parents around the globe (especially evident in developing countries) are tapping into their kids’ opinions to help make many of the household purchases.

The Gender Gap is Disappearing

The Declining Gender Gap

When it comes to gender differences, how much is “nature” versus “nurture”?  Are girls naturally more attuned to domestic life, while boys are more adventurous?  While these notions may persist in parts of adult culture, many of these differences are now viewed as “stereotypes” or “gender roles” (amenable to change rather than “hard-wired”) and in some countries there have been efforts to combat this. So do they define today’s kids?

With the exception of a few holdouts in play with traditional toys, this survey reveals that the gender gap is closing when it comes to values/aspirations, technology and leisure.

Values: For the most part, boys and girls want the same things in life.

“Girls are into family, friends, being nice and school, while boys are more competitive and adventurous.” Stereotypes? Apparently so. When asked to select the “3 things that are most important to them” (from a list of 15), both boys and girls across the globe select:

#1 Being a happy family”.

#2 “Having lots of friends”

#3 “ Being a nice person”.

The only difference was that girls wanted them slightly more.

Both also highly valued “being smart” and “getting a good education”.  However, there were a few  differences in some of the less dominant values (that are consistent with gender stereotypes). The biggest differences:  boys were more interested in “being good at sports”, “being rich” and “inventing something new”, while girls were more interested in “having a special talent”.

Looking just at the U.S., we see a very similar pattern.  One noteworthy difference, however, was that for U.S. kids, there was no gender gap for “happy family”.  Both boys and girls equally value “being a happy family”.

% Global Kids Choosing “Their Top 3″ Values


Technology: Boys aren’t the only “tech heads” anymore.

The survey shows usage of electronic devices is very similar for girls and boys – the difference is generally as little as 1-2%. When it comes to embracing technology, boys are more into gaming (handheld gaming devices and consoles), while music appeals more to girls. But that gap is closing, thanks to more girl-friendly video game titles and the Nintendo Wii.

Personal ownership of electronic devices shows a similar pattern.  On average, boys and girls own about the same number of devices (4.2 items on a global basis for both genders; in the U.S. girls own slightly more (5 items) than boys (4.5 items).  And, there are no gender differences in the types of devices they own, except boys are more likely to own game consoles, while girls own more music players (MP3/iPods, stereos, CD players) and digital cameras.


% of Global Kids Who Personally Own Devices – By Gender



Digital Activities: Girls and boys generally do the same things.

Both girls and boys use the computer for a wide array of activities, especially entertainment (playing games and watching videos). Debunking the stereotype, boys are not more sophisticated on the computer. However, they are more inclined to experiment with more functions on their mobile phones. Boys will try GPS mapping, downloading apps, and social networking, but there are few gender differences for the more popular functions (e.g, playing games, taking/sending pictures, making calls, listening to music).


% of Global Kids Who Do Mobile Phone Activity – By Gender


Restrictions on technology:  Parents are fairly egalitarian when it comes to imposing restrictions on their child’s technology use.

Overall, parents are imposing a number of restrictions on kids in their use of technology—mostly in terms of online shopping, downloading apps and communications (e.g., social networking, chatting). While girls appear to be directionally more restricted than their male counterparts in a few areas, for the most part parents are treating them the same.

Interestingly, here, the U.S. is a bit of an anomaly.  While parents aren’t more restrictive with girls for computers; they do tend to be more restrictive when it comes to sharing photos/videos, downloading apps, using GPS and connecting to the internet from their mobile phone.


Money:  When it comes to pocket money, girls have nearly closed the “wage gap”

Overall, boys and girls are on a level “paying” field. On average, the weekly allowance is $5.66 for girls and $5.93 for boys. There is also no gender difference among “low earners” and “high earners”.  Girls and boys are equally likely to receive $0 weekly allowance (33% versus 34%, respectively) or the top weekly allowance of $16+ (6% versus 7%, respectively).  This pattern is not only global, but true in the U.S.– a land where “equal pay for women” is still an issue.


Activities:   Kids are moving beyond gendered roles and activities.

 It’s no longer just girls that shop and boys that camp.

Looking at what activities kids do in their free time, we see that many of the traditionally female activities (such as shopping, cooking and gardening) are being done by lots of boys.  Similarly, a number of stereotypical male activities (such as camping, playing a sport, outdoor activities like fishing or hiking, video gaming) are being done by lots of girls.

Only two of the activities (out of 30) where there were significant gender differences were:  pampering (still mostly for girls) and skateboarding (still mostly for boys).


% Global Kids Doing Activity – By Gender


Girls and boys also LIKE to do many of the same things.

When asked about favorite activities, the top ones were very similar.

                                             Boys                                          Girls

#1 favorite            Playing Video Games                 Watching TV

#2 favorite                   Watching TV                          Swimming

#3 favorite          Playing on the Internet       Playing on the Internet


While girls are less likely to play a sport (82% for girls vs. 90% for boys) or participate in organized sports (55% for girls vs. 69% for boys), this gap is less than many of us would expect.  Plus, their top 3 favorite sports are the same.

                                             Boys                                         Girls

#1 favorite                     Swimming                              Swimming

#2 favorite                 Football/Soccer                          Cycling

#3 favorite                       Cycling                             Football/Soccer


And, there are few differences in the more popular sports that kids play (for pleasure).  The only sports with noticeable gender differences are:

-Boys are more likely to do:  football/soccer, skateboarding, basketball and marital arts

-Girls are more likely to do: ice skating and gymnastics

Within the U.S. we see very similar patterns (in terms of activities), with the exception that the gap in sports participation is bigger. Girls are much less likely to play sports for leisure than boys in the U.S. However, in organized sports, it is comparable to that found globally.

The big holdout:  Traditional toys are still strongly gendered

One place where we see significant gender differences is in traditional toys.  There are still BIG differences in what toys kids like to play with—despite all the moms who have thrust baby dolls at their boys and Hot Wheels at their girls.


Top 3 Favorite Toy Categories – By Gender

Interestingly, these differences are very consistent around the world, though the gaps are bigger in some countries than others.


Overall country differences

While there are some differences in specific responses for specific countries in this study, the general patterns discussed in terms of gender differences are true across the board.


Implications for marketers

Many of these traditional gender stereotypes are simply not holding up across the globe with this group, and failure to understand that could lead to brand alienation. It’s important to be cognizant not to assume gender stereotypes with communications and activations targeted to today’s global kids.

Products that have broad youth appeal across genders have the opportunity to tap into insights and possibly communicate in a way that works for both boys and girls.

Technology mediums are going to be critical to reach BOTH boys and girls going forward – from gaming platforms to smartphones.  However, these are choppy waters to tread as many parents are limiting the exposure to, or are concerned with, the specific ways brands communicate with their kids through these channels.

The way to capture the attention of both boys and girls in the digital arena (and beyond) is through play.  Gamifying communications and content will not only increase awareness but also retention and shareability as well.

Global youth brands appealing to both boys and girls may have an opportunity to efficiently and effectively support, sponsor, and activate around activities such as swimming, football (American soccer), and cycling.