By Kelly Pate Dwyer
Kids learn about brands from many sources, chiefly their parents, followed by friends and television ads, according to The Natural Foods Merchandiser's consumer research survey. But when it comes to natural, organic or "healthy" brands, parents— by a wide margin— believe they command the lead over other channels of information.
That suggests natural and organic players need to stand out among a wide range of choices kids, and ultimately their parents, have at the grocery store. Food producers have plenty of incentive, considering that some grown-ups start buying natural and organic brands—or boost their overall consumption—once they have babies.
In the survey, consumers were asked to rate which information sources they thought have a strong, moderate, small or no effect on kids' brand awareness. For conventional brands, 68.8 percent of respondents said parents have a "strong effect" on kids' brand awareness. That number was 79.2 percent for natural/organic products. From there, the differences were dramatic.
The percentage of consumers who rated the following categories as having a "strong effect" were:
"Product packaging could be an area in which naturals brands do as much as their conventional counterparts to engage and interest kids," wrote Sherwood Smith, lead researcher at Avero Research, which conducted the survey. But, he concluded, "This does not appear to be happening."
Packaging may be the most significant marketing vehicle for reaching kids, though some experts challenge the validity of the survey research. Asking parents what affects their kids is different than asking the kids, says Kevin Williams, brand strategist with Pure Branding Inc. in Leverett, Mass.
Williams and others, including Ted Mininni, president of Design Force Inc. in Marlton, N.J., and Charlie Wollborg, "chief troublemaker" with integrated marketing firm Curve Detroit, point to several key elements that make a product stand out to kids: color, package shape, simplicity of design and the use of favorite cultural references. And then a package has to provide a minimal amount of attention-grabbing product information that convinces a discriminating parent it's a worthy product.
Natural and organic food producers have their work cut out for them, starting with disadvantages on a few levels. For starters, "Natural and organic products are likely to be less popular with kids, since by their very nature they appear to be tasteless, dull and lacking in fun and overall appeal," Mininni says. "Pop culture and peers push candy, snacks, soft drinks."
And when it comes to exposure at the supermarket, smaller producers can't compete with the Kellogg's and Krafts of the world on endorsements, like those of Shrek, Dora the Explorer or Barry from Bee Movie, and on securing prime shelf space—eye level for the kid "driving" the race-car shopping cart.
Fortunately for food producers, conventional grocers are expanding natural and organic product selections, so many kid foods like cereal, snacks and packaged pasta are coming back to their respective aisles (and to kid eye level) from the "natural foods" aisle. Even so, "Conventional does a better job of perpetuating the â€˜nag factor,' " Williams says. "The graphics are set up to be very exciting and stimulating. Conventional products have mastered that."
Within the natural and organic subset of cereals, several, including Cascadian Farm Organic's Clifford Crunch and Nature's Path EnviroKidz Organic Koala Crisp, are obviously competing for kids' attention with familiar characters, cuddly animals and bright colors.
But the second half of the equation is winning over gatekeepers, says Williams, who a decade ago worked for the team at Pepperidge Farm that repositioned the company's famed Goldfish crackers from cocktail snack to "wholesome" kids' snack. Goldfish aren't natural or organic, but the claim that they're wholesome (an admittedly vague term, Williams notes) was backed with this: "Made with real cheese. Baked not fried."
"What we did is appeal to mom's sense of doing the right thing," he says. Resulting sales increased by six times over five years.
Marketing experts we talked to all pointed to Annie's Homegrown as a naturals brand that's hit the mark with kids and parents alike.
First, it's positioned itself correctly. "They've capitalized on the success of the conventional," Williams says. Annie's made a natural alternative to one of kids' favorite foods: Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. And its Bunnies crackers are the natural alternative to, ironically, Pepperidge Farm Goldfish.
As packaging goes, Annie's has steered clear of the ubiquitous green fields and leaves that say "natural" or "organic" to adults, and instead adopted kid-friendly designs with colors, text style and simplicity: one vivid background color, minimal wording and, of course, Bernie the rabbit. What few words appear on the box are short messages to parents, like "Made with real cheese," "No hydrogenated oils" or "Made with organic pasta."
What's more, the back of each Annie's box asks kids to go to the company Web site, and that's where things can pay off, says Mininni, who suggests packaging tie into all of a company's marketing and branding efforts. "Packaging needs to draw kids to well-designed Web sites so they can have an interactive experience with these brands." Some sites provide games, images to print and color, or educational information. Kids "learn neat stuff on the site while being entertained. Kids respond to this," he says.
And when the interactive experience is fun, kids tell their friends.
"The endorsement of the leaders in kids' peer groups fan the flames of excitement, acceptance and, consequently, sales for these products," Mininni says.
Adds Wollborg of Curve Detroit: "Lunch time is the social nerve center at schools. Friends see what other kids are eating and they trade items. Make sure your individual packaging is remarkable and trade-worthy."
The Nature's Path EnviroKidz cereals have tied their look to a cause. Each package features one animal, such as a koala, panda or gorilla, in the wild. Games on the back of the box direct kids to the company Web site, where they can play games and learn, along with their parents, that the company donates 1 percent of annual sales to endangered species protection, habitat conservation and environmental education for kids. Relevant cultural tie-ins pay off as well, marketers say, so that the familiar faces grab kids' attention at the grocery store—and make whole-grain, low-sugar, unprocessed snacks appear more desirable.
Kelly Pate Dwyer is a Denver-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 5/p. 26,28