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Branding and babies

December 30th, 2003 · No Comments

What your children can teach you about marketing….

I confess I’m not an expert in marketing or advertising. I did take a course during my studies in Non Profit Management at San Jose State and I found that I liked it. I enjoyed using what I had learned for a little while working at my job until my daughter was born.

Now though I’m getting plenty of lessons in marketing from my girls. Another confession is that I try to avoid exposing the children to lots of advertising or using specific brand names. I’m not fond of branding and despite advertising’s lure, I refuse to find my identity in image, or to define myself as someone who buys Dole pineapple or Old Navy fleece. I’ll buy whatever is the best choice, and if it’s good I’ll buy it again. But often in our home what we enjoy is generic, organic or second hand, whatever the grocery store has on sale as the best deal, or whatever the consignment shop has to offer in our sizes or whatever handmedowns don’t have holes. And I don’t want my girls hung up on what a label says. I want them to make educated choices apart from marketing and conformity. Also I want them to be happy with what they have and grateful for the goodness in any gift. Even as kids I want them to be content with whatever we have to eat, wear or drive, not upset that it doesn’t say Breyer’s or Baby Gap or BMW.

The girls in general aren’t exposed to much advertising anyway. If I listen to a radio station for a while, they do start reciting the commercials – even the urls “www….” But radio isn’t as powerful as television’s appeal with visual imagery.

About the only TV they see is figure skating, mostly on ABC. So they do know all those advertisers who buy time during the skating season. And Abigail and Michaela can probably tell you about “The Power of Red” although they probably think it is more about tossing paint and bouncing on a bed than eating Smart Ones pizza. It’s interesting to see which commercials they appreciate most. If they can remember it, that probably indicates that the advertisers had some success. Although some commercials are a bit more obscure, at least to children. Abigail could tell you about the pictures, music and images, that she likes the family with four little girls, the funny music coming out of a car, the mom and baby playing together, or the silly singing and dancing store employee, but I don’t know if she could tell you what State Farm is, what to do with a Chevy Malibu, what Oil of Olay is, or what kind of store Marshall’s is. I’m not sure she’s even remembering the brand names from these TV commercials. I don’t know what it would be like if she were actually watching commercials that had been created for children! Those advertising images, jingles and jangles, are pretty powerful stuff!

But now that Abigail’s learning to read, branding is becoming more difficult to avoid: she can read boxes and labels even if I don’t read them to her. The other day Michaela got up and announced to me that her “new” sweatshirt is “Old Navy. It says Old Navy.” I don’t know how she noticed – unless she’s already recognizing letter patterns but I suspect her older sister read it to her. Even though I refer to our vehicle as “van”, the girls like to call it by its model name, reading the silver letters on the back door, even proclaming it to the neighbors!

Even so I was surprised the other day when Abigail at lunch said, “After we eat these, then we can have a Sunkist.” A Sunkist?! What kind of fruit is that?! It’s satsuma season and I’ve collected a few boxes of these seedless mandarins around the house. But I’ve never referred to them as Sunkist. I’d say “mandarin” or “orange” or even “satsuma”. But not Sunkist.

Abigail though can read, and read she did. That’s what the box says, Sunkist.


And note too the logo: kids love them!
Interesting to analyze this box – no wonder Abigail thinks I am buying Sunkist fruit – the brand name Sunkist is larger than the description of the contents, in fact, at least in this picture of the box, I don’t even see the word “mandarin” or “satsuma” on the box, just “seasonal specialties” in small letters…I’m sure those marketing types manufactured that specifically….

Even as I was typing this up around lunch time, Abigail spied a box of crackers, reading their “snack” suggestions, and began asking me when we could eat what was advertised on the back of the box: peanut butter with chocolate candies on such a cracker…

Such are our challenges, striving to bring up brand-blind babies in an image-conscious world immersed in marketing…where little girls think Sunkist is a kind of citrus!

Another aspect of children and marketing is how we as parents choose to brand our babies. Sounds crude, but that’s the kind of culture in our country right now: create your child’s identity by what you buy for her. What do we select for our children? How do we shape a child’s identity with our purchases and plans?

The marketing is beginning before birth, with images and projected values associated with a range of products, from bottles and teething cookies to baby clothes to toys and then in the older years moving on into experiences, classes and education.

School, of course, is the biggest brand for kids in our society today. (Sports probably plays a close second, but it is also linked to school and to the desire for scholarships) With college now so competitive, but also a stepping stone for the rest of life, and arguably one of the more permanent brandings, parents start early, even prior to preschool, seeking to find the right educational route that will give their kids the best advantage for admission into the coveted and costly universities. Many families spend lots of money and even go into debt so that their kids can go to private school. Or another option is to move to a community that has better public schools. It’s a label that can last for a lifetime, as the schools are only too happy to claim.

Here on the island, Bainbridge High School has a reputation for being one of the best schools in the region, if not the state, as based on test scores and other parameters, most recently measured and compared in the Seattle Times School Guide. Schools are one of the main reasons many families move to the island. Education is a high priority in our community, many parents are professionals with graduate degrees, and the test scores – and housing prices – reflect that concern and commitment.

Now a new high school has started on the island: Eagle Harbor High School, as reported by the Review. It’s a smaller school, 70 students, with more of a focus on independent learning, autonomy, opportunities for participation, apprenticeships and community service. A third come from homeschooling while another third come from the island’s Odyssey multiage program and the rest from private and public schools.

But with Bainbridge High School being the brand that it is, which parents will want to risk their children going to a school with new and unknown reputation? Who will trade a powerful and polished identity for a blank brand? Which high school, if any, will our family choose?

I saw in the newspaper also that Bainbridge High School has recently acquired an electron microscope (the only one in the state and one of only five public high schools in the country to do so). For this biologist mom, the thought of such a resource would tilt me towards sending my kids there…but then again that might not be what my kids need to do….I’m grateful we still have many years before we have to make that decision, before we have to choose what high school label our kids will wear along with the other labels on their clothes and lunch…

Tags: family