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The Mouths of Babes: Firms Tap Kids For Ideas On New Product

Chicago Tribune — Tempo (10/8/1998)

By Terry McManus

On one side of the observation mirror at a Chicago market-research firm, everyone has a bowl of Lucky Charms. The first person to fling a handful of cereal across the room, hitting people in the face, sparks a food fight. Some get doused with milk.

On the opposite side of the glass, meanwhile, another group is brainstorming about product ideas. They sketch concepts on sheets of paper and offer critiques of existing product lines.

Afterward, the adults scrape the cereal from their faces. It’s time for them to begin analyzing the ideas developed by the eight kids they were just watching.

The session is part of a process called “kideation®” — a play on the word ideation — in which Doyle Research Associates, a Chicago firm, taps children to brainstorm product ideas for corporate America.

Johann Wachs, an account executive with New York’s Saatchi & Saatchi ad agency, took part in this particular kideation session last year, which was devoted to Lucky Charms. In the observation booth, Wachs and his colleagues munched on the cereal as they watched the kids at work. That’s when things got ugly.

“We were watching the kids and being inspired by them,” recalls Wachs, laughing. “We caused such havoc there — it was wonderful.”

Getting in touch with your inner urchin sounds like fun, but what is it supposed to accomplish? Officials at Doyle and their clients respond that out of such chaos flow usable suggestions. They contend, furthermore, that kideation spurs creativity in adults as well as the children.

In other words, companies that market products to young audiences have hit on a novel way to find out what kids like and dislike: qualitative research in the 1950s and ’60s on any household item, including stuff for the kids, began and ended with the lady of the house.

“Interviewers used to visit the home and talk to the wife/mother about how products were used,” says Carole Schmidt, a senior researcher with Doyle. “Kids weren’t looked at as a serious product market until the ’70s.”

Now, however, thanks to an exploding youth market, “products and services aimed at children are rarely launched without some idea of how, in a very literal way, they’ll play to their respective targets,” says Tom McGee, a vice president for Doyle.

During a typical kideation session, a small group of 9- to 12-year-olds plays with a product as an adult moderator in the room eggs them on, eliciting as many product-improvement ideas as possible. In one example, which Doyle videotaped, the children were inspecting a bicycle.

“How can we make this bike more fun and beautiful?” the moderator asked.

“Put rainbow colors on the wheel,” a girl suggested. “Put water inside the frame,” chimed in another. “You could give it a motor,” a boy shouted.

As the kids play, clients observe the activities. Keeping up with the high-pitched creativity can be a challenge, as the adults scribble notes furiously. But it’s not all business behind the one-way window: Doyle encourages its adult participants to act childlike, so they can experience their product as youngsters do. If a food fight breaks out, well, that’s just the price you pay for creativity. (The kid consultants typically receive $50 and dinner for each session.)

Companies that hire Doyle and other research firms pay so much attention to young people because of their buying clout. The “youth market” (encompassing 8- to 18-year-olds) today stands at about $175 billion, according to Rena Karl, editor of The Marketing to Kids Report, a California-based industry newsletter.

Teens are the fastest-growing consumer segment, with expansion predicted until 2010, notes Chris Efken, vice president of custom research for Northbrook-based Teenage Research Unlimited. “It’s all the Boomers’ kids growing up,” she explains.

Those children not only have their own disposable income, but also directly influence their parents’ buying habits, even when it comes to expensive items. “The kids are more computer savvy than their parents are,” says McGee, “so in some instances you have the parents deferring to the kids.”

Marketers not only ask children to fine-tune existing products or prototypes, they urge them to dream up entirely new products and marketing concepts. And it’s not just toy companies soliciting help, either. Organizations as diverse as Microsoft, Murray Bicycles, General Mills and the American Cancer Society have all recently lent their ear to youngsters.

Among research firms seeking kids’ input, methods vary. The Philadelphia market research company KID2KID, for example, uses a series of questions to hone the design features of products, labels and advertising materials.

Children participating in KID2KID sessions may be asked to look at a product, a label or a package and to personify it — that is, to describe the object as if it were a person. Among the written questions the children answer might be: “If this label were a person, how tall would it be?” Other questions elicit its hair and eye color, gender — even its hobbies. Gradually, a complete image of the object emerges.

“If kids see the label as a . . . Cindy Crawford-type girl, the client needs to know that,” says KID2KID founder Ric Lipman. “Personification signals marketers how to change the label or product to make it more appealing to children in a given age group.”

Lipman says his method elicits information about the child’s emotional connection to the object that is more authentic than impressions gleaned from formal interviews. “A kid is very good at doping out what they think an adult interviewer wants them to say,” Lipman says. “Good kids give the ‘right’ answer; bad kids give the ‘wrong’ answer. We eliminate that from the equation.”

By contrast, verbalizing is a big part of kideation, though Doyle, like KID2KID, favors free-form participation over standard interviews.

“Kids haven’t been around long enough to squelch their own creativity,” says Lynn Kaladjian, the firm’s director of marketing and sales. “They don’t know all the rules yet. Career burnout among 4th graders just doesn’t happen.”

One kideation conference held last winter for Lund & Co., a Chicago toy design studio, yielded approximately 700 product ideas in two hours. Many of the concepts were already staples of the genre, such as dolls that talk, grow hair and cry. Indeed, few of the ideas seemed remotely marketable, company founder and president Tom Lund admits, but that hardly matters.

“The session spawned a lot of insights and thoughts for us, and we were hard pressed to write them all down,” he says.

Lund adds that one kid-proffered idea could indeed make it to the design stage soon, but he — like most of Doyle’s tight-lipped clients, who don’t want to divulge specific information about product development — declines to say more about it. More important, he notes, he has instituted a kideation-style brainstorming format for his staff of toy developers. “It’s a very non-judgmental idea-generation process, and a lot of fun.”

That’s great for the client, but what about the youngster who came up with the suggestion? Should a child who hits on a moneymaking idea receive more than dinner and 50 bucks?

Parents of the young consultants seemed to have no qualms about the fee arrangement.

“If my son said to me, ‘Gee, I should have made all the money that Hasbro’s making on my idea,’ I think I would explain to him that there’s a lot more beyond just the original idea,” says Bonnie Bomberg of Highland Park, whose son, Ian, 12, consults for kideation. “A lot goes on that he wouldn’t have been capable of doing. So, he can just be satisfied that he came up with a good idea.”

Marge Cipperoni, a Hawthorn Woods mother whose son, Gino, 11, also participates, echoes those sentiments. “At that age,” she says, “kids have no concept of money, anyway. To them, $50 is a lot. Besides, it’s something different. They don’t get this kind of expression at school, I don’t think.”

“I have used Doyle Research on numerous occasions, and have found the team to be knowledgeable, creative in recommending solutions for qualitative that works, able to turn on a dime when we needed it. We’ve had solid results and some highly insightful analysis that opened business partner eyes to some things they didn’t know but needed to.”

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