Seen but not heard? Hardly. In the year 2000 children in the Western world wield considerable spending power, much of it devoted to food and drink. From product development through packaging and advertising, manufacturers have an eye to the smaller consumer and are playing to this market. But not everyone is happy, with public health bodies calling for full and consistent nutritional labelling and more positive marketing of healthy products. Catherine Sleep reports.

Thirty years ago, children were barely considered as a marketing target in the food sector. Infant formula had made an impact, and baby food was emerging as a dynamic niche but that was where the market ebbed away. Children graduated from baby food to small portions of adult food, and only the avoidance of stereotypically ‘grown-up’ foods such as steak in favour of fish fingers and sausages set young diners apart from their elder counterparts.

But this has changed – there is now a broad swathe of food products developed specifically to attract children. Kids in many parts of the developed world have cultivated extremely discriminating palates and manufacturers have dreamt up entire ranges of core food products and snacks to tempt them.

Marketing Food & Drink to Kids, a new report produced by Datamonitor for Reuters Business Insight, explains that growth in spending on food and drink as a whole has been sluggish in recent years. With consumers preferring to channel their increased disposable income into luxury items and travel, food manufacturers have latched on to any niche market that has shown above-average growth rates. Some have focused on organics, while others have sought higher margins via functional or ethnic foods, but many have targeted the young market. For some this meant developing new products, such as Golden Vale‘s Cheestrings (sold under the Black Diamond label by Ault Foods in Canada), while others have extended or modified existing brands to include products that appeal to the younger market.

Empowerment of the minors

Children are not only influencing the food purchases made by their parents and guardians; they now have spending power of their own. Weekly pocket money given by parents to their offspring has increased at a rate well above inflation, and the spending power of today’s children, tweens (pre-teens – eight to twelve year olds) and teens is not inconsiderable.

Much of the discretionary pocket money children spend directly on food goes on snack products they consume while out of the home. This has stimulated growth in products suitable for consumption on the hoof, such as the countline bars introduced to complement breakfast cereals, for instance Kellogg‘sFrosties. It has also been a driving force behind the growth of confectionery sales. In the US, for example, kids currently account for or influence US$2bn of annual spending on chocolate and sugar confectionery alone.

Meanwhile, their parents still purchase food and ingredients for core meals – not, however, that parents remain uninfluenced by their offspring when doing the weekly shop. On the contrary, traditionally the preserve of the woman in the house, food purchasing decisions are now made by the whole family. While men perhaps remain reluctant supermarket shoppers (for more information on men and shopping Click Here), children have entered the purchasing arena in style and often exercise an almost dictatorial influence on the contents of the weekly shopping trolley.

Healthy yet cool – HOW?

The Reuters Business Insight report outlines a bipartite purchasing process and suggests that the winners in the children’s food sector will be products that appeal to both parents and children. However, it is notoriously difficult to please both parties. What would appear to be a sensible way of circumventing this problem is the launch of products that are healthy but branded in ‘cool’ packaging. The classic example of a brand that juggled this successfully is Procter & Gamble‘s Sunny Delight. Children wanted it enough to pester their parents for it, and parents were happy to buy it, requested and unrequested. It had funky packaging and was marketed in the chiller cabinet alongside juices – nutritionists soon told us that it contained relatively little juice and high levels of sugar, but on the surface at least it strikes the happy balance.

And it’s a balancing act that is terribly hard to sustain. For ‘cool’ is almost impossible to define and changes imperceptibly as children grow older. Barney the Dinosaur yoghurts may be all very well for three and four year olds, but ten year olds could be mortified to find one in their lunchbox.

The report demonstrates the main factors driving new product development (NPD) in children’s food products. The table below shows the results of a survey in which respondents were asked to rate five key trends driving NPD in children’s food.

As seen, novelty was rated the most important, indicating the extent to which children’s preferences of factors such as colours, shapes and themes dominate specific brands aimed at them. Yet while the driving motivation behind product positioning for children is fun, by the time they reach their teens or even tweens, the issue of health emerges. For better or worse, young girls are increasingly body conscious and many choose food items that will help them slim or maintain weight loss. More generally, the report predicts that health benefit-led product launches will become more frequent in the sector.

A load of old junk…..?

A great deal of criticism has been aimed at children’s products, much of it justified. Many products aimed at the younger market contain astonishingly high levels of sugar and saturated facts. Organisations in many countries are calling for tighter legislation on food marketing aimed at children.

In the UK, a number of the major alcoholic beverage producers have signed up to a voluntary code of ethics drawn up by the Portman Group. The code commits signatories to responsible marketing methods that will not encourage children to consume alcohol, and to the development of clear packaging and labelling. The Food Commission is calling for a similar code in the food sector, whereby manufacturers would commit to full nutritional labelling with consistent nutrition details. Following a survey which found that for every healthy product targeted specifically at children, there were ten ‘nutritional disasters,’ the Commission is also calling for increased positive marketing of healthy products and the reformulation of recipes to improve nutritional content (why do some children’s yoghurt products contain far more sugar than the regular yoghurt produced by the same manufacturer?). The Food Commission would like to see these steps become mandatory, and the government introduce stricter controls on advertising to children.

Who’s responsible – manufacturers or parents? asked Alan White, vice president of Andalan Confections, the group behind edo edible dough, to respond to criticism that food manufacturers are putting children’s’ health at risk. White stressed the importance of labelling ethics, saying that manufacturers have a responsibility to provide high quality goods that are accurately represented by the labelling and advertising. High-sugar candy is great for quick bursts of energy in between mealtimes, but should never be masked as ‘health products,’ he clarified. White added that it is ultimately down to parents, and not manufacturers, to make sure that their kids eat a balanced diet.

And that is what many parents try to do. To some extent, the battle between food manufacturers and public health experts is being played out between parents and children. Responsible parents desire that their children eat healthy food, but kids are all too often tempted by food products high in sugar and unsaturated fats. A twist here, of course, is that some parents fail to lead by example, as obesity rates prove, and that is why the British Nutrition Foundation and the US Department of Agriculture stress the importance of nutritional education on the school syllabus.

For surely responsibility is at the heart of the matter – while parents have responsibility to their children, manufacturers have responsibility towards both consumers and shareholders. It is their duty to generate value for their investors by whatever ethical means are at their disposal. And believes this doesn’t need to be a paradox. With an effort of imagination and assistance from parents and schools, healthy products can be made to appeal to kids. And it’s essential that they do – our nation’s health is at stake.

By Catherine Sleep, Managing Editor,

To learn more about the report Marketing Food & Drink to Kids or to order it from the Knowledge Store, Click Here.

We at appreciate that our readers are international, and in one short article we cannot hope to cover the legislation governing marketing food to children in many different countries around the world. That’s why this article addresses some of the broader issues involved. If you’d like to relate your ideas on marketing food to children, or explain how this is regulated in your country, please send the editor a mail at:

Related links:
British Nutritional Foundation
Food Commission
Procter & Gamble
Sunny Delight
Edo manufactured by Andalan Confections
Kellogg’s Frosties