What do kids really want? Rainbow-coloured food in zany packaging and ever more bizarre f lavours? Not according to the panel of 12 and 13-year-olds at the Food for Kids conference. Nick Hughes reports
Marketing food to kids is a thankless task these days. Less than a week after the Food Standards Agency stood its ground on the punitive Nutrient Profiling Model, consumer group Which? gave manufacturers a further kick in the proverbials, accusing them of cynically evading guidelines on advertising. Marketers could be forgiven for throwing in the towel here and now. But all is not lost. At a recent Food for Kids conference hosted by Leatherhead Food International, a posse of marketers, brand managers, product developers and nutritionists were granted access to the ultimate consumer panel – a room full of articulate 12 and 13-year-olds discussing their favourite foods.

In amongst the predictable homage to McDonald’s, KFC, Coca-Cola and Krispy Kreme were some responses that had the audience nodding their heads in approval. Melon, parma ham, dried mixed fruit and sparkling water were greeted with enthusiasm and a hint of surprise. But it was the question of which of their dietary needs were not being met that had industry pundits scrabbling for their pens.

The kids took to their subject with relish, taking the industry to task on everything from portion sizes to breaktime snacks, smelly fish to boring bread, real fruit to tedious health claims (see over). The responses were intriguing and begged some pertinent questions. Do manufacturers understand children? Are their eating habits evolving and, most importantly of all, are kids getting the food they want?

Bryan Urbick, head of the Consumer Knowledge Centre, who chaired the conference, doesn’t think they are.
“I don’t think marketers fully understand the psychology of kids,” he says. “Anyone listening only to speakers at conferences would assume that ‘new’ and ‘different’ is what young people are all about. Popular belief is that everything we offer to young people needs to be radically innovative and different. In the real world, though, this doesn’t play out. There are other factors that are involved in young people’s choices, and a very important aspect to understand and deal with is neophobia: the fear of ‘new’.”

Urbick has dedicated his career to understanding what makes children tick, and feels that the big brand owners often don’t take advantage of arguably their most valuable resource.

“I don’t think kids are used enough at the early stages of product development. For sure marketers understand that taste and packaging are vital – which they are – but more than that kids have to engage with the product and feel comfortable with it.

“Kids are innately afraid of new foods. When presented with something new and unknown and something old, they will tend to revert to familiar flavours, forms and brands.”

The challenge for manufacturers, he claims, is to present foods in an accessible way that makes them seem familiar. When the group was asked to name the ultimate food or drink product for kids their age, one brand stood out above all others.

“Innocent is a brand that has great clarity and although when it launched smoothies were a relatively new concept for kids, it managed to speak to them in the right tone,” says Urbick.

“Innocent is great at talking about things, like using whole fruit and saving the environment, but doing so in a way that kids are taught at school and can therefore relate to. Sometimes kids didn’t like the taste of the smoothies at first but the connection with the brand was strong enough that they felt it was familiar, even if it took time to adjust to the taste.”

While many manufacturers consult parents during the product development phase, Innocent went straight to its target customer.

“We got out there and talked to kids from a local school about what they wanted in terms of packaging and recipes that appealed to them, hence our kids smoothies are a little bit thinner and don’t have bits in them,” says Jo Simmonds, head of brands at Innocent.

“Where the kids really connect with the brand is the packaging, the simple fun imagery. We also put pictures of fruits where they are visible on the packaging. Some companies try and hide the fact they’ve stuck vegetables inside but kids latch onto this and are cynical about it.”

Indeed, packaging is crucial to the success of a children’s product. Urbick has observed distinct differences between how girls and boys react to packaging. Girls, he says, are attracted to words and will focus in on a strapline before looking at the packaging in more detail. Conversely, boys are unconcerned with literature and their attention is captured by bold, brightly coloured packaging. 

Simmonds clearly understands her market. Among the reasons offered by the kids for choosing Innocent as their powerhouse brand were “great packaging”, “fun”, “games on back” and, most revealingly, “healthy”. According to Urbick this isn’t kids responding under duress but an indication of a genuine shift in their mentality.

“Kids are becoming more and more aware of the need to eat healthily,” he notes. “The current 13 and 14-year-olds are the first age group to have received free fruit in schools from a young age.”

But there are certain rules that should be followed when selling healthy food to kids, he suggests.
Children don’t respond to health information put in a scientific way or messages about high cholesterol. On the contrary, such things may even reduce their interest in products. Kids do, however, respond to images that they associate with health, for example, pictures of whole fruits or vegetables as Innocent, which prints pictures of fruits on its drink bottles, has found out.

Crucially, the product still has to deliver on the taste front. “In many ways, manufacturers are starting to deliver the products kids want,” says Urbick. “But when the whole focus is on health at the expense of great taste you’ve got problems. If they try a product low in fat and it tastes bad, then there’s a barrier to the next purchase.”

Paul Lindley, who founded the £5m Ella’s Kitchen brand in 2004, set out with the intention of creating a healthy brand for kids, inspired by kids. Like Jo Simmonds, he stresses the need to go straight to the source.
“We made sure we involved kids from the very start of the development process. It started with a small band of Ella’s friends in our kitchen and we just played around with some recipes for smoothies. There were a lot of ‘yucks’ and a lot of ‘greats’. Our first product was born through one of the kids saying: “I like the red one” – so The Red One was christened.

There’s a science behind repeat purchasing, believes Urbick. “Kids drive the initial purchase. After that, whether it’s bought again depends on whether the kids ate it, how quickly they ate it and with how much fuss.”
Given the high level of concern over young people’s diets, one of the most worrying revelations to come out of the Leatherhead conference was the kids’ antipathy towards breakfast foods, which were criticised for being “bland”, “boring” and “time consuming”.

But rather than take umbrage, Lindley believes manufacturers should look on such feedback as an opportunity to improve.

“Twenty per cent of kids never have breakfast – the most important meal of the day,” he says. “Rather than roll out more and more cereals, the best thing to do is to ask kids why they are not eating breakfast. Every response will be relevant.”

There is plenty of scope to grow the children’s food market further. According to the statistics, these opportunities are greater in the UK than anywhere else in Europe.Each year in Britain, parents will spend on average £690 per child on child-oriented food. That’s almost double the figure in Germany (£357) and more than treble that of Spain (£213) and Italy (£122).

Consumers’ high acceptance of new foods makes the UK a more conducive market for launching products targeted specifically at children, according to Viviana Albani, market analyst at Leatherhead Food International.

“The UK is one of the most developed food markets in the whole of Europe, which means that some categories are not as niche as in other markets. For example, processed cheese is an accepted category over here, as is flavoured milk.” This is not the case in Italy or France.

Anyone scrabbling around for new product ideas need look no further than the kids themselves. When asked for their thoughts on opportunities for new products, the children were brimming with ideas. 

One asked why soup was not available in accessible, smaller portions for consumption during break times. Another wanted a more original option for the period between breakfast and lunch – traditionally filled by sugary sweets and crisps. Fish was universally dismissed as smelly and horrible to look at, while bread-based products were labelled as unimaginative and bland. 

The message is clear. Here is a consumer whose insight should be mined, not disregarded.
“Never have ideas about children – and never have ideas for them,” said DH Lawrence. Food manufacturers would do well to take heed.