Branding, design and the young: Interesting research from Scientific American.

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Seeing as we’ve been looking at branding this month, let’s consider the following. One of the advantages of subscribing to Scientific American (I read it so you don’t have to) is the opportunity it offers to reflect upon some unusual scientific research. And curiously enough the following is of direct relevance to this site:

Speaking of parents and problem children, here’s an excellent experiment to perform on any three-year-old whose parents are constantly telling you how smart the kid is. Take a food item—a couple of carrots, for example—and put one in an unmarked bag. Put the other one in a McDonald’s bag. Then have the little genius taste both and ask which carrot was better. Or save yourself all this trouble by reading the August issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, in which researchers found that the $10 billion dished out every year in the U.S. by food and beverage companies to market to small children is money well spent.

Ignore the flippant tone and consider the actual report which is available here. The object of the exercise was to:

examine the effects of cumulative, real-world marketing and brand exposures on young children by testing the influence of branding from a heavily marketed source on taste preferences.

This was done by a fairly simple experiment.

Design Experimental study. Children tasted 5 pairs of identical foods and beverages in packaging from McDonald’s and matched but unbranded packaging and were asked to indicate if they tasted the same or if one tasted better.

The outcome was:

Results The mean ± SD total taste preference score across all food comparisons was 0.37 ± 0.45 (median, 0.20; interquartile range, 0.00-0.80) and significantly greater than zero (P<.001), indicating that children preferred the tastes of foods and drinks if they thought they were from McDonald’s. Moderator analysis found significantly greater effects of branding among children with more television sets in their homes and children who ate food from McDonald’s more often.

Which on some levels is all very predictable. I think it’s reasonable to concur with the conclusion which posits:

Branding of foods and beverages influences young children’s taste perceptions. The findings are consistent with recommendations to regulate marketing to young children and also suggest that branding may be a useful strategy for improving young children’s eating behaviors.

The detail in the report is fascinating;

Food marketing to children is widespread. The food and beverage industries spend more than $10 billion per year to market to children in the United States.1 One of the goals of marketing is branding to encourage children to recognize and differentiate particular products and logos. By 2 years of age, children may have beliefs about specific brands,4 and 2- to 6-year-olds can recognize familiar brand names, packaging, logos, and characters and associate them with products,5-8 especially if the brands use salient features such as bright colors, pictures, and cartoon characters.8 By middle childhood, most children can name multiple brands of child-oriented products.7 Even among very young children, awareness and recognition translate into product requests, begging and nagging for specific product names and brands.7, 9

The ‘matched’ materials are described in some detail:

The foods were (1) one-quarter of a McDonald’s hamburger, one partially wrapped in a white McDonald’s wrapper showing the McDonald’s logos and the word Hamburger in brown and the other wrapped identically in a matched plain white wrapper of the same size and material; (2) a Chicken McNugget in a white McDonald’s bag with a red arches logo and the phrase Chicken McNuggets in blue and the other in a matched plain white bag; (3) 3 McDonald’s french fries in a white bag with a McDonald’s yellow arches and smile logo on a red background and the words “We love to see you smile” in blue on yellow along the edge and 3 fries in a matched plain white bag; (4) about 3 ounces of 1% fat milk (or apple juice for 1 child who was not allowed to drink milk) in a white McDonald’s cup with lid and straw and in a matched plain white cup with lid and straw; and (5) 2 “baby” carrots placed on top of a McDonald’s french fries bag and on top of a matched plain white bag. Hamburgers, chicken nuggets, and french fries were all purchased from a local McDonald’s. Carrots were not available or marketed by McDonald’s at the time of the study. Only unused (not previously in contact with food) McDonald’s and plain wrappings, bags, and cups were used so there would be no residual smell or taste. Only the most basic available McDonald’s packaging was used, without any additional promotional markings (eg, additional graphics, Ronald McDonald image, or images of movie characters). Each food in the McDonald’s packaging was taken out of a McDonald’s brown paper bag with a yellow, blue, and red arches logo, and each food in plain packaging was taken out of a matched plain brown paper bag. The order of foods presented and placement of the McDonald’s wrapped food on the left or right followed a predetermined random order for each child and each food.

Still, reading that I can’t help feeling that they missed a trick with this study. Even if one accepts the truth of the proposition in the report that a 2 year old may have ‘beliefs’ about a brand, then it seems likely that a child will generally, perhaps intuitively, choose a colourful design over a plain design. This pattern of behaviour is hardly restricted to children and long predates the establishment of McDonalds as a global recognisable brand. Given the choice between an already recognisable brand identity and a plain package I suspect most of us would choose the former.

It seems plausible to suggest that this functions on the same level as ‘gifts’ and gift wrapping. That bright, colourful and easily identifiable visual imagery on the packaging and containers in fast food outlets emulates – albeit in low key way – the associations of excitement and anticipation linked to celebrations. Indeed the outlets very deliberately attempt to foster such associations through enabling ‘parties’ to be held on their premises.

As the Scientific American piece notes:

Because 54 percent of preschool kids surveyed preferred the alleged McDonald’s carrot, whereas only 23 percent liked the carrot in plain wrapping better. The effect was magnified when the test food was french fries: 77 percent said McDonald’s-looking potatoes, only 13 percent said the other potatoes, and 10 percent said let’s call the whole thing off.

I can’t really blame him for the tone, because while it is interesting to see the clear power of McDonalds branding a more intriguing question arises. What if the ‘matched’ packaging was branded with similar but fake designs. In other words would the children be able to discriminate between McDonalds and packaging of similar quality of design. Because it is design which sits at the heart of this study. And that leads to further issues. I’m very curious as to the level of ability of children to distinguish differing but similar design.

The embedding of such a dynamic at a very early stage in life has clear ramifications for the companies that provide these foodstuffs. The associations that build hegemonic market shares can be inculcated early and last through adolescence and even onto adulthood. Of course, they’re not quite hegemonic in terms of their purchase upon an individual. Tastes change, mature. The limited and predictable choices available eventually lead to the wish, in most, to try alternatives. But that commercial imagery and identity is so powerful at such an early stage in life is a disturbing testament to its pervasive influence throughout the society. It also raises uncomfortable questions as to the ability of adults to make clear informed choices as regards purchasing goods.

But that suggests that perhaps there is a problematic aspect of the study. Because in the report the question at the heart of the research is reduced to: This was a real-world study addressing a straightforward, real-world question: do children prefer the taste of food and drinks if they think they are from McDonald’s?

The thing is that in the ‘real-world’ there is not just one hegemonic brand of fast food, but a multiplicity vying for the attention of children and adults. And none of those brands present themselves in the essentially neutral way that this experiment did.

I’m certainly not dismissing the report or it’s findings. But I suspect had there been a designer somewhere around they might have pointed out this small – yet essential – detail.

Ciarán Swan

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