Children are perhaps the ultimate PR challenge. A fickle, easily swayed and disloyal age group, their preferences, likes and dislikes swing from one extreme to the other. One minute a product is 'cool' and a 'must-have', the next minute it is cast aside.
And there are rightly numerous restrictions for brands that make and promote products for children and families. For many brands, in particular those that make food and drink products, negotiating these regulations is a minefield in itself before even beginning to think whether messaging is reaching children in the right way, at the right time, and through the right medium.
Like it or not, children are susceptible to marketing, and are influenced by many channels. How else to explain the vast popularity of one product when an almost identical one languishes unsold on the shelves?
For brands, it is vital not only to know what adults (parents) think of their products, but also what children think. This kind of information is, however, very difficult to come by and usually ends up costing brands five figures in professional research.
Until now. For the first time, Brand Republic and market research agency Harris Interactive have produced the Kids Brand Index, a definitive league table of brands that make products for children, or make products that children consume.
Four thousand children, divided into 'tweens' aged seven to 11 and 'teens' aged 12 to 15, were quizzed on their views about 166 household-name brands, ranging from crisps and chocolate to clothing, electronic gadgets and TV shows.
Using a bespoke methodology that took into account children's awareness of brands, how they rated them, what their parents thought of them, and how excited children were by them, a rank was created for each brand.
Steve Mellor, head of youth and kids practice at Harris Interactive, says: 'This study is the first of its kind to compare brands from different categories with each other and is the most up-to-date and holistic picture of kids' lifestyles and attitudes available.'
But obviously to lump boys and girls aged seven to 15 together as 'children' misses some glaring differences in their cognitive development and preferences. So we have also produced tables of top 'tween' brands, top 'teen' brands, boys' favourite brands and girls' favourite brands.
It is clear from the tables published on these pages that there are some important differences in the way children perceive brands. For tweens, food, sweets and chocolate seem to be key sectors and many top brands fell into these categories. For teenagers, however, 'cooler' brands like Facebook, YouTube and Google were prominent. And all children seem to really love Walkers Crisps, the overall top brand within the Kids Brand Index 2011.
How the research was conducted
The survey was carried out using qualitative online research. Mellor explains: 'Children enjoy participating in surveys online, they spend a great deal of time online and feel at home in front of a PC.' Parents were asked for approval for their children to participate in the survey, then children were asked questions about brands.
'One of the challenges we faced was the cognitive ability required to comprehend a brand,' says Mellor. 'A brand is a set of complex associations that adults are often unable to articulate, and young children find this task difficult.' Nonetheless children are aware of, and consume, brands and by making the survey kid-friendly, with interactive sliding scales allowing them to rate brands, we were able to capture their views.
Brands were divided into 12 categories: clothing; food; drinks; electronic gadgets; mobile phones; shops; sweets and chocolate; toys and games; TV channels; TV shows; video games and websites.
Each category was given an 'excitement' ranking. Overall children are most excited by electronic gadgets - a fast-moving sector that is constantly providing innovation. Children were only asked to compare brands from the same sector.
Based upon the findings of the research, each brand was given a ranking within the index, and these rankings have also been adjusted by age group and gender.
Children were asked what marketing activity they had seen for each brand - whether they had seen offline or online advertising, visited the brand's website or talked about the brand online or offline.
There is no suggestion that the brands we researched market directly to children - some are expressly forbidden to - but it would be foolish in an uber-connected world to assume children are not exposed to marketing messages, whether those messages are aimed at them or not. The information about how children consume marketing activity will be useful to brands not only to work out what they are doing right, but also to identify any areas where their marketing strategies may need to be adjusted.
But it is important to note that in asking children what advertising they have seen, there is no implication that any advertising they have seen was directly aimed at them.
Some brands, for example Call of Duty, are age-restricted. However, once again it would be foolish to assume that all parents observe these age restrictions and do not allow their children to consume them - or that children do not find ways to consume these brands despite the age restrictions.
Therefore we have included them, but there is again no suggestion that these brands market to, or aim to reach, children.
SOME KEY FINDINGS
Children are most excited by electronic gadgets.
Food and drinks brands are popular with children and classics such as KitKat, Coca-Cola and Haribo scored well.
Facebook was the top brand for teens but was ranked 104 by tweens.
Brands that parents did not approve of were generally seen as 'cooler'. However, some brands such as HTC and Jack Wills managed to balance having decent parental approval scores with high image scores.
Although Nike scored higher than rival Adidas overall, Adidas was more popular than Nike among teenagers.
The Nintendo Wii was the top performing electronic gadget.
Android scored third in the mobiles category ahead of Orange, Nokia and Sony Ericsson.
Maltesers was the top chocolate brand.
Lego and Monopoly scored far higher than more modern brands such as Street Surfing and Nerf Guns.
Hollister was the brand most children had talked about with friends and family.
To see the top 20 brands, or to order a copy of the report go to prweek.com/go/kidsbrandindex