Friend and former coworker Jessica Tsai wrote a good entry on the destinationCRM blog today, and I decided to comment on it there. I did so, but it’s still gnawing at me a bit. Rather than let it go, I’m going to expand on my comments.
Back story: Jessica’s post had to do with a segment on the Today Show where author and brand expert Martin Lindstrom discussed what he found in a focus group of boys and girls age 9 to 11. Mostly, he discovered something we probably knew but tend not to think about too much: children learn the language of brand early, and it affects their behavior. (It affects older people as well, but Lindstrom was turning his cognitive-psychology eye toward tweens.) My response was that, while it’s good to develop critical thinking, there’s a danger of making kids more likely to tease and bully each other over clothing choices.
We were all young once. All of us should remember how horrible some kids can be to each other. Lindstrom has statistics and quotes that show things haven’t changed; if anything, they’ve gotten worse. When your entire world consists of people exactly your age competing for attention and dominance, youths will latch onto anything that can help oppress others and aggrandize themselves. Clothing is immediately visible, and fashion choices are easy to criticize.
Encouraging kids to serve as a marketing force by flooding them with brand messages and engaging them in online conversations makes excellent sense in some ways, as it shapes young consumers’ preferences and lets them put pressure on their parents. It’s also a recipe for making some poor kid miserable if his/her parents don’t have a lot of money to spare, or don’t want to start their kid down the road of superficiality.
Most of the time, I’m in favor of unmoderated conversations between customers and businesses. When it comes to something polarizing like fashion, though, and when kids are involved, I recommend heavy monitoring and participation by the company. It’s not enough to delete inappropriate comments. If you’re going to engage minors in commercial conversations, you have a duty to guide that conversation in such a way that the seeds of elitism and bullying never take root. But it has to be done without patronizing, or you’ll dismantle your brand.
Somebody reading this is probably thinking I’m one of those people who always says, “Won’t somebody think of the children?” whenever a potentially uncomfortable topic comes up. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m all for treating young people like people, as grown up as they can handle, and believe that nothing teaches like experience. The best way to teach a kid why sharp or hot things shouldn’t be touched is to let them touch those things once (as long as they aren’t in danger of serious injury). But that sort of pain is momentary. Getting a reputation as a budget-rack shopper can happen with one bad choice and one cruel comment, and it can last for years.
Maybe I shouldn’t worry. Kids’ clothing should be marketed to kids, because parents generally don’t have a clue–I know for a fact that some parents would dress their kids in “adorable” sailor suits and jumpers until those kids can beat them in a brawl. But parents have to get involved somehow, and social media makes it easier.