Age-and-stage brands flag-post specific stages of our journey through life. Each generation creates its own unique brand lists. Men of a certain age might recognise this list: Airfix models, the Rubik’s Cube, a Raleigh bike, a Grey Nichols cricket bat, Doc Marten boots.
Many are badges that help signal our identity. Some forge lifelong connections – diehard Neil Diamond fans, me still wearing Converse boots, your mate’s Dad who’s only ever driven Holdens. Others are disposable.
These brand associations start early. My daughter Stella saw little in the way of TV advertising so it always intrigued me how a five-year-old suddenly knew about a new thing she just had to have. The answer, it seems, was good old-fashioned word of mouth.
I can immediately associate a number of well-known kid brands with different stages of her formative years. From My Little Pony between the ages of four and six, graduating to Barbie, Sylvanians, Smiggle and then Lush for her early teenage years before the brand lost its appeal, seemingly overnight.
A colleague describes it as having a ‘brand crush’ and noted his 16-year-old son’s recent infatuation with the Supreme and Bathing Ape clothing brands and his current (more expensive) obsession with particular guitar brands.
While I was roughly guessing Stella’s brand crushes, she knew the years exactly, with no hesitation.
Her desire for these brands could veer towards obsession. As many parents will appreciate, that compulsion ramped up when she met the online pantheon. From The Sims and Minecraft to the endless raft of apps that are all consuming one week and forgotten the next, each fad can cut a swathe through family life.
Horror, alarm bells, bad parenting… yikes. But hold on. Fifty years ago, an entire generation went so nuts over a little rock ‘n’ roll band from a provincial city in the UK that Beatlemania became a worldwide phenomenon. That pattern of pop star brand obsession has flourished over the decades, right through to the likes of Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift today.
I drove my parents mad with my own Beatles obsession (I was a decade late). An overnight conversion to punk followed. When punk arrived seemingly out of nowhere it was as if we’d been waiting for it, needing something to fix the itch but not knowing what until it hit. And let’s face it, something as organic as punk (or the preceding hippie movement) is a brand in the true holistic sense of the word which then becomes commoditised.
So what’s going on here?
Whether it’s toy makers and marketers cynically targeting children, or apparently synergistic explosions of youth culture, brands like My Little Pony or Grunge wouldn’t fly if there wasn’t an appetite for them in the first place. An innate need that requires satiating.
There is a lot of literature about societal and consumer needs. The desire to belong, peer pressure, craving new shiny things, why five-year-old boys have to have the latest Transformers or Beyblades. But one thing’s for sure. Whether you’re five or 75, we all make brand choices, be they Barbie or wanting to identify with Greenpeace.
It will be interesting to see which of our kid’s brand crushes endure and create lifelong loyalty, and those that become (sometimes with a tad of embarrassment) yesterday’s news. One thing’s for sure, Stella’s list will reflect the hugely different digital world she and her friends are growing up in.
Nick Sampson is the Strategy Director for branding agency Principals.
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