By the end of 2024, there will be more than 2 billion people around the world classified as Generation Alpha. Born in 2010 or after, many of them, in western countries especially, will already have access to their own technology that they use not only for entertainment, but for education and to communicate with other young people. Tech usage in this generation has shot up during the pandemic.
They are also starting to interact with social media early in their lives. As such, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have all experimented with launching controlled, child-safe versions. Children are also using technology independently from their parents, shifting their relationships with brands and advertising. These children now have some ability to make purchasing decisions; nearly half of the kids between the ages of six and 16 surveyed by marketing communications agency Wunderman Thompson had access to an Amazon Prime account. Still, parents hold the purse strings. So, brands that are building products and services for children must manage dual communications for parents and children at the same time.
Brands looking to reach Gen Alpha and their families must think about how this generation will evolve and change some industries, as well as the importance of ethical and transparent communication. Here we meet six experts in young consumers – and the brands trying to market to them – to learn more.
Alix Bigois founded Bandit Circus, a brand that makes colorful, unisex backpacks for kids – and their parents.
Kerry Abass is the head of brand and customer experience at Whirli, a toy-swap subscription service based in the UK.
Kate Towers and Becky Coletto are the co-founders of Small & Wild, a line of caffeine-free herbal teas for kids.
Bambini Collections was co-founded by Matteo Grand and Camille Nock, who market art that fires kids' imaginations.
Mark McCrindle is a social researcher and demographer credited with having coined the term ‘Generation Alpha’.
Will Anstee is CEO of TotallyAwesome, which works to ensure a safe digital world for children, families and brands.
Targeting Gen Alpha
How do you think brands and products for children have changed over the years?
MM: ‘It used to be about intergenerational brand transfer. For instance, if a parent liked Disney, they would introduce Disney to their children. That's less dominant now, because there's a lot more saturation when it comes to brands, and a far more empowered and sophisticated cohort of young consumers. Generation Alpha are much more influenced by their peer group than by the authority of experts. They don't want a brand to just push products at them – they want to have a seat at the table and have some influence over a brand.’
WA: ‘Brands have moved from creating passive to active content. So, for children, how do they think about their play habits and how can brands slide into that? It's really interesting to see how technology can fuse into that space. Brands are seeing that they have to move from just turning up in a child's life to building their confidence and assessing what they need at each stage of their life.’
AB: ‘Parents used to be the target audience for brands, but we now ask little ones for their opinion. We finally consider them as individuals. We know that, most of the time, little ones have more impact on buying a product than a parent does.’
Visuals and values
How do you develop products aimed at kids?
AB: ‘Bright colors and contrasting elements are key in my designs to get Gen Alpha's attention. I use simple shapes and words.’
KT/BC: ‘Kids' taste buds are different to adults – they have more of them, for a start. So we looked to flavors we knew appealed, like vibrant banana and mango, along with favorite ingredients such as vanilla.’
MG/CN: ‘The main thing we ask is if it brings the child joy, and if we would have it in our own rooms [as adults].’
How is the role of the parent evolving as Gen Alpha come to the fore? How do you manage dual marketing to both parents and children?
MM: ‘While parents are, of course, protective of their children, their children are more in their own worlds that are free of parental influencers. They have access to the technology keys that their parents don't even understand. Children are making their own decisions and even guiding the parents.’
WA: ‘Before the pandemic, the family unit was becoming separated. There were so many devices that kids were on, and parents were on their own devices. The positive side of lockdowns, especially in Asia, is co-viewing – we call it the reboot of the family unit. You've got kids and parents doing things together, which is healthy. It's enabling parents to have a much closer experience with their children, as well as know more about what they're doing online.’
KA: ‘Parents should always play a role to ensure the child's best interests are prioritized. However, there are lots of advantages in giving children a voice and allowing them to shape their own worlds. Creating a sense of independence, control and interest in their personal wellbeing helps children develop confidence and a sense of achievement. They can also play a big part in shaping the services and products that brands deliver.’
What are the social media platforms that you see kids interacting with the most, and how are they using them?
KA: ‘YouTube is a very influential channel, certainly for pre-schoolers and early schoolers. The rise of the child influencer has greatly changed the way children learn about new brands. Streaming and skippable ads have redacted the number of traditional ads children see – such as television ads – and product and brand discovery is now more frequently seen in influencer content.’
MM: ‘Anything that is visual and facilitates co-creation is key – TikTok and Instagram, for instance. Children are interacting on both chat platforms and visual platforms. But those sites might not be the biggest going forward. Kids will move away from a site quickly if it doesn't engage with them, or if there is a disconnect from a values perspective.’
WA: ‘We're seeing gaming explode, and it's become the new social. The kids of today aren't necessarily on Facebook or Instagram; they're into the games where you can be with your friends. It's this idea of the metaverse, where you can have your own [digital] life and buy things.’
How will legacy parenting brands change to accommodate these cultural shifts?
KA: ‘There has been a shift towards influencer marketing and video content. Brands recognize the power of social proofing and experience-led content. But where we see some brands fall behind is in understanding what millennial parents want for their Gen Alpha children. In toy retail, gender-defined toys and a preference towards brightly colored plastic inform the range that a lot of the legacy parenting brands stock, and yet our research has found that this is not what the modern parent wants.’
WA: ‘The metaverse might not feel like a real environment for us as adults, but it's real for kids, so how do brands go into that space with meaning? Brands are having to move away from traditional marketing to target this hard-to-reach audience.’
MM: ‘Every big brand has recognized the vulnerability they have, and that legacy isn't enough in this market. This is now an empowered generation that can push back on a brand and cause issues. Legacy brands are treating this generation with respect because, ultimately, if they cannot connect with Gen Alpha, they'll edge into irrelevancy.’
What are some of the ethical and regulatory issues that brands have to keep in mind when they're communicating with children?
MM: ‘If there's a sense that a brand is trying to cut, slice and dice a generation of young people for profit, it's not viewed well. This generation don't want something pushed at them. They want to have that communicated through them; they expect a consultation. There are new ways of marketing that are more participative: competitions where they get a say, research where they have a voice. It can't be as blunt as previous youth marketing has been – it has to be tuned in to the expectations of society.’
How is this all shaping the future of Gen Alpha? What can we expect from them?
KT/BC: ‘There is certainly a proportion of Generation Alpha who are already more health aware; not only looking to moderate their own intakes, but having a genuine love for food and drinks that are beneficial to their health. We also see them being conscious about sustainability and demanding products that minimize their impact on the world – and, ideally, enhance it. They also seem to be interested in the stories behind brands, and we can envisage them really holding companies to account as they grow older.’
MG/CN: ‘One of the biggest ways that brands connect with audiences is through online content, and that's how a lot of the younger generation make consumer decisions. These kids have more access to more information, more options and more diversity of opinion. They're becoming less susceptible to cheap marketing ploys. The next generation is shaping consumerism more than it's shaping them.’
WA: ‘If a brand turns up to provide a service, and is considerate and inclusive, brand loyalty goes through the roof. A brand will have that child or teen for the rest of their lives. But if you really screw it up, you'll find that they'll be lost forever. Advertising is dead to this audience – they're much too savvy for it. The shift for brands is breaking out of the mindset of how they communicate to adults.’