Trends in Digital Marketing to Generation SpongeBob

This article is talking about children from 2 to 13 – the age on which they can officially have a Facebook account. A great part of this age group consists of “tweens”: the children between 8 to 12 years old. They are too big to be a child, too young to be a teen; they are just ‘in between’.

These kids from 2 to 13 are part of the so-called ‘generation Z’, mostly defined as born between 2000 (or 1995 or 2005 according to the source) and now (at Dreammachine Kids we like to call them ‘Generation SpongeBob’). Generation Z is the first generation of internet users who are born at a time when the internet is completely accepted as a mainstream element in our daily lives, with internet access available in the vast majority of households. A great many of them are raised by the generation who adopted the internet with a huge enthusiasm 10 to 15 years ago – when they were teens, using applications like MSN Messenger on a daily basis. They are called generation Y mums, or ‘Millennial Mums’. In this respect their mothers are also very different than all previous generations of mothers.

Based upon several trend watching and marketing websites and our own observations of what marketers are doing anno 2015, we will give a quick overview of some trends in marketing – with a focus on digital marketing – towards this generation and towards their mums.

We love kids

The trend of trends is really the new attention that is paid to kids, by organizations, government institutions and companies.

We love kids, and many campaign take fully advantage of this, showing kids from their most positive sides and helping mums to show off with their ‘dream kids’. To illustrate this I want to mention Capital Koala. This is an e-commerce site which doesn’t give discounts as a reduction on the spent amounts, but transfers the discounts directly to the savings account of the kids.

This love for kids has not always been so extreme as now. For the generation of Baby boomer mums for instance, kids were ‘OK’ but they restricted their career, so they brought up the generation of the so-called ‘latch key kids’, going home after school alone with the house key in the pocket. Kids have never had so much positive attention and respect as now, and kids are respected as our investment in the future.

Kids are also, more than ever before, considered as little consumers, with their own right to fashion, their own electronic devices, their own TV stations, etc. Think of – just to name a few – Stella McCartney and Lord Willy’s (‘the ridiculously posh gentlemen’s clothing line based in New York City’) starting a clothing line for kids (‘Little Willy’s’). Or a financial product targeting kids & parents from Mastercard, called Osper: parents give their kids an Osper credit card and through an app they can monitor the financial behaviour of their kids.

Osper dashboard

Digital kids are the trend

With most successful toys having moved into the digital arena, kids are living a digital lifestyle that goes a lot further than being a lot on digital devices as we are used to think of them: smartphones, tablets, computers… There is an explosion of digital objects, and the kids’ space is one of the most important areas where the so called ‘internet of things’ becomes a reality. For kids it’s a totally normal and a prerequisite that their toys are interconnected (e.g. Furby doll with the Furby app), artificially intelligent (e.g. the electronic Tangram from Tangible Play) and allowing social interaction (e.g. Minecraft allowing to connect to play together through their multiplayer servers).

  Furby        Osmo

Creative companies go further in their kids’ communication than just delivering digital content through web or app interfaces. They see opportunities to connect in the real world, and grasp those to truly interact with the kids in a way that appeals to them.

Kids are used to living in a hybrid media world of connected objects, interactive storybooks (e.g. the Sony PlayStation Wonderbooks), talking dolls connected to servers in order to optimize answers (Barbie), interactive pyjamas (Pashas Pajamas), etc. For them its just ‘their world’. And they take very immersive experiences for granted.

To illustrate how brands use this for marketing, an example of how YES-bank markets to the smallest consumers in the Kidzania theme park in Mumbai: they installed ATM-like interfaces, allowing kids to learn about banking in a realistic setting.

Yes bank

An ambiguous attitude

The digital world of kids is not always seen as positive by parents and by society. This is very paradoxical. On the one hand parents embrace digital media as the perfect babysitter, especially Millennial parents. On the other hand, they struggle with their conscience when they see their kids engaged too much with it.

An example of a company leveraging the negative guilty feelings is the ‘Joy of simple play’-campaign from the Canadian children’s store Kolkid.

An opposite example of a company that idealizes the digital kids world is Lionel Trains. In 65, Lionel Trains used to have a brand positioning which they formulated as ‘This toy does not kill, bite, scream, explode, conquer, destroy, or turn into a vampire’. But now, in order to fit in in this digital lifestyle of kids, they launched the ‘battle train’ app. So some companies giving up their traditional brand heritage in order to fit in the digital world.

Cross-channel approach as a key to success

A very important trend in book publishing is of course the trend to publish book apps. Research has shown that kids, at the age that their digital media consumption rises significantly – which may be different for each kid – , start reading less books. A logical conclusion of this research is that publishers should take this into account and publish their content digitally.

But success doesn’t just come overnight. With the smaller players we see a lot of hesitation and trial and error. There are some clear keys to success however:

When we speak about publishing digitally, marketing techniques like App Store Optimization and the usage of Big data to analyse user behaviour are key trends.

A key distinguishing factor between those who succeed and those who don’t appears also to be a good approach of ergonomics.

What should really be behind the choice to go digital is a cross-channel approach, and the fact that for kids it’s always about the content, and not so much the medium or the device. Kids expect content to live on all the media they interact with, and they expect the experience to be consistent, with characters showing the same characteristics on different media.

Love for the ephemeral

This brings us at another trend, leveraging the love of kids for the ephemeral.

To illustrate this, let’s have a look at the ‘Mensagens de Ninar’-campaign from a big foster home in Brazil (Santo Amaro). They developed a story reading product, based upon WhatsApp-messages read by adults from a story book, sentence by sentence (one sentence per adult), in Point of Sales-displays. Overnight, those sentences are assembled into one big story, with hundreds of different voices. The following evening, the kids can listen together to those stories from their dormitory in the foster home. Although they don’t get physical books, this works great for the kids: life is about experiences, not about owning things, like physical books, it’s about being read to, about the story, not the ownership of a bunch of paper. With their focus on content bits rather than media, they embrace the ephemeral.

Mensagens de Ninar’


Kids grow old younger, and ‘the lines are blurring’

Kids are exposed to more media at a much earlier age than ever, and they learn quicker to deal with it. Sesame Street is a very typical example: 30 years ago, it was targeting kids of 4 to 7 years old, now, it’s targeting kids of 2 to 4 – with the same type of content.

Product developers complain that the age frames that they can target with their products are getting shorter and shorter.

In the digital world this results also in the so called ‘maker movement’, which refers to kids programming and creating adult stuff at young ages. Toys are targeting pre-schoolers, teaching them how to program.

And kids look up to older kids. Brands have understood this – for instance brands from the fashion industry make their child models look like little adults.

We also see that the lines between generations are more and more blurring. The lifestyle, media usage and role models of different generations are more and more converging, and the tone of voices used to speak to several generations are starting to look like each other.

Millennial mums and their ‘wired kids’

Millennial mums are the mums born somewhere after the eighties. These are a very new breed of mums. They love to be addressed through marketing with positive, relaxed, and entertaining messages, rather than messages focussing on the worries of motherhood, such as hygiene, health, etc. And on digital media they expect marketers to come with surprising and very interactive tactics.

Many millennial mums rely heavily on digital technology to make sure their kids are OK. This results in a new phenomenon, of ‘wired kids’. Many new devices are emerging, in product development (ranging from the Tweet Pee from Huggies, sending an alert when your baby has peed, over all kinds of smart watches to smart coats making the physical position of kids visible on a gps-system) and in publicity (e.g. the Nivea ‘Protection ad’, a paper bracelet connected to an app in order to trace your kids on the beach).

Tweet Pee from Huggies

Helpful brands

A trend in marketing in general is that brands position themselves as partners to their clients. For parents, being a partner often means being a good educator to their kids. An example of this is a promo organized by Burger King, who offered storybooks with their kids meals instead of the previous toys, thus helping parents to stimulate reading for their kids.

Fame, co-creation and starification

For nowadays kids, ‘fame is just one YouTube video away’. Kids adore watching videos from ordinary people on YouTube, and it makes the dream of getting famous reachable in their eyes. Companies offer opportunities for stardom by organizing co-creation contest (e.g. Ikea 2014 digital strategy), by putting kids in control over creative processes and by submitting creations to votes of the community.

An example from the publishing sector: in the co-writing project ‘The Story Adventure’, from Hot Key books, kids are put in control and participate in the writing of the book. The kids are giving their input to the writer while she writes her novel.

Another typical example from FMCG-marketing: Uncle Bens offered the opportunity for kids & their mums to upload their best recipe and to expose those to voting of the contest community.

Uncle Ben


The family: the inclusive experience

Brands try to help parents to ‘win back’ the lost family time, by offering them – through digital media – offline quality family time, inclusive experiences with their kids. In the example we mentioned above of Uncle Bens for instance, this is done by offering a cooking experience with the family.

This focus on the family is confirmed by research from ‘The Marketing Store’. Kids of this generation are – more than kids of previous generations – very happy kids. And the source of this happiness is the family.


A lot more can be said about this topic, and nothing is ‘final’: ‘Kids are a moving target’. But we clearly see that the kids of ‘Generation SpongeBob’ deserve a particular approach. And if you want to be successful in marketing to kids, the digital arena is your ‘battlefield’ of choice, and needs to be entered in a way that respects the digital vision of the digital native kids of today.

For more trends and examples, I refer to my Whitepaper that includes this subject on this link.

DOI: 10.17400/SB-2015-09-01

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