Marketing To The New Family
By Mark Rodgers
It’s often said that good things arrive in threes, but what about when they leave? What happens when the fledglings start to flee the nest? Is it good news, or bad?
I’d like to set the scene and initially focus on the “holy trinity” of modern marketing opportunity—the teenager, the single household and the nuclear family.
Undoubtedly, each of these entities has experienced radical shifts in the past quarter century, but relatively little research has been done on the implications for brands, even less in the realm of packaging.
Of course, brand owners, and the army of agencies that help them steer the course of change, have considered new kinds of families and new spins on what it means to be an individual in a post-millennial, post 9-11 world.
My question though, is just how much? A cursory glance across the brand spectrum will reveal that these three groups still remain the big prize for most brand activity. But let’s take a quick look through some key statistics that challenge that status, and then I’ll return to the point at hand.
The teenager
Yes, teens are still a force to be reckoned. This is still a young country and the key driver for our youth remains the search for self-identity—a ripe recruiting ground for brands. But while marketing wisdom teaches that you “get ‘em young and keep ‘em for life,” current research is beginning to challenge this concept. Recent studies by the AARP show that adults, even seniors, are only marginally more brand loyal than their youthful counterparts; even less so in particular categories like SUVs, home computers and athletic footwear.
Other studies show that, in contrast to teenagers of the past, today’s teens are driven by a different kind of rebellion—conforming is their new rebellion. Broadly speaking, they have better relationships with their parents than previous generations.
The individual
Another significant trend in our very dynamic society is the growth—good or bad—of the single household. It’s probably one force for change that brand owners have recognized. And not without due cause.
Single-person households have been increasing steadily in the United States and also in Europe. It is the fastest-growing household category in the western world.
In the United States, singles have been rising from about 10 percent of all households in the 1950s to more than 30 percent today. Currently, one million new single households are being created each year, adding 24 million new households by 2020.
However, we should resist the temptation, as package designers or brand owners, to assume that single households inevitably mean single-portion packs and smaller sized containers. Recent research we’ve conducted indicates that a new concept of a “collective individuality” is emerging. So, while a more single society may be a fact of life, people are finding new ways to come together, which inevitably points to new opportunities for brands.
If the zeitgeist of the 80s and the 90s was about self-improvement, self-aggrandizement and self-worth, the mood of the 00’s favors ‘the collective’ over ‘the individual’, the ‘we’ over the ‘me’. Groups, clubs and philanthropic movements are being formed around specific interests, including lunch clubs, cooking groups or red wine appreciation circles, and they are forming spontaneously and organically all over the country. A cursory glance over the hugely successful Craig’s List web site, which hosts local sites in cities from Albany to Wichita, reveals social connections of staggering diversity forming around hobbies and shared passions.
The family
But it is the third arm of the marketing ‘holy trinity”—the family—that seems to offer the richest opportunities; maybe because family is still the main social unit in society, though the definitions of that unit have multiplied.
Despite recent suggestions that the traditional family is making a comeback, evidence suggests otherwise. To borrow a thought from the renowned psychiatrist Shervert H. Frazier, “Over the next 20 years the nuclear family will share the same future as nuclear arms: there will be fewer of them, but those that remain will be better cared for.”
The “traditional” family, as I’m sure the reader well knows, is being replaced by a slew of other family concepts. There’s the “beanpole” family, a group that, because of several marriages and divorces, shares a family tree that is tall and thin, with few people in each generation. Single-parent families are also on the rise; principally maintained by women, they have increased 300 percent since 1950. Also growing are same-sex parents, currently estimated to number two million in the Unites States. Then there are the “fictive” families, groups of friends living together beyond the post-college years—a concept immortalized by the TV series “Friends” and analyzed by Ethan Watters in his book Urban Tribes. And finally, there is what could be called the “full nest” family, the antithesis of the “empty nest” family, a term coined to explain the golden years of Mom and Dad, when their grown children have left the nest to set up homes and families of their own.
I’d like to focus on the “full nest” family, because it represents an untapped area of opportunity for brand owners. The phenomenon is often looked on negatively, with critics harping on so-called “perma-parents” who can’t let go of their progeny, or a new generation of infantilized adults who refuse to leave the warmth and comfort of the nest to face the harshness of real life and adult responsibilities.
In fact, this kind of family union may be here to stay. Baby Boomers have created a new style of parenting. Chastened by a different, more authoritarian parenting style, Boomers have shown an ongoing desire to have a more level, intimate relationship with their children. And, while they have extended liberties and freedoms to their (now adult) children, they have also been reluctant to let go. The net result is that four million Americans ages 25 to 34 are living with their parents.
This January, Time magazine conducted a poll that highlighted some interesting facts about these reluctant fledglings: they graduate later then previous generations, and more than half of them leave college with substantial personal debt. Though 43 percent said they worried about debt, Time’s research indicated that they were above average spenders when it came to rewarding themselves by eating out, buying clothes or going to the movies.
Another poll, conducted by Monster/JobTrak in 2003, found that 61 percent of university students expected to return to their parents upon graduation. It’s hardly surprising then that the Boomer generation’s adult children, straddled with crushing student debt on one hand and love of the good life on the other, are choosing to remain longer in the family nest, thanks to the closer relationships these families enjoy.
The opportunities for brands
So, if these “full nests” represent a good segment for packaged brands, where do the opportunities lie?
Well, the typical family we’re talking about has certain characteristics that give clues. The parent/child relationship is closer, more akin to a friendship. Good Boomer parents seem to cater to the individual preferences of their adult children. And maybe because they are all adults, they enjoy spending social time together. This is a family that will make time to dine together, ‘play’ together (surely one of the drivers for the resurgence in popularity of board games) and they even take pleasure in shopping together.
Another trend our research highlighted—an extremely important one within the context of an all-adult family—is the idea of connecting, or ‘reconnecting’ to familiar favorites from the past, be that through flavor, format or a well-loved childhood brand.
It is interesting to see flavors like raspberry and vanilla emerge in products designated squarely at adults. The recent launches of Absolut Vanilia and Absolut Raspberri highlight the trend of reconnecting with flavors normally associated with childhood, now formulated and packaged as a sophisticated and altogether more adult take on these familiar favorites.
Breakfast cereals could do a similar job of revisiting childhood classics—Cocoa Krispies and Frosted Flakes, for example—but made more adult in presentation and flavor. Dial down the sweetness and up the chocolate, perhaps? Along those lines, a new fast food concept called Cereality has just set up in several American cities, with the aim of serving young and not-so-young office workers their favorite cereals all day long, with additions like fruit, yogurt, etc.  
And what of the classic single-serving variety packs? Couldn’t they also be re-formulated and resized to recapture the hearts and minds of the modern, full nest adult family?
I can imagine a rethinking of childhood comfort classics like macaroni and cheese. Obviously, tastes have become more sophisticated, and we are talking about an adult audience, but I have noted with interest how the menus of many a sophisticated New York eatery have adapted to meet a more comfort-seeking mood in the post 9-11 years—mac and cheese with a slice of foie gras, for example. With this in mind, could Kraft reinvent macaroni and cheese in a more sophisticated, adult kind of way?
Our desire to reconnect is evident everywhere. I was personally fascinated to see the 70s TV show “Kojak” reinvented. This time around he’s African American, but he still totes his signature lollipop. This got me thinking. Everything from Chupa Chups to Tootsie Rolls is enjoying a second coming with an adult audience. And while sugar may have taken on a certain sinful status in low-carb America, there are ways manufacturers can give us the familiar, well-loved candy of yesteryear, without the sugar angst.
I could spend several more pages offering other examples of reinvented classics for a grown up family. Clearly, this trend is here to stay and it’s time, as brand owners and designers, that we woke up to this fact and started doing something about it. Now! BP
The author, Mark Rodgers, is Insight Director at Pearlfisher, (London and New York). He can be contacted at