What Kids Buy and Why

Patricia Laidler ( Professor of Business Administration, Massasoit Community College, Brockton, MA)

Journal of Consumer Marketing

ISSN: 0736-3761

Article publication date: 1 July 2000




Laidler, P. (2000), "What Kids Buy and Why", Journal of Consumer Marketing, Vol. 17 No. 4, pp. 358-372. https://doi.org/10.1108/jcm.2000.17.4.358.3



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

“Finding the difference that makes a difference” (p. 32) is, for Dan S. Acuff, the key ingredient in developing a winning formula for marketing everything from videogames to breakfast cereals to today’s kids. In his recent book, What Kids Buy and Why, Acuff gives practitioners a product development model built on the theories of how children grow intellectually, socially, and morally. With a highly readable, almost conversational, style he manages to make the research accessible thus eminently usable.

Acuff is a writer of strong opinions based on sound experience. As President of Youth Market System Consulting of Glendale, California, he specializes in selling to kids. His firm, where co‐author Robert Reiher serves as Vice‐president and Director of Research, boasts a client list of over 50 major corporations marketing to children. Acuff’s success, he believes, is based on “an in‐depth understanding of the child consumer that provides the only real access to approximating a ‘winning formula’ for the development of products and programs that succeed with kids” (p. 16). To this end, he offers his model, the Product Leverage Matrix, with leverage being that power the Barbies\to of the toy world have in order to capture the ever‐changing and allusive interest of kid consumers.

Presented in Chapter 1, and used as a framework for the rest of the book, the YMS Matrix centers on consumers from two to 20. For Acuff, knowing this customer means going beyond the traditional demographic/psychographic profile, to a thorough understanding of the inner workings of youngsters at various developmental stages. He considers their neurologic and cognitive states, the nature of their perceptions and needs, as well as their sense of self and stage of social development. He even looks at how their sense of humor is coming along. And all this to one end, to a better understanding of what will sell best.

The Matrix provides the “big picture” according to Acuff, allowing marketers to integrate such concerns as product concept, position and competition while considering the specific developmental needs of the target child. While the Matrix is useful, it is the way that Acuff translates the theory into action that is most interesting. Analyzing numerous winning products from nerfballs to Nintendo\to, Acuff explains why these products were and are such a good fit for kids. Starting with newborns through age 2 and ending with teens age 16 to 19, each chapter addresses the special concerns of a particular age group. In each, the author tackles a different set of developmental issues: the fantasy life of three‐to‐five year olds, the effect of puberty on eight‐to‐twelve‐year‐olds, the drive for independence of the adolescent. He always returns however to the practical, continually referencing why the winning products win and the losers lose.

Acuff considers himself a marketing insider, a practitioner in the real world; he works hard to stay true to this course. He is as likely to draw his sources from marketing research, the Roper Youth Report for example, as he is from the giants of the world of child development. Although he often spends considerable time describing current theories, such as Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligence, each theoretical discussion is followed by a section entitled “implications” and, in each chapter summary, he returns to the model to explain how the theory can be used to develop product concepts and selling strategies.

If Acuff’s book is to be faulted at all, it would be in two areas. First, in an early chapter entitled “Kid Empowerment”, he challenges marketers to consider whether or not the products and programs they’re designing are really good for kids, “empowering” to use his term. “Ask yourself,” he extols, “These products and programs that I am developing and marketing, are they the types of products or programs that I would want my own child to have, watch, play with?” 9, p. 25) He promises to return to this theme in succeeding chapters but little is heard of this important ethical issue after Chapter 2.

Additionally, this book might be more aptly titled “What Boys Buy and Why.” For Acuff, while referencing one major source which deals with the differences of girls and boys and trying hard to be gender inclusive, is very dependent on the gender specific work of Piaget and Kohlberg and ignores the work of Jean Baker Miller, Matina Horner and the research out of the Harvard Project on Women’s Psychology and the Development of Girls. Consequently, there are some oversights, such as Acuff’s assertion in Chapter 9 that in the area of food marketing boys and girls are no different. “Boys eat, girls eat, period.” (p. 156) In reality, boys eat; girls think a lot about eating and body image. Marketers need to be aware of this.

All in all, Acuff is successful in his goal: “to lead the reader toward an in‐depth understanding of the inner workings of these young consumers.” For marketers charged with selling to kids, it’s an excellent way to understand theory while keeping the practical in focus.

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