The power children exert on their parents' buying patterns has increased 54% since 1997, and according to McNeal & Kids, youth marketing consultants, kids are responsible for directly influencing more than $170 billion in purchases last year, not counting the $21.7 billion of their own money they spent mostly on food and beverages. Busy parents are turning to their offspring for ideas and meal solutions, and kids, who are directly impacted by media exposure, often provide them. What's more, the authority youngsters have in the home is growing—because they are home alone, they take care of their own snacks, and many also do some of the family food shopping.

Finally, parents are having children later in life, giving them more disposable income. As families get busier, family mealtimes grow more precious, making parents reluctant to spend the dinner hour doing battle with the kids over what to eat. It has become normal for family members to sit down to meals together, though each with different foods.

The result of all this is that smart marketers speak to these influential child consumers by incorporating what's important to them: fun.

Foods can move up the food marketing “funtinuum” by transforming themselves. A cute label on an adult product is not enough. Kids want more. Shapes, colors, sparkles, play-value, partnerships and promotions all work to make products more appealing to this powerful young audience.

Moving Up the Funtinuum

There are some foods that have unexpectedly transformed their image to become great kid-friendly products. Boring, wholesome milk became very appealing with the advent of the Dean's Milk Chug, a contoured, brightly colored bottle that combines convenience (a twist-off, resealable cap) with cool. Unlike traditional cartons, the Chug fits in a child's hand and a car cupholder. Parents like the wholesome product and the convenient, to-go aspect; kids love the bright colors and fun packaging—a smart transformation to a fun product.

Another healthy food transformed for youngsters is Yoplait's Go-Gurt. Yogurt, once positioned as a health food, is now a go-anywhere food in a tube that doesn't require a spoon and is presented in flavors like Cool Cotton Candy and Berry Blue Blast. Boasting active cultures and lots of calcium, the package and flavors take precedence over the product's healthiness—a plus when appealing to children.

Mott's Blues Clues Berry Apple Sauce and Rugrats Apple Sauce appeal to kids with fun packaging and tie-ins to cartoon TV shows, but they've gone one step further: the actual product comes in blue and green. Still healthy, the product now appeals to a child's eye. That's been so successful that Mott's added Hawaiian Punch applesauce to stain tongues red.

Funtinuum Favorites

Some brands have long been at the high end of the funtinuum: Willy Wonka candies and McDonald's Happy Meals, for examples. Pez dispensers have entertained kids for years—the active aspect of the toy, the candy and the changing characters, combine to make a delightful children's product. McDonald's similarly updates an old favorite—the Happy Meal—with new tie-ins, activities and toys, to deliver reasons to come back for more.

Like the Happy Meal, cereals work to stay at the high end of the funtinuum by keeping their packaging fresh through on-package games and toy offers from the latest movie or TV show. The packaging and toy can bring fun to the experience of eating breakfast.

Fruit Roll-Ups has also remained high on the funtinuum for years by actively involving kids in guiding their updates on the product, packaging and promotions. Throughout the years, they have altered the colors, shapes and, most of all, the experience of enjoying their product.

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Fun

Foods move up the funtinuum by increasing their “fun factor” in two ways: intrinsically, with product changes or packaging, and extrinsically, with toys and games.

Intrinsic fun can come from the product itself. Color is a common way to add intrinsic fun. For example, new Parkay™ Fun Squeeze® is a butter-flavored topping in Electric Blue and Shocking Pink, featuring a kid-oriented contoured bottle with no-slip squeeze grips for smaller hands. Heinz's E-Z Squirt ketchup comes in green and purple, and includes a similar child-friendly contoured package that squirts a thin stream of ketchup clearly meant for drawing.

Any food that kids can actively play with has a good chance of catching their attention. For example, Oscar Mayer's Lunchables build-your-own-pizza variety lured minors with the activity of building towers of snacks.

Other ways a brand can add intrinsic fun: changing color or shape. Oreos Magic Dunkers change a glass of milk blue when they're dunked, and Cheetos Mystery Colorz actually turn tongues green or blue when eaten. The food's shape also can spark imagination for kids and allow the food to become a source of entertainment. Cheetos Whirlz' pinwheel-like shape with a hole in the center inspired youngsters to use the snack as a ring, look through it like a peephole or throw it like a Ninja star.

By linking with an already-fun property, breakfast cereals, fast-food kids' meals and many other products move up the funtinuum. The partnerships allow the foods to remain interesting to children, and the partner properties get to address their audience in a new way.

Some products combine the two. Dreyer's Ice Cream (known as Edy's Grand Ice Cream east of the Rockies) combines extrinsic and intrinsic fun. Dreyer's promotional flavors have included Godzilla Vanilla, tied to the release of Godzilla; Infinity Divinity, linked with Toy Story 2; and Dalmatian Sensation, in which you could find roughly 102 Dalmatians.

The Bottom Line

Expect the funtinuum trend to continue—more tubes, more unexpected colors, more stack-your-own, more kid-friendly packaging, and more permanent partnerships between food companies and kid properties.

When it comes to marketing to children, food companies often lead the way, but other categories are quick to follow. Today, hotel, airline and automobile marketers adjust their products and promotions to meet the needs of kids. Take advantage of the trend by pushing products up the funtinuum. Don't just make a small version of an adult food. Reinvent it to include the kind of fun that appeals to the youngsters in your target audience.