OPINION19 June 2018

Kids say the darndest things

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Researching children around the globe comes with specific cultural barriers beyond simply obtaining parental consent, say Bianca Abulafia and Sarah Serbun.


Kids are by nature tiny, honest beings (sometimes brutally so!). Their candid thoughts are often very pertinent and revealing. But children in different cultures respond to research in different ways, so how can we get them to really open up and provide this valuable insight for brands?

Most global CMOs of multinational companies want to nail a single global strategy, which is implemented locally in the very different markets their consumers call home. But completing qualitative research across several markets without first understanding the cultural context can be rather ambitious. Mix this with kids, and you’ve got a whole new ball game. The barriers to researching children across cultures go far beyond simply obtaining parental consent.

Put it into (cultural) context

Children in different countries experience different living arrangements, educations, and timelines for development, which help shape the way they develop their sense of self-expression. Referencing cross-cultural theories and constructs published by academic researchers can strengthen our understanding of, and sensitivity to, cultural differences.

One widely cited construct in cross-cultural psychology compares individualist societies (like the US and other Western countries) and collectivist societies (such as China and other Eastern countries). Studies conducted by our teams across the globe have revealed several differences between these two societies that impact research design.

In a collectivist society like Singapore, there is a strong focus on academics. This translates over to the research setting, where kids are often afraid to get the answer ‘wrong’, so they tend to instead share the views of adults or what they believe to be the ‘correct’ answer.

To get to the real insight, researchers should present a range of visual prompts – far more than usual – and use play techniques to encourage kids to show rather than tell, such as acting out a conversation or using a functional object. For example, a stationery brand doing research in Singapore asked kids to build a Lego scene of their classroom to spark conversations about how they used the materials in their classes.

A more junior research team should also be used to help the kids feel comfortable and open up. Parents should also be removed from the room, so the kids don’t feel the need to please them around study vs play, if research codes and conduct allow it in the country.  

However, in an individualistic society such as the US, kids are already open to sharing their own views. Because group school work is part of their grade, they are taught to value and respect different perspectives and express their opinions. So, questions can be more direct to encourage an honest verbal response, but must also be framed in context. Following up with more indirect questions or projective exercises is also still necessary to reveal the underlying reasons why, which kids might not know. Unlike in Singapore, having parents present in the beginning can help encourage kids to express themselves, as they may be shy at first.

In any culture, qualitative researchers should partner with a local researcher or moderator for further insight into the cultural nuances. A simple tweak to a discussion guide could make a big difference in motivating participation and capturing true behaviour.

Age can also be a challenge, so to make sure the fragile adolescent years do not affect the insight, keep age ranges tight (less than two years) for groups and use friendship pairs for older kids who are more self-conscious, even in the most individualistic countries.

We expect new technologies will help overcome some of these barriers, to an extent. Kids in tech-centric countries like the US are already very comfortable using smartphones and tablets to talk to others over FaceTime or Skype, so these tools can be used for research. Additionally, passive tracking of devices can help to undercut the collectivist and individualist mindset, by allowing researchers to root conversations in the actual content kids have been viewing.

Tailored brand messaging and targeting

Different cultures have different decision-makers, which means different targeting and messaging. In collectivist cultures, parents influence how kids play: a study for a toy company in China revealed a lot of kids own counterfeit versions of popular toys because parents consider the third-party manufacturer’s design to be more complex, offering more cognitive educational benefits. This means toy brands in collectivist cultures should also target parents. Meanwhile, kids in individualistic cultures are more independent; they choose their own toys and are more likely to influence the decision, if not totally control it.

Fun and entertainment is a key driver for engagement with children across the globe, but understanding cultural context is compulsory for any global strategy. For example, in one study we found that kids in the US associate their favourite brands as part of their own identity, and they like to apply their own individual creativity to product development. The same study showed that kids in China place greater importance on a brand’s ability to help them feel a sense of community, a way to fit in, and educational benefits like problem solving and social skills. They also desire the limited edition, the new release, and access to exclusive products.

So, although conducting qualitative research with kids across borders can present a few challenges, the value of the insights generated is helping brands understand how children think, behave, and use their products across the globe, but only when the research is designed to be effective in each cultural context.

Bianca Abulafia and Sarah Serbun are insight directors at Kadence International