5 Things Toddlers Can Teach You About Marketing

When Sense Worldwide’s Brian Millar spent a couple of years as a stay-at-home dad, he garnered more awards than at any other two-year stint of his career. Here’s what he learned.

The tantrums, the thrown food, the tears, and shouting . . . running an advertising creative department really is the ideal preparation for being a stay-at-home dad. Some time back, I swapped my job as a creative director to spend a couple of years looking after the kids. To my surprise, it actually boosted my career. By freelancing in the evenings and during my children’s afternoon naps, I actually won more creative awards than in any other two-year period of my life. Kids are a tough crowd; they raised my game. Here are some of the things that mine taught me about marketing.


1. Emotional benefits sell better than rational ones

“I bought some ravioli for dinner tonight–you’ll all love it!” called my optimistic wife as she left for work. I opened the fridge and stared at the little plump parcels full of . . . spinach. There would be tears before bedtime. Possibly mine. “Eat spinach because it’s good for you” doesn’t cut it with small kids, or many consumers for that matter. This needed a higher order benefit: What’s the emotional buzz you get from ravioli? The surprise of the filling. Badda bing! “Kids, tonight we’re having . . . pasta presents! It’s surprises for your mouth, wrapped in pasta.” The pasta presents disappeared. My kids still think they hate spinach. But I bet I could cook ravioli with lawn clippings in it, and they’d still wolf it down.

2. Don’t ask your consumers whether they want something new

Kids’ TV drives me nuts. There was no way I was going to sit through endless repetitions of high-pitched songs squawked by multicolored gonks. My kids were going to have the finest classical education: my box set of Laurel and Hardy. The only challenge: Stan and Ollie are in black and white, whereas my darlings’ experience of all media was in hallucinogenic colors.

Malcolm Gladwell was right in Blink. We’re programmed by evolution not to like unfamiliar stuff. So if you ask people whether they’d like something completely different to what they already have, they say no.

Steve Jobs knew better; he didn’t ask us whether we wanted to lose parallel ports, floppy drives, or DVD writers. He just stopped putting them on his machines, and gave us something better. But he made the experience immediately delightful, so we didn’t mind.

My solution: Way Out West. We open on Laurel and Hardy wading across an ankle-deep stream. Just as my kids started to say, “This is old, this is in bla—,” Olly fell into a deep hole and disappeared under the water. Stanley picked up Olly’s floating hat and scratched his head. The kids screamed with laughter. That year we worked our way through Stan and Ollie’s entire oeuvre before moving onto Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

Sometimes you have to push new ideas on consumers. When you do, make sure it’s instantly gratifying. Get it right, and it’ll pay off big. Me, I never had to watch another episode of Tellytubbies.


3. Bonuses are better than bribes

When you bribe kids to do something, the bribe quickly takes over. Swimming lessons become all about the ice cream afterward; shutting the heck up demands increasing amounts of protection money. It’s much better to surprise kids occasionally when they do something right. They don’t expect it, and it delights them when it happens. Bribes are bad; bonuses are good.

Sales promotions broadly fall into the same two categories. The first kind is a bribe, where you effectively buy the consumer’s attention and loyalty. Think money-off deals, iTunes vouchers, and so on. When you’re being generous, you have lots of friends. When the bribes dry up, everybody moves on. Airline-loyalty schemes work like this: You’re paying people to like you. Don’t be surprised when they demand bigger bribes.

Bonuses are where you get something extra for doing something you’d like to do anyway: two for the price of one, 20% extra, a cheap upgrade, and so on. They’re a boon; they give you extra reasons to buy a product you’d have considered anyway. They increase loyalty that continues long after the promotion stops.

4. Nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising

The Louvre will be better than Star Wars. This bold statement got my kids through the front door of one of the world’s great cultural edifices. Somewhere around the Rubens Gallery, the skepticism about my claim began. It got louder. By the time we got to Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, I felt like one of the shipwrecked wretches in the painting. Don’t write checks in your communications that you can’t cash with your products and services.
The marketing graveyard is littered with the wreckage of brands that couldn’t live up to the promises written by their ads. You bought Oat Weetabix, right? But did you buy a second box? There you go.

5. Move beyond functional equivalence

If you have kids, know this moment: You buy your child a toy, and all they do is play with the box. That’s because when you’re a kid, everything is a toy. Kitchen knives, lawn mowers, and piles of rocks will all serve the purpose equally well. This is really what you’re fighting as a toy maker: When everything’s a toy, you need to make something that’s especially fun–your biggest competition is your own box.

Increasingly, that’s the challenge for all manufacturers. These days, in the developed world, everything works. Twenty years ago, you paid more for a BMW because it would break down less than a Ford. Now they’re really equally good: BMW has to justify its price premium with better design, luxury cues, and superior service. Fortunately, it seems that people will pay for much more than function these days. After all, a $20,000 watch doesn’t tell the time any better than a $20 one, but there’s a market for both.



Do marketers make better parents? I have no idea. All those long-haul flights, late nights, and early mornings take their toll. Still, I can always look to my colleague Jacky Parsons, who’s director of research here at Sense Worldwide and a self-confessed “ad brat.” Her dad and two uncles were top London creative directors, and she’s one of the smartest, kindest, and most inventive people I know. Perhaps there’s hope for my two yet.

[Image: Jiri Hera, Mrs. Opossum, and trekandshoot via Shutterstock]