Pirating The Principles Of Successful Youth Brands

Posted by Amy Henry on Wed, Aug 17, 2011 @ 10:47 AM

Preschoolers, kids and tweens have been shivering their timbers, yo-ho-ho’ing and seeking out gold doubloons all spring and summer, making pirates the latest craze among youth.

Disney Jr.’s Jake and the Neverland Pirates has taken what could be a scary concept and made it preschool-friendly. It’s hard to find a preschooler right now who hasn’t taken to the adventures of “good pirates,” Jake, Izzy and little Cubby, making it the premier show on the newest network from the children’s entertainment powerhouse.

The fourth installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean, On Stranger Tides, has given Disney another hit among tweens, teens and their parents. Take a-listers Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz and Geoffrey Rush, put them in a story as seductive to adults as it is fantastic to kids, and infuse it with wit and it’s no surprise why this franchise has put seeking treasure and sailing the high seas back on kids’ radar.

These properties and the general pirate craze has spawned or breathed new life into pirate experiences across the country. In Ocean City, NJ last week, kids Paul Frank Piratesattended Pirate School at the boardwalk, and throughout the spring, summer and into this fall, they’ll take a ride on an authentic pirate ship where they’ll get painted tattoos, drink “grog” (root beer to you landlubbers) and battle an enemy pirate with water cannons. In Buena Park, California, or Orlando, Florida, you can get the full pirate experience at the Pirate Dinner Adventure. And of course, Disney has capitalized on the pirate trend they re-inspired with The Pirates League. If getting styled like your favorite Princess isn’t your thing, get your face painted, grab a sword, and transform yourself into your inner swashbuckler. The pirate trend is good news for Paul Frank, who has played with this motif in his designs for years, and providing pirate paper plates was big business for Target, who sold out of this party pattern pretty quickly!

But what makes pirates work with youth, beyond an association with a few hit shows/movies? And how, as a marketer, can you tap into what these pirate properties know?

  1. Look to the classics...First, many great youth stories have been written. The Pirates of the Caribbean and Peter Pan serve as inspiration for the most modern of seafarers. These tales survive the test of time because they pit good versus evil, take youth on journeys to exciting places, and test the characters’ mettle (letting kids vicariously test their own). It doesn’t hurt that the nice guys usually walk away with the loot.
  2. 2.       …But create concepts that grow. These themes are far from grounded in the needs of one age group. Instead, Disney has translated a commonly admired concept to suit the very different tastes and aesthetics of its differing audiences. Jake and the Neverland Pirates make villains more silly than scary, and The Pirates of the Carribean’s Jack Sparrow has an authentic edge that makes him appeal to even the most jaded teen.
  3. Make it sing! Like any good evergreen theme, this one comes with a soundtrack. For little kids, music is essential to making a property sticky…For adults, a few tongue in cheek drinking songs provide the comic relief that affirms the movie’s fun-loving side.
  4. 4.       Give them treasure – but make them look for it! A pirate may be only as interesting as the treasure that he seeks – and the one that alludes him. Just as youth love to be recognized and rewarded, and the fantasy of riches that could transform their lot in life is a fantasy that begins with babes, the pirates they admire have the drive to go for something that wiser souls might label a longshot. Sound like the state of childhood? Kids and tweens alike identify with characters that throw a little caution to the wind, and they revel in telling the more sober cynics “I told you so” when that wild goose chase yields some gold.
  5. Finally, don’t take yourself too seriously. Pirates can be serious stuff – and perhaps a few parents, a few years ago, were conflicted about the whole idea of pirates, once real pirates started to dominate the headlines – and they weren’t good guys in disguise. But these pirates show that the pirate life is fun for a while, and that beyond their thin veneer, even the most evil villains might be more vulnerable than vicious.

So when you’re thinking about your brand this summer, think, what would Jack Sparrow do? Drink a glass of grog and contemplate what evergreens are ripe for a reinvention…

Tags: movie, Youth, fashion, kids tweens teens

The debate over learning – and teaching – for today’s youth

Posted by Amy Henry on Tue, Aug 09, 2011 @ 10:55 AM

Don Tapscott, a self-described “digital revolution expert,” writer, educator and business consultant has spent more than a little bit of time and money exploring how this generation learns, and importantly, how they should be taught. While his research has focused on higher education, his claims and his studies hold implications for kids, tweens, and teens and how they receive and process information across multiple contexts.

In his latest book, Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World (2010), he suggests that the way we teach today’s youth is misaligned with how their brains are wired. Specifically, he describes the classic university lecture model (and let’s face it – the oft used research presentation model) as applying 17th century technology and philosophy to a 21st century student-base. Expanding on an idea that served as the centerpiece of his 2006 work, Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, (which along with his latest work, was co-authored by Anthony D. Williams), he describes today’s students as being cognitively oriented towards collaborative learning versus “being broadcast to” based on their life-long experience “making, changing and learning from digital communities” (listen to an interview in which he describes this shift, in depth, on the website for NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.”

Tapscott has investigated this theory in numerous studies (one which he priced at $4.5 million and included a sample of 11,000 youth!)…But perhaps what was more interesting about his theory, which seems to hold some water, is the strong reactions it garnered from callers into the above-mentioned radio show on which he was a guest.

First, a professor (who revealed his age to be a young 31) vehemently disagreed with Tapscott’s assertion that we need to change classroom approaches to adapt to today’s students’ learning styles. Using his own college students as evidence, he claimed that this generation was more entitled, more self-absorbed and more isolated and isolating than they should be. He described students who protested assignments that involved reading over 30 pages, and cited numerous examples of students bypassing class, only to search a topic on Wikipedia, where they can find questionable but convenient information in sound-byte chunks. Rather than catering to these tendencies, this professor asked educators to continue to push and challenge students to engage in “real learning,” even if it meant sitting and listening or reading a book.Teen at computer

Tapscott has heard this rebuttal before. He countered with a compelling story of one student who he met who claimed that he didn’t “read books.” Upon getting to know him better, Tapscott found that the student had a 4.0 GPA. He had friends and was president of his school’s student body. His girlfriend was from New Orleans, and when Katrina hit, they went to her home and set up a health clinic (based on information and know-how they gained from networking – virtually and with people they met through social networks. They became immersed in understanding how to provide affordable healthcare to a population in need. The clinic continues to serve 9,000 patients per year. 

But can you get a job without reading books? Well, it might be too soon to know. This guy followed up his college experience at Oxford, where he went for free. He received something called a Rhodes scholarship.

To be fair, we have straddled this issue. Anyone who reads our blog, or knows us, knows that we see few youth trends as signs of a doomed generation. We explore – and are fascinated by – change as part of our trade. But some of us (this former English-major writer included) still revel in reading the old-fashioned way, and really hopes our children find reading to be one of life’s great joys. While I’m confessing, I also like lectures – which makes me an overly eager and enthusiastic Ph.D. student – I apologize to my peers. But I think Tapscott’s point is not to suggest that paper is going away or that listening to an expert isn’t important. He champions dialogue and connection. He pushes for experiences that engage students in hands-on learning, not passive receiving (giving an interesting example of how Boomers grew up being broadcast to by the television, in contrast with this generation who expects to log-on and customize and even co-create content to make it work for them). Finally, he promotes the idea that today’s youth have ideas to give, not just information to learn. This makes sense to us (and it’s in line with the 21st Century learning initiative, which most educators have embraced as the new way students should be learning today).

This debate might have started with questioning the college classroom, but we think it has implications for anyone creating programs and sending messages to today’s youth. First, make sure you’re bringing them into a dialogue – not merely dictating to them. Second, recognize that they relate to authority different than in the past. It’s not about rejection, but it might mean that you need to partner more than posture, and allow for multiple ways of being right. Finally, don’t underestimate their desire to connect. This is far from an isolated generation – this is a group eager to build and engage in community, and to make a difference in the places where they live and play.

Tags: research, Social Issues, kids, parents, Youth, school

Kids and “Stuff”: Cracking the Code on Collecting

Posted by Amy Henry on Wed, Aug 03, 2011 @ 10:39 AM

To be a kid is to be a collector. It would be hard to find a kid or even a tween who doesn’t treasure some assortment of knick-knacks, trading cards, stickers, Silly Bandz or even seashells. Beyond acquiring, kids revel in displaying, trading, and showing and telling their collections. But why do kids collect?

In Stuff  by anthropologists Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee, a study of hoarders and “the meaning behind our stuff,” they hypothesize that 90% of children collect something. They define a collection as being a deliberate assembly of items, with something that makes them alike, and importantly, that are hunted out and brought together deliberately (differentiating it from a group of things that you happen to have a lot of – like paper plates or pots and pans). They also provide an interesting criteria that might not apply to all cases but to some – the object must no longer be used as it was intended to be (i.e., it’s rendered, in some ways, dysfunctional).stuff

This interesting history and study of hoarding includes tales of pre-teens who develop a hoarding disorder as an extension of OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) or other control-oriented neuroses. But they acknowledge that collecting serves more productive purposes for many people, especially for kids. They note, as many experts in this space have, that collections fit with children’s developmental needs. Specifically:

  1. They say “who I am” for kids who cannot yet express such weighty thoughts. While anti-consumerists often complain about the need for kids to show who they are through what they own, most 6 year olds – even those who don’t care about brands or buying in particular – can’t say who they are as well as they can show it.


  1. They make children feel important. Just like adult collectors, kid collectors find meaning in having curated and cultivated things of value. Unlike the adult collector, in most cases, a child’s collection doesn’t have a monetary value as much as a sentimental one. The objects of kids’ collection say, variably, “I’ve been somewhere,” “I know about something,” or “I have accomplished” (think Boy and Girl Scout badges). Just like a college degree, looked at through a semiotics lens, signifies the wherewithal to follow-through on a course of study, the collection reflects the child’s ability to stick with a mission. For children, who see making it to the next age as a major accomplishment, having invested weeks, months or years on the lookout for items that fit their collection feels like an achievement of attention. Thus, the collection becomes a way to display what they have and a self-contained trophy at the same time. 


  1. They give children a chance to practice meaning-making. Frost and Steketee present a counter-intuitive hypothesis of the extreme adults they profile…They note, from the start of the book, that we might assume hoarders are isolated and anti-social, but their study proved otherwise. Rather than being disconnected, these hoarders often identified items of value and kept them because they saw something that another person they know might appreciate. These researchers don’t deny that hoarders suffer from a decision-making disorder – one that prevents them from prioritizing the truly important from the mundane (from trash), but they note that many of this disease’s adult victims are hyper social, not socially inept. For kids, collections can allow them to connect with others in a different way…Like adult hoarders, kids with collections see meaning in things that others might ignore. The items in their collection come with rich narratives, and often, kids add something new to their collection because of a subtle difference – a rock of a slightly different shade of gray, or a marble with a pretty combination of swirls, for example. Collections help children notice what makes objects similar and unique within a set.

So when we look at kids’ collections, we should also search for their meaning. The seemingly simple act of bringing items together in a deliberate fashion is more complicated than it seems. Want to understand a child? Ask them about their collections. And don’t just ask them what they collect, but why. And give them a shot at saying what makes each object different. Provide them with ways to document these sets of things that are so significant to them. Finally, look for inspiration in the collecting habits of youth. How can your brand proposition or program fit with little ones’ love of objects for their stories, not for their shine? Like collections themselves, the possibilities are endless.

Tags: kids, family, Youth, parenting