SARASOTA – A kid threw up last Sunday in the McDonald’s Playplace here. Not that that is a surprise. Stuff like that happens all the time, and it was cleaned up. It could have been me throwing up, however, as my daughter got yet another stinky Strawberry Shortcake Happy Meal toy, and it was sitting on the table as I ate.
That same weekend, an older daughter in high school needed to do a science experiment on stomach acids and over the counter pain remedies. She needed equipment to do the experiment, and something to measure with metrics on it. And lucky for her, her six year old sister had a small plastic beaker from Chick Fil-A. That beaker was part of a Mad Science oriented kids meal, and over the last few months, that beaker has seen more use than the hundreds of cheap Happy Meal (and other fast food) toys that have cluttered up our playroom bins, only to be thrown away.
Just this week, I got a comment from an elderly BrandlandUSA reader. She wrote to say that she recalled as a child collecting Old Dutch Cleanser labels in order to win a first aid kit. Seventy years later, it stuck with her as a memory of the brand. Now that’s marketing! What kid doesn’t want Band-Aids? And how practical to have around the house and the minivan.
It got me thinking that consumer brands that speak to children need to raise their aspirations; kids can handle it. Frankly, the endless junk does nothing long term for the brand. Of course, many of the big fast food chains have run toy promotions with Legos and American Girl, but this seems to be the exception, not the rule. More often, it is a movie tie-in, and these go directly in the recycle bin when they come home.
Now, the marketing departments of these chains will tell you they know better. But I know one thing that the marketing department is not paying attention to. It is the food Nazis. The food Nazis are out to restrict the fast food companies in any way that they can, and to combat this, McDonald’s and the rest need to be even more cooperative with cultural institutions and science groups in coming up with cool but inspired promotions.
What are some examples of this?
- Science Premiums: I recall a time when Post Super Sugar Crisp (now Super Golden Crisp) offered small terrariums to kids. They were just clear plastic boxes with sponges and seeds, but it it was a great promotion about teaching kids that things can grow. The chemistry set from Chick Fil-A was brilliant; perhaps there are other science oriented premiums that can be given out? Plants? Trees? Sea Monkeys? Doctor kits?
- School and Art Supplies: Frito Bandito no longer appears; sadly he was not P.C. enough. However, as a child in the 1970s, I recall that he was made into a pencil-topping eraser. That was brilliant, as the eraser was useful. By the way, it was a real eraser, and not one of the hard, oily ones that only make No 2 pencil marks into smudges. I have a confession about Frito erasers; as a child I remember the eraser so well because a kid on my bus had one, and when it fell off accidentally and rolled way back under seats, I kept it, thereby committing THREE offenses that were of the Ten Commandments, namely coveting, lying and theft. But back to the school supplies. Pens, rulers, compasses, notebooks and other useful items can be given out, provided that they are branded with the right licensed characters. Restaurants help supply our house with crayons, but what are some other art supplies that might be useful?
- Practical Premiums. Welch’s got oodles of attention for their cartoon glasses over the years. Hardee’s also used to have a very major set of glasses that were given out with cartoons on them. Yes, McDonald’s got burned with Shrek glasses, but that doesn’t mean that other glasses couldn’t be tried. Gas stations used to be geniuses at this. Real flashlights would also fit in this category, along with the already mentioned first aid kit.
- Cooking: Chefs are the rage, and not only for girls. Now boys are into grilling and chef activities, to go along with their dads. What sort of real products could be given out? Try measuring spoons and cups. Cupcake mixes and icing. Non-sharp cheese choppers that double as Play-Doh pressers. And cookie cutters in nifty shapes will live in kitchen drawers for generations.
- Educational toys: When was the last time you saw a kid working on a ship or plane model? How about licensing small modeling kits from Revell or even Radio Shack, Boeing, GM or Ford? Guillow gliders? Any premium that helps to encourage boys and girls to be interested in science is a winner.
- Durable toys. Legos fit in this category, as does any other toy that will make an existing toy more fun. Durable toys toys to consider might also be ones that might stay in the back of the minivan for weeks, and continue to entertain.
- Good books. Again, Chick Fil-A is the standout here. The Naples, Florida company Frederic Thomas has helped bring all sorts of educational books to the chicken chain, including short versions of Dorling Kindersley reference books for kids. But other chains could be aggressive about this.