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Children's Brand Symbolism Understanding: Links to Theory of Mind and Executive Functioning

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Against a background of research suggesting that brand symbolism understanding does not develop until 7 to 11 years of age, two studies investigate various aspects of preschool children's brand knowledge. While children's recognition of child-oriented brands is found to be significantly greater than their recognition of brands that are marketed primarily to teens and adults, these young children do recognize brands. In a second study, children's ability to form mental representations of brands is assessed, along with their understanding of brands as social symbols. Cognitive ability, theory of mind, and executive functioning are assessed as predictors of these brand-related outcomes. Theory of mind and executive functioning are both significant predictors of the ability to form mental representations of brands. Children's brand symbolism understanding shows a significant link with theory of mind. It is concluded that 3- to 5-year-olds have emerging knowledge of brands that are relevant in their lives. The impact of individual differences in theory of mind and executive functioning on children's brand knowledge aligns with current theories of child development. Methodological contributions and societal implications are discussed. © 2010 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
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203
Children’s Brand Symbolism
Understanding: Links to
Theory of Mind and
Executive Functioning
Anna R. McAlister
University of Wisconsin–Madison
T. Bettina Cornwell
University of Michigan
ABSTRACT
Against a background of research suggesting that brand symbolism
understanding does not develop until 7 to 11 years of age, two stud-
ies investigate various aspects of preschool children’s brand knowl-
edge. While children’s recognition of child-oriented brands is found
to be significantly greater than their recognition of brands that are
marketed primarily to teens and adults, these young children do rec-
ognize brands. In a second study, children’s ability to form mental
representations of brands is assessed, along with their understand-
ing of brands as social symbols. Cognitive ability, theory of mind, and
executive functioning are assessed as predictors of these brand-
related outcomes. Theory of mind and executive functioning are both
significant predictors of the ability to form mental representations of
brands. Children’s brand symbolism understanding shows a signifi-
cant link with theory of mind. It is concluded that 3- to 5-year-olds
have emerging knowledge of brands that are relevant in their lives.
The impact of individual differences in theory of mind and executive
functioning on children’s brand knowledge aligns with current theo-
ries of child development. Methodological contributions and societal
implications are discussed. © 2010 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Psychology & Marketing, Vol. 27(3): 203–228 (March 2010)
Published online in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com)
© 2010 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. DOI: 10.1002/mar.20328
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The present research is designed to bridge between the disciplines of market-
ing and psychology. When marketing researchers consider children’s development
as consumers, they frequently rely on Piaget’s (1970) theory of cognitive devel-
opment to explain observed patterns of behavior (see John, 1999). Piaget’s the-
ory is, however, considered somewhat outdated among psychology researchers,
who, since the 1980s, have investigated individual differences in a variety of devel-
opmental variables to explain behavioral outcomes (McAlister & Peterson, 2006;
Zelazo & Reznick, 1991). Given modern understanding, developmental psychol-
ogy researchers recognize the need to assess individual differences in children’s
social development (by measuring a variable termed “theory of mind”) and higher-
order cognitive ability (assessed using measures of executive functioning).
Researchers have suggested the need for marketing studies to adopt the prac-
tice of examining individual differences in theory of mind and executive func-
tioning to explain consumer behavior among young children (e.g., Moses &
Baldwin, 2005). To date, though, such an endeavor has not been undertaken.
Thus, the present research describes theory of mind and executive functioning
for an audience perhaps unfamiliar with the developmental literature, and
demonstrates the appropriateness of testing individual differences in these vari-
ables. The consumer behavior variables of interest are children’s brand recog-
nition and their brand symbolism understanding. The following literature review
first describes how researchers have traditionally applied Piaget’s theory of cog-
nitive development to the study of children’s consumer behavior. Following the
first brief study, the introduction to the second study moves on to explain the rel-
evance of testing variables such as theory of mind and executive functioning.
For the purpose of this research, brand symbolism understanding is defined
as an understanding of the meaning attributed to a brand name. It includes an
appreciation of the ways in which a brand name symbolizes user qualities (e.g.,
popularity, user image) as well as information about the products or services
encompassed by the brand (e.g., perceptions of brand use). Past research sug-
gests that sophisticated symbolism understanding is absent until somewhere
between 7 and 11 years of age (John, 1999). Findings of this type are consistent
with the traditional theory of cognitive development (Piaget, 1970), which asserts
that children younger than 7 years of age are incapable of thinking about abstrac-
tions such as symbols. Piaget’s theory proposes that children’s development can
be defined in four stages. In the sensorimotor stage (birth to 2 years), achieve-
ments include coordination of sensory perceptions and basic motor behaviors.
Infants gradually become aware of the presence of an external world, with which
they start to deliberately interact. In the preoperational stage (3 to 7 years),
children use words and gestures to represent reality; however, this representa-
tion is somewhat egocentric as children still fail to distinguish the points of
view of others from their own. The concrete operation stage (7 to 11 years) is the
time when children first engage in mental operations that allow them to order,
combine, separate, and transform actions and objects. The fourth and final stage
is the formal operational stage (11 to 19 years), when adolescents can think
methodically and analytically about the logical relations within a problem. Ado-
lescents are interested in abstract ideas and are capable of metacognition.
When used to explain children’s development of brand symbolism under-
standing, the most relevant stages of Piaget’s theory are the preoperational and
concrete operational stages. John’s (1999) review of research investigating chil-
dren’s brand symbolism understanding argues strongly that the immature
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cognitive capacity of preoperational children limits them to processing only indi-
vidual elements of brand information and that their egocentric orientation to the
world restricts any understanding of the intentions of others who might use
brands for purposes of self-expression. John concludes that, because advanced
processing skills and perspective-taking abilities emerge during the concrete
operational stage, children aged 7 to 11 years are better equipped to under-
stand complex brand information.
Because the studies reviewed by John (1999) were conceptualized using the
Piagetian stages, which encompass broad age groupings, it was easy to match
observed performance to the wide age brackets. In the absence of measurement,
however, little is known about the effects of individual differences on perform-
ance outcomes within the theorized age stages. For a thorough discussion of the
need to measure individual differences in children’s development, as opposed to
adhering to Piagetian doctrine, the reader is referred to Macklin (1987) and
Young (1990). Given a recent call for research considering individual differences
(Moses & Baldwin, 2005) and given the shortcomings of past research men-
tioned as follows, the present research is designed to measure brand symbolism
understanding in children aged 3 to 5 years.
At first glance, John’s (1999) conclusion regarding the limited brand under-
standing of young children and the emerging understanding evidenced in “tweens”
appears convincing; however, closer inspection of the supporting evidence raises
questions. The youngest children assessed in the brand symbolism studies
reviewed by John were second grade students; therefore, the studies contain no
data from which to draw conclusions about preschool children’s brand symbol-
ism understanding. Further, the findings that the youngest children in these
studies showed little understanding of the social symbolism of brand names may
be confounded. In Achenreiner’s (1995) study, participants were required to make
judgments about the users of fashion brands. Second grade students failed to
make differential judgments of users on the basis of their clothing; however, sixth
grade and high school students showed awareness of the social significance of the
clothing brands. The use of stimulus brands from only one category may simply
indicate that young children are not yet interested in fashion.
From an evolutionary perspective, it could be argued that fashion symbol-
ism is only relevant to the definition of self-image around the onset of puberty,
when clothing and fashion accessories become important tools for attracting
members of the opposite sex (see Daly & Wilson, 1982). This may explain why
prior research has found that “tweens” are the youngest children able to under-
stand the symbolism behind brands. It may be the case, however, that very
young children are capable of understanding the symbolism of brands from
product categories that are important to their self-image at their age. For young
children, a “cool” or “fun” image may be achieved by owning popular brands of
toys, having particular lunchtime foods, or trading sought-after collectable cards.
It may also be the case that products from such categories are recognizable
because they are relevant and salient in the lives of young children. Brand
recognition is likely to play an important role in children’s brand symbolism
understanding, since it does not make sense that a child could understand the
social symbolism of a brand they cannot recognize.
The research agenda is, therefore, twofold, as both brand recognition and
brand symbolism understanding are assessed. The undertaking commences
with a study of brand recognition. The findings of the brand recognition study
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are then used to determine a set of age-appropriate brands (i.e., brands
that are recognized by a majority of 3- to 5-year-old children) for use as stimuli
in the second study in which children’s brand symbolism understanding is assessed
and individual differences in a variety of developmental variables are measured.
BRAND RECOGNITION STUDY
The aim of this first study is to assess levels of brand recognition in children aged
3 to 5 years. Past research has shown that preschool children are capable of rec-
ognizing brands, and it has been suggested that 3- and 4-year-olds can readily
name brands such as McDonald’s, M&M’s, and Oreos (e.g., Derscheid, Kwon, &
Fang, 1996; Haynes et al., 1993). Note that these brands all belong to similar prod-
uct categories (fast food and snacks). As an extension of past research into chil-
dren’s levels of brand recognition, the present research is used to investigate
whether children aged 3 to 5 years are capable of recognizing brands from a
wider variety of product categories beyond those previously studied.
There are many possible explanations as to why certain brands might be
more readily recognized by young children while other brands seem to escape
their attention. Certain brands of food or toys might be recognized because they
are consumed frequently or because they are associated with reward when used
as treats. Brands might also be readily recognized if they are marketed directly
to children. The present study is used to investigate whether 3- to 5-year-old chil-
dren are better able to recognize brands for which they form part of the target
segment (herein referred to as children’s brands) than brands that are targeted
primarily to adolescents and adults (herein referred to as 12brands since age
12 has historically been viewed by Piaget and others as the age that separates
adolescents and adults from children). This proposition is basic, but it is tested
to substantiate the argument against prior studies having used only fashion
brands in research with prepubescent children.
H1: Children’s recognition of brands will differ as a function of the brand’s
target segment. Recognition will be higher for children’s brands than for
12brands.
Method
Participants. The participant sample comprised 38 children (18 boys, 20 girls)
aged 3 years 0 months to 4 years 10 months (M4 years 3 months, SD 6 months).
All children were recruited from middle-class preschools in Brisbane, Australia.
Following institutional review board approval for the project, center directors at
each of two local preschools viewed the testing materials and signed consent forms
indicating their willingness for the researchers to contact parents of children in
their care. Consent forms were sent to all parents of children aged 3 to 5 years. The
rate of return of consent forms following a reminder letter was 76%.
Materials. The stimuli were 50 brands representing 16 product categories
(see Table 1 in Results section). Parent brands were chosen instead of product-
level brands, since children’s experiences with parent brands is likely to be less
variable than their experience with sub-brands. To illustrate, a child who has
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played with Duplo (a sub-brand of Lego) may have no experience with Clikits
(another sub-brand); however, a child who has played with either Duplo or
Clikits has had exposure to the parent brand, Lego, and its logo. Parent brands,
while readily available to children, are also closer to the conceptual focus of the
study, which subsequently discusses concepts such as “What do they make?”
The stimulus brands were chosen on the basis that preschool children could
be assumed to have had exposure to them. This assumption was validated in
interviews with five parents of preschool children who were not participants
in the present study. All parents indicated their child had been exposed to all
of the stimulus brands. Further, two graduate students, blind to the purpose of
the research, were asked to code each brand as being either targeted to chil-
dren or targeted primarily to adolescents and adults. These coders were con-
sidered “experts” since they were studying marketing at graduate level and
each had preschool-aged children. Initial inter-rater reliability was high, at 92%,
and eventually reached 100% following discussion. Confirming prior judgment,
there were 25 12brands and 25 children’s brands (see Appendix A).
Brand logos were each presented on the same size card (3 3.5 in.). To ensure
logotypes were as comparable as possible, any characters (e.g., the M&M’s guys)
or product depictions (e.g., the Coca-Cola contour bottle) that might aid recog-
nition were eliminated from the stimuli. Each presentation consisted of the
brand name in its original font and color on a white background. The participants
in the present study are not yet able to read; therefore, the children were not
expected to read the names. Their recognition of each brand presentation was
assessed.
Table 1. Percentage of Brand Recognition Across Product Categories.
Number Number
Product Number of Child of 12MSDMin. Max.
Category of Brands Brands Brands (%) (%) (%) (%)
Supermarkets 2 0 2 67.60 16.40 56.00 79.20
Fast food 6 6 0 62.02 26.38 18.20 92.90
Transport (airlines, 3 0 3 61.03 22.35 36.40 80.00
automobiles)
Toys 4 4 0 55.13 20.92 33.30 75.00
Bread 2 0 2 53.15 4.45 50.00 56.30
Snack foods 5 4 1 51.28 40.03 0.00 88.90
Entertainment 6 4 2 49.54 29.79 4.50 78.60
Drinks 4 2 2 38.35 44.28 0.00 76.90
Petrol 2 0 2 37.15 22.27 21.40 52.90
Ice cream/donuts 3 1 2 34.23 29.11 6.70 64.70
Batteries 2 0 2 11.75 16.62 0.00 23.50
Electronics 3 1 2 4.60 3.99 0.00 7.10
Clothes 4 2 2 1.48 2.95 0.00 5.90
Hardware 1 0 1 0.00 0.00 0.00
Personal care 2 0 2 0.00 0.00 0.00 0.00
Cereal 1 1 0 0.00 0.00 0.00
Total 50 25 25 38.78 32.45 0.00 92.90
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Procedure. In individual sessions, brand names were shown to the children
one at a time and scripted questions were asked: “Have you seen this before?”
For brands that were obviously known, children typically named the brand.
When children had difficulty naming a brand, prompt questions were asked to
determine whether they recognized the logotype: “What types of things do they
make?” “Tell me more about the [products].” In most instances children either
clearly knew a brand (scored as one) or clearly could not name the brand or
describe its products (scored as zero). Inter-rater coding showed high agreement
(92% to 100% across the 50 brands).
Results
Table 1 displays children’s average brand recognition rates. Among individual
brands, the most frequently recognized was a fast food brand (92.90%). Across
product categories, average brand recognition ranged from 0% (cereals, toi-
letries, and hardware) to 67.60% (grocery store brands). Note, however, that
some categories contained an uneven number of children’s and 12brands.
There was no intention to compare recognition levels across product categories.
The information is displayed in this manner purely to indicate the variety of
brands represented in the stimulus set.
Recognition is higher for children’s brands (n25, M53.91, SD 30.02)
than for 12brands [n25, M23.65, SD 27.78; t(48) 3.70, p0.01].
H1 is supported.
Discussion
It is worth noting that children were at floor in their recognition of cereal brands.
Prior research has suggested that cereal brands are among the brands that are
most familiar to children, given their daily exposure at breakfast time (Rossiter,
1976). The zero-level recognition in the present research is attributed the use
of parent brands as stimuli. As mentioned previously, parent brands were used
to reduce variability in brand conceptualization and to better connect to concepts
of production and manufacturing. Particularly in relation to cereal, the results
suggest that parent brands (e.g., Kellogg’s) may be less readily recognized than
sub-brands (e.g., Froot Loops or Frosted Flakes). Nevertheless, the use of par-
ent brands should not have influenced the test of H1, since the groupings of
children’s brands and 12brands were both comprised of parent brands.
Consistent with H1, preschool children are more successful at recognizing chil-
dren’s brands than 12brands. Moreover, clothing brands show one of the low-
est rates of recognition for any product category. These findings support the
argument that prior studies have inadvertently restricted the opportunity for
young children to demonstrate any understanding of brand symbolism by restrict-
ing the range of brands considered. Recognition rates obtained in this first study are
now used to determine a set of age-appropriate stimuli for the following study.
BRAND REPRESENTATION AND BRAND SYMBOLISM
UNDERSTANDING STUDY
The primary aim of this second study is to determine whether preschool children
understand brand symbolism when the stimuli used at test are age-appropriate.
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Although it has generally been concluded that preschool children have little if
any understanding of brand symbolism (John, 1999), it is anticipated that the
use of age-appropriate stimulus brands will allow them to demonstrate emerging
understanding. In addition to measuring brand symbolism understanding, brand
representation ability is also assessed, since it is considered a prerequisite to
brand symbolism understanding. From a theoretical perspective, it has been
asserted that children must first be able to form abstract, mental representations
of brands before a brand’s symbolic function may be assessed (John, 1999). In the
present research, brand representation ability is defined as the extent to which
a child is capable of holding a schematic mental representation of a brand. Such
schemas group together “instances” of a brand, including the brand’s products,
logo, trade characters, colors, typical sales venues, and so forth.
As a pioneering move, the present study investigates the extent to which vari-
ance in each outcome (i.e., brand representation ability and brand symbolism
understanding) is explained by individual differences in children’s development.
It is acknowledged that children’s brand representation abilities and brand sym-
bolism understanding may be rudimentary at this early age. As such, few sig-
nificant relationships are anticipated with the various measures of development.
One of the areas of child development assessed here is general cognitive abil-
ity. A thorough literature review revealed that only one prior study has inves-
tigated the influence of individual differences in children’s cognitive ability on
brand-related outcomes. Among children aged 3 to 8 years, Henke (1995) found
that performance on a battery of Piagetian cognitive tests predicted recogni-
tion of brand advertising symbols. (Note that the term “symbol” here refers to
an iconic visual brand representation such as a logo or trade character. Henke
did not investigate children’s understanding of the social symbolism attributed
to various brands.) None of the prior studies of brand symbolism understand-
ing has employed a measure of individual differences in children’s cognitive
ability. Rather, children’s performance on brand-related tasks has been meas-
ured and cognitive ability has been inferred subsequently from the observed
performance (e.g., Achenreiner & John, 2003).The present study is designed to
redress this limitation by measuring individual differences in children’s cogni-
tive ability as a predictor of young children’s brand representation ability and
brand symbolism understanding. Consistent with recent research demonstrat-
ing the superior predictive power of specific measures of children’s development
as compared to general cognitive development (see McAlister & Peterson, 2006,
2007), measures of development that are more specifically defined are expected
to have stronger relationships to the outcomes.
To date, no consumer behavior study has distinguished between specific meas-
ures of children’s development; however, there has been a call for such research
to be undertaken. In a conceptual paper, Moses and Baldwin (2005) argue for
the importance of consumer behavior research that focuses on children’s “the-
ory of mind” and “executive functioning” development. Moses and Baldwin’s
argument is that Piaget’s age stages are primarily useful in describing general
patterns of development across age groups, while a stronger model would account
for variance within the stages.
“Theory of mind” refers to a form of social development. When a child has a
theory of mind, they have the capacity to think about the mental states of others
in addition to being able to think about their own mental states (McAlister &
Peterson, 2006, 2007; Wellman, Cross, & Watson, 2001). This ability to think
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about the intentions, beliefs, and desires of others gives a child the mental
perspective-taking skills to theorize about the future behavior of others, hence
the somewhat oddly termed construct “theory of mind.” For instance, a child
who has acquired a theory of mind will be capable of thoughts such as, “I don’t
like drinking iced tea, but Dad likes it. Maybe Dad will want a glass of iced tea
after dinner.” A pre–theory of mind child is not capable of predicting that Dad
might drink iced tea after dinner, because they have not yet mastered the task
of thinking about the father’s thoughts and distinguishing the father’s prefer-
ence (i.e., “likes iced tea”) from their own preference (i.e., “dislikes iced tea”).
Executive functioning encompasses behavior planning, rule adherence, men-
tal flexibility, and inhibition (Frye, Zelazo, & Palfai, 1995). Compared to gen-
eral cognitive ability, executive functioning is a more specific measure of
higher-order cognitive functioning. Young children who have not yet developed
executive functions show an inferior ability to process information about objects
or events because they cannot switch attention from one information element
to another. In the absence of executive functioning, children attend to only the
most prominent information or feature. For instance, in a traditional card sort
task where children are presented with picture cards of yellow circles and red
squares, children with adequate executive functioning are able to sort the cards by
color or by shape, and are able to switch between sorting rules (Frye, Zelazo, &
Palfai, 1995). On the other hand, children who have not yet developed executive
functioning skills may be able to sort the cards by one rule (e.g., creating “color”
piles), but when asked to switch to the second sorting rule (e.g., sorting by shape),
they will be unable to switch attention from the initial focus (color) to the new
task requirement (sorting by shape). Executive functioning develops between the
ages of 3 and 5 years (McAlister & Peterson, 2006).
Given Frye, Zelazo, and Palfai’s (1995) finding that children as young as 3 can
sort picture cards according to simple color and shape rules, it is anticipated
that children as young as 3 should be able to use simple sorting rules in a mar-
ketplace context. For instance, children might be expected to be able to sort
between differently branded items on the basis of color (red and white Coca-
Cola is different from blue and red Pepsi), trade characters (Ronald McDonald
distinguishes McDonald’s from its competitors), and product offerings (KFC
sells chicken drumsticks, whereas Burger King does not). The difference between
sorting shapes and colors versus distinguishing between instances of different
brands is that preschool children can typically be assumed to have knowledge
of shapes and colors. If it is possible to validate an assumption that participants
have sufficient experience with brands that they can recognize a difference
between two competitors, then their level of brand knowledge may be tested by
assessing their ability to correctly sort instances of those brands (e.g., products,
trade characters, sales venues).
The expectation that children’s executive functioning abilities generalize to
a variety of contexts to equip them to form mental representations of categories
of items that belong together is further supported by prior research showing
that children can sort between items in a domestic context. Using an applied sort
task that required children to sort indoor items from outdoor items, Zelazo and
Reznick (1991) found that 3-year-olds have sufficient executive functioning to
perform the task successfully. At 21/2years of age, however, an immature exec-
utive functioning prevents children from completing the task. Despite possess-
ing the accurate prerequisite knowledge (e.g., knowing that a snowman belongs
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outdoors), 21/2-year-old children failed to sort items appropriately. Three- and
4-year-olds with higher levels of executive functioning performed the task suc-
cessfully. Based on these findings, it is expected that when tested using age-
appropriate brands as stimuli, children with sufficient executive functioning
will be able to distinguish competing brands from one another. Hypothesis 2 is
tested to determine the extent to which executive functioning is associated with
brand representation ability.
H2: Executive functioning will show a significant positive relationship with the
quality of children’s mental brand representations.
Executive functioning is the only measured variable expected to show a
significant correlation with children’s brand representation ability. However,
cognitive ability and theory of mind are included in the model predicting brand
representation ability to satisfy calls for research into children’s consumer social-
ization outcomes to employ consistent measures across analyses so that findings
may be compared and contrasted (Moses & Baldwin, 2005; Young, 1990).
Theory of mind is expected to explain significant variance in children’s brand
symbolism understanding. In present and past research (e.g., Achenreiner, 1995),
brand symbolism understanding is operationalized as a child’s ability to make
judgments about the ways in which brands are used to symbolize user popularity
and product qualities (e.g., child’s perception of product quality). Such judg-
ments require social insight. For instance, to generate a thought such as “I wish
I had the latest toy. You’re not cool if you don’t have one” requires that a child
be capable of thinking about the thoughts and feelings of others (e.g., “They will
think I’m cool and like me more if I have the toy”).
Theory of mind tests have been used in psychology to show that children as
young as 3 have the social insight to be capable of thinking about others’ thoughts
(e.g., McAlister & Peterson, 2006, 2007). Successful performance at theory of
mind tasks requires a child to understand, for example, that another person
might be fooled by the deceptive appearance of an object (such as a candle that
is shaped like an apple) even though the child is not fooled (s/he has already been
told that the object is really a candle). Because brand symbolism understand-
ing requires an ability to think about the thoughts and feelings of others, it is
expected to be significantly related to theory of mind. A child who has
an advanced ability to think about the intentions and desires of others (i.e., an
advanced theory of mind) is arguably better equipped to understand the use of
brands for intentional self-expression and to understand market qualities rep-
resented by a brand symbol (e.g., understanding a brand’s popularity involves
thoughts about the extent to which others desire to own its products). In a model
including cognitive ability and executive functioning, Hypothesis 3 tests the
relationship between theory of mind and brand symbolism understanding.
H3: Theory of mind will show a significant positive relationship with chil-
dren’s brand symbolism understanding.
It is anticipated that a procedure designed to reduce response demands on chil-
dren’s language ability will enable 3- to 5-year-olds to demonstrate their emerg-
ing understanding of brand symbolism. Although no prior study has employed
nonverbal measures to investigate children’s brand symbolism understanding,
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various studies in other applied areas have shown that children’s performance
differs depending on the use of verbal or nonverbal methods (Robertson &
Rossiter, 1974; Rossiter, 1976). The tasks used in the present research minimize
verbal responding but still require children to follow the verbal directions of
the researcher. Hence, children’s verbal receptiveness (i.e., the ability to under-
stand spoken words) is measured and controlled for in the analyses.
To test the hypotheses, six brand pairs were selected from the brand recogni-
tion study set on the basis that both brands are recognized by the majority of chil-
dren and that the two brands are competitors. Despite not meeting the inclusion
criteria of recognition by the majority of children, an additional seventh pair is also
included for comparison to prior studies that used fashion brands. The seven
brand pairs represent the following product categories: drinks (76.90% and 76.50%
recognition), fast food (92.90% and 81.30% recognition), “boys’ toys” (75.00% and
57.10% recognition), “girls’ toys” (75% and 53.30% recognition), entertainment
(78.60% and 76.90% recognition), cars (80.00% and 66.70% recognition), and fash-
ion (5.90% and 3.57% recognition). Four of these brand pairs are children’s brands
(drinks, fast food, boys’ toys, and girls’ toys) and three pairs are 12brands (fash-
ion, entertainment, and cars). Although one pair of toy brands is stereotypically
for boys and the other pair for girls, all children are tested using all brands since
all brands of toys are currently used by children at their preschool center.
Method
Participants. Following the same procedure employed in the brand recog-
nition study, parental consent was obtained to work with 42 children (22 boys,
20 girls) aged 3 years 0 months to 5 years 6 months (M4 years 2 months,
SD 8 months). These children were recruited from kindergartens and
preschools in an upper middle class neighborhood in Brisbane, Australia. All
children spoke English as a first language and none had any developmental
delay.
Task Administration and Scoring. To avoid fatigue during testing, the
following tasks were administered across three testing sessions. The order of
administration of these sessions was counterbalanced across children. The gap
between testing sessions was always at least one day and never more than one
week for each child.
Brand representation ability. For each of the 14 brands, color pictures were pre-
sented on 3 3.5 in. cards. There were six pictures for each brand: three prod-
ucts, two sales venues, and one “other” card depicting either a character (e.g.,
the McDonald’s Hamburglar) or a merchandise item (e.g., Bratz pajamas). Each
brand pair was assessed on a separate trial. For each trial, the researcher laid
out three pages in front of the child. The child was presented with 18 stimulus
cards (six per brand, plus six distracter cards depicting irrelevant products and
venues). The researcher commenced by sticking the logo of one brand on the first
page and the logo of the competing brand on the second page, and saying:“We’re
going to make some collages. I want you to show me how to make these pictures.
This one is the [Coke] picture, so you should put all the [Coke] ones here. This
one is the [Pepsi] picture, so put all the [Pepsi] ones here. And this one is for any
that don’t belong [demonstrating with additional distracter card].” The order of
presentation of brand pairs was randomized across participants. Upon comple-
tion, the researcher photographed the collages for later coding.
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Three scores were calculated for each trial, one for each collage. One point was
awarded for each correctly placed item (i.e., each collage score could range from
zero to six). The incorrect placement of any card was not penalized. Due to the
dependent probabilities of scores across collages within a trial, all three raw
scores were needed to understand the accuracy of distinctions made on each
trial. To capture this information, trial scores were calculated by summing across
the three collage scores. Trial scores could potentially range from zero to 18 (see
Appendix B).
A composite scale score was calculated from the trial scores. When deriving
the scale score, the appropriateness of including data from the fashion brand trial
was considered since this brand pair had not met the original criterion of hav-
ing been recognized by a majority of children in the brand recognition study.
A one-way between-subjects ANOVA was used to compare average scores across
the seven trials; it indicated a significant difference among the groups
[F(6,280) 63.80, p0.001]. A planned comparison test then revealed that the
average score on the fashion trial differed significantly from the average score
across all other trials [t(280) 9.12, p0.001]. On the basis of these findings,
data from the fashion brand trial were removed and the composite scale score
was calculated by averaging across the remaining six trials. This scale was
labeled “brand representation ability” and had good reliability (a0.84), which
was shown to be maximized by the six retained trials (i.e., item-total correlations
showed that reliability would be lower if any of these trials were excluded).
Details are displayed in Table 2.
Brand symbolism understanding. The brand symbolism understanding task
employed stimulus brands from the six brand pairs comprising the brand rep-
resentation scale (i.e., two brands each from the categories of drinks, fast food,
boy’s toys, girls’ toys, entertainment, and cars). Each child’s brand symbolism
understanding was assessed only in relation to the brands for which they had
demonstrated adequate mental representations. For each stimulus brand, a
child must have scored four or more (i.e., above the mid-point) on the brand rep-
resentation collage in order to qualify for testing symbolism understanding for
Table 2. Average Trial Scores on the Brand Representation Task and Relia-
bility of the Composite Scale.
Trial MSDMinimum Maximum Reliability
Drinks (Coke and 16.22 2.38 5.00 18.00 aif item
Pepsi) deleted: 0.81
Fast food (McDonald’s 13.78 2.64 6.00 18.00 aif item
and Hungry Jack’s) deleted: 0.77
Boys’ toys (Hot Wheels 14.07 2.81 6.00 18.00 aif item
and Lego) deleted: 0.82
Girls’ toys (My Little 17.29 1.65 11.00 18.00 aif item
Pony and Bratz) deleted: 0.82
Entertainment (Disney 9.07 2.94 3.00 15.00 aif item
and Warner Brothers) deleted: 0.81
Cars (Toyota and Holden) 9.93 3.34 4.00 18.00 aif item
deleted: 0.82
Composite scale 13.39 1.99 8.00 16.67 a: 0.84
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that brand. Careful checks were undertaken to ensure that children who scored
four or more on a brand collage had done so because their collage reflected
appropriate representation of the brand and not because they had, for example,
placed all stimulus items onto one collage. These checks revealed that two chil-
dren had “fluked” high scores on one brand collage each. Therefore, despite hav-
ing high brand representation scores of four and five, respectively, these
participants were not tested for brand symbolism understanding in relation to
those particular brands.
On each trial, children were primed by a presentation of a brand collage pro-
duced earlier and were asked a series of seven questions (order randomized).
Three questions related to aspects of the brand such as perceived quality (e.g.,
“Are their things great or terrible or somewhere in between?”).Three questions
related to user attributes such as popularity (e.g.,“If another child has [brand],
how many friends will s/he have . . . lots or just a few or somewhere in between?”),
and one question related to purchase intent. Picture response scales were pro-
vided to aide children’s responding (e.g., multiple faces vs. fewer faces vs. an
empty box for the popularity question). Each question was scored (zero or one)
on the basis of whether or not the child provided a meaningful justification for
their answer. The researcher prompted for justifications following children’s
responses to each of the seven questions: “Why do you think that?” In order to
score, children’s reasons needed to relate to some aspect of the brand. For
instance, “McDonald’s has a playground so you can play there and everyone
likes you” was scored as a meaningful response to the popularity question, while
“because it’s fun” was not scored as meaningful in the study context. Between
two coders, inter-rater coding showed high agreement (91% across all items).
In relation to each brand, children could potentially score a maximum of
seven points if each question was answered with a meaningful response. The
number of brands used to measure each child’s understanding of brand sym-
bolism differed across children due to the prerequisite of having demonstrated
adequate mental brand representations in order to qualify for scoring in rela-
tion to each brand (see Table 3). Therefore, composite brand symbolism under-
standing scores were calculated by averaging across the number of brand stimuli
to which each child had responded. Possible scale scores could range from zero
to seven, but actual scale scores ranged from zero to 4.73. Internal consistency
was high (a0.94).
Theory of mind. Following McAlister and Peterson (2006), a battery of five
tasks was used to comprehensively assess theory of mind development. Success
at each of these tasks requires a child to understand the thoughts of others and
to acknowledge that people’s inner psychological states may differ from objec-
tive reality. The unseen displacement task was Baron-Cohen, Leslie, and Frith’s
(1985) “Sally-Ann” task, enacted with dolls. In each of two trials, a girl doll
placed a marble in a basket and left the scene. A boy doll moved the marble to
a closed box in the first trial and to the researcher’s pocket in the second trial.
The researcher narrated the scene where the girl returned and wanted her mar-
ble. Children were asked the test question, “Where will the girl look first for
her marble?” followed by two control questions: “Where is the marble really?” and
“Where did the girl put the marble in the beginning?” Children needed to pass
both control questions to qualify for scoring on each trial. Each correct answer
to the test questions earned one point. Therefore, unseen displacement test
scores ranged from zero to two.
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Two misleading container tasks were used. The first employed a familiar
Band-Aid box containing pencils (Gopnik & Astington, 1988). The researcher
presented the closed box and asked the child what was in it. All children named
the expected contents (Band-Aids). The researcher then revealed the true contents
of the box (i.e., coloring pencils), before closing it and asking a further
control question: “What is really in the box?” The test question concerned the
belief of another: “[Classmate] is coming next. S/he hasn’t seen inside this box
before. When I show it to him/her all closed up like this, what will s/he say is in
it?” Finally, there was a representational change test question about one’s own
false belief: “When I first showed you this box, before you looked inside, what
did you think was in it?” followed by a control question:“What is really in it?” All
children passed both control questions. Children earned one point for each cor-
rectly answered test question. Therefore, possible scores ranged from zero to two.
The second misleading container task was the belief emotion task (Wellman &
Liu, 2004), which assessed each child’s ability to judge how a person would feel,
based on the child’s inference that they held a mistaken belief about the contents
of a box. The scene was played out using a familiar box depicting popular children’s
cookies, along with a boy doll. Children were asked what they thought was inside
the box and were scored as correct if they responded “cookies” or something sim-
ilar. In the boy doll’s absence, the box was opened and the contents (i.e., small
rocks) revealed to the child, then shut and a further control question was asked:
“What is Harry’s favorite snack?”All children passed both controls.The researcher
continued to narrate: “Harry’s back and it’s snack time. Let’s give Harry this box.”
The target question was asked of the child: “So, how does Harry feel when he gets
this box?” followed by the emotion-control question:“How does Harry feel after he
looks inside the box?” In order to score, children must answer both the target
question and the emotion-control question correctly. Children who answered only
one question correctly scored zero. To aid responding, children were shown a set
Table 3. Number of Children Who Qualified for Brand Symbolism
Understanding Scoring, in Relation to Each of the Stimulus Brands.
Number of Children Average Brand Representation
Product Who Qualified for Scores of Qualifying Participants
Category Brands Testing (SD)a
Drinks Brand 1 40 5.05 (0.55)
Brand 2 39 4.72 (0.51)
Fast food Brand 1 37 4.95 (0.85)
Brand 2 23 4.65 (0.78)
Boys’ toys Brand 1 33 4.88 (0.70)
Brand 2 33 5.03 (0.77)
Girls’ toys Brand 1 40 5.80 (0.46)
Brand 2 40 5.75 (0.67)
Entertainment Brand 1 11 4.36 (0.50)
Brand 2 7 4.43 (0.53)
Cars Brand 1 11 4.55 (0.69)
Brand 2 11 4.55 (0.69)
aThese averages are across qualifying participants only (i.e., those scoring four or more on the brand repre-
sentation collage) and therefore differ from the averages obtained on the full-scale brand representation task.
MCALISTER AND CORNWELL
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of three faces, depicting “happy,”“sad,” and “just okay.” Belief–emotion scores could
be zero or one.
In the appearance–reality test (Flavell, 1986), children were shown a candle
that looks like a real apple. All children correctly answered “apple” when asked
what the object was. The researcher lit the candle to demonstrate that it was
not a real apple. Two counterbalanced test questions followed: “What is this really
and truly?” and “When you look at this with your eyes right now, what does it look
like . . . does it look like a candle or like an apple?” Children were required to
answer both test questions correctly. Scores ranged from zero to one.
The pretend representation task assessed children’s awareness of pretense.
Children were shown a real banana and were asked to pretend it was a phone.
After a brief period, the researcher said “We’ve finished our game now. We have
stopped pretending.” Pointing to the banana, the researcher asked: “What is
this really?” and “What did we pretend this was?” Two additional objects—a
real phone and an irrelevant decoy (i.e., a tennis ball)—were placed on the table
with the banana. A further two test questions were asked: “Which one did we
pretend was a phone?” and “Which one is really a phone?” Children were awarded
one point for each of the four test questions answered correctly. Potential scores
for this task ranged from zero to four.
Theory of mind scale scores were obtained by first rescaling tasks so that all
were scored from zero to one. Scores were then summed to form a composite
scale ranging from zero to five. This scale was found to have adequate reliabil-
ity (a0.70).
Executive functioning. The tests included in this battery tap behavior plan-
ning, impulse control, and rule adherence. The route navigation task (Cole &
Mitchell, 2000) involved planning and impulse control. In each of four trials, a
child was presented with a card displaying a popular character at the bottom
and a desired object at the top. Two paths were depicted: One led unhindered
to the desired object, and the other was blocked by attractive stickers (side of
presentation counterbalanced). The stickers provided a distraction that must be
resisted in order to score correctly. Standard instructions were used: “[Daffy
Duck] wants to get to the [gift]. There are two ways he can go, the easy way, or
the hard way with the stickers on [Researcher indicates with finger]. Can you
show me the easy way with your finger?” Children were awarded one point for
each correct path. Task scores ranged from zero to four.
Cole and Mitchell’s (2000) Squirrel and Badger game was employed with
teddy bear and lion puppets to replace the squirrel and badger. The task required
impulse control, rule adherence, and behavior planning. On each of 12 trials, the
puppets took turns directing children’s hand movements (e.g., touch your nose).
Prior to these trials, children were instructed only to obey the instructions of the
bear. Children were told to place their hands flat on the table and stay com-
pletely still when the naughty lion instructed them to act. Of the 12 trials, six
were commanded by the bear, and six by the lion. One point was allocated for
each instance in which the child successfully inhibited responding to the lion.
Scores ranged from zero to six.
Hughes’ (1998) child version of the hand game was used to measure rule
adherence and impulse control. The following instructions were given:“When I
show my hand, I want you to make the same shape as me. So if I make a fist,
you make a fist, and if I point a finger you point a finger.” The imitative (con-
trol) condition commenced with the child copying each of the researcher’s actions
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until six correct responses were made consecutively. Feedback ensured children
understood the task requirements. All children passed the control condition.
The true test came in the conflict condition. The following instructions were
given: “Now, if I point a finger, I want you to show a fist. And if I show a fist I
want you to point a finger.” Again, children were required to reach six consecu-
tive correct responses (up to a maximum of 15 trials). Children were scored
according to how few trials they needed to reach the criterion. Children who
did not achieve the task within the maximum 15 trials scored zero. Children
scored one point if they achieved the task within 15 trials, two points for achieve-
ment within 14 trials, and so forth. The maximum possible score was 10.
A shortened card sort task was adapted from Frye, Zelazo, and Palfai (1995)
to measure rule adherence and sorting ability. Children were provided with a
pile of cards, each depicting either a yellow circle or a red square. Behind each
of two boxes stood an “identification” card; either a red circle or a yellow square.
Each child was directed to sort the stimulus cards into the boxes on the basis of
one dimension (e.g., shape, but not color). Each child was required to sort five cards,
presented in random order. These five trials served as a training session. Cor-
rective feedback was provided. One of the theory of mind tasks was adminis-
tered as a distracter prior to training the child to sort cards according to the
second dimension (i.e., color). A further theory of mind task was administered,
then three testing blocks of the card sort task occurred. Test one required chil-
dren to sort five cards according to the first dimension on which they had been
trained. All children met the requirement of sorting at least four of the five cards
correctly. Test two required children to switch sorting rules and sort five cards.
Children scored one point for each card correctly sorted according to the new
rule. Test three alternated the sorting rule on every one of four trials. One point
was given for each card correctly sorted. At the end of the task the total score (com-
bined from tests two and three) ranged from zero to nine. Test one was not
included in the scoring, since rule switching did not come into effect until test two.
The executive functioning tasks were rescaled so scores ranged from zero to
one. Following this, task scores were summed to form a composite scale rang-
ing from zero to four. This scale was found to have adequate reliability (a0.86).
Cognitive ability. Children’s cognitive ability was measured using the non-
verbal scales of the Stanford Binet Intelligence Scales for Early Childhood (Roid,
2005). The nonverbal scales are more efficient to administer than the full-scale
IQ and include fluid reasoning, knowledge, quantitative reasoning, visual–
spatial processing, and working memory. In accordance with the test manual,
raw scores were converted to standardized scores that account for age. Stan-
dardized scores have a population mean of 100 and a standard deviation of 15.
Language. Verbal receptiveness was assessed using the Peabody Picture
Vocabulary Test (Dunn & Dunn, 2007). On each page of the test book, children
saw four color pictures. The researcher said a word and the child pointed to the
most appropriate picture. Testing began at the basal set and was terminated
when the child reached the ceiling set (see test manual). Raw scores were con-
verted to standardized verbal mental age scores, according to the test manual.
Results
Descriptive Information and Preliminary Analyses. Table 4 shows
the means and standard deviations of the variables as well as correlations
Table 4. Correlations Between Children’s Average Scores on Each of the Measured Variables.
M(SD)23 4567
1. Age 4y2m (8m) 0.66** 0.67** 0.49** 0.10 0.53** 0.65**
2. Language (verbal mental age) 4y10m (1y) 0.72** 0.63** 0.51** 0.65** 0.67**
3. Theory of mind (max 5) 2.44 (1.34) 0.57** 0.36* 0.69** 0.78**
4. Executive functioning (max 4) 2.65 (1.12) 0.23 0.74** 0.57**
5. Cognitive ability (standardized) 105.15 (9.38) 0.30 0.39*
6. Brand representation ability (max 18) 13.39 (1.99) — 0.77**
7. Brand symbolism understanding (max 7) 2.19 (1.32)
*p
0.05; ** p
0.01.
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between each of the variables. The descriptive statistics show that this sample
of children exhibit average language and cognitive development for their age.
No ceiling or floor effects are evident in any of the measures; however, children
clearly perform better at the brand representation task as compared to the
brand symbolism task. As would be expected in a sample of typically develop-
ing children, significant correlations are found between age, theory of mind,
executive functioning, and language ability. Since cognitive ability is a stan-
dardized measure (i.e., age is accounted for in standardized scores), it was not
expected to correlate with age.
Predicting Brand Representation Ability. To test the hypothesis that
brand representation ability would be significantly predicted by executive func-
tioning, a multiple regression analysis was run with age and language con-
trolled at step one, followed by executive functioning, cognitive ability, and theory
of mind at step two (see Table 5).
The model was significant at step one [R20.42, F(2,38) 15.32, p0.001].
Children’s language ability contributed significantly to their brand representation
ability [t(38) 3.33, p0.01]. However, the relationship between age and brand
representation ability was not significant [t(38) 1.19, n.s.]. The addition of
the independent variables at step two provided a significant increase in explained
variance (R2for the full model 0.62, Fchange 7.21, p0.001). Consistent with
H2, executive functioning showed a significant positive relationship with brand
representation ability [t(35) 3.63, p0.01] after controlling for age and lan-
guage. As expected, cognitive ability failed to contribute significantly to the pre-
diction of brand representation ability in the context of the full model
[t(35) 0.29, n.s.]. However, theory of mind showed an unexpected significant
relationship with the outcome measure [t(35) 2.09, p0.05].
Predicting Brand Symbolism Understanding. To test the final hypoth-
esis that brand symbolism understanding would be significantly predicted by
theory of mind, a regression was run with age and language entered as control
variables at step one, followed by the three independent variables at step two
(see Table 6).
The model was significant at step one [R20.50, F(2,38) 20.88, p0.001].
Children’s age [t(38) 2.48, p0.05] and language [t(38) 2.93, p0.01]
Table 5. Regression Predicting Brand Representation Ability from Executive
Functioning, Cognitive Ability, and Theory of Mind, While Controlling for Age
and Language.
Step Variable bsrisri2tR
2R2Fchange
Age 0.19 0.14 0.02 1.19 0.42 0.46 15.32***
1 Language 0.53 0.40 0.16 3.33**
2 Age 0.04 0.02 0.00 0.23 0.62 0.18 7.21**
Language 0.08 0.04 0.00 0.45
Executive functioning 0.47 0.36 0.13 3.63**
Cognitive ability 0.04 0.03 0.00 0.29
Theory of mind 0.33 0.21 0.04 2.09*
*p0.05; ** p0.01; *** p0.001.
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contributed significantly to their brand symbolism understanding. The addi-
tion of the independent variables at step two provided a significant increase in
explained variance (R2for the full model 0.64, Fchange 5.81, p0.01). Con-
sistent with H3, theory of mind showed a significant positive relationship with
brand symbolism understanding [t(35) 3.08, p0.01]. As expected, both cog-
nitive ability [t(35) 1.65, n.s.] and executive functioning [t(35) 1.30, n.s.]
failed to contribute significantly to the prediction of brand symbolism in the
context of the full model.
Discussion
The purpose of this research was to determine whether 3- to 5-year-old children’s
emerging brand knowledge is impacted by their cognitive ability, executive func-
tioning, or theory of mind. These studies contribute uniquely to the extant mar-
keting literature in two ways. First, the investigation is pioneering in the
assessment of brand representation ability and brand symbolism understanding
in preschool children. Previously, the youngest children to be assessed for under-
standing of brand symbolism were 8 years of age (Achenreiner, 1995). Second, the
present research contributes by providing the first assessment of individual dif-
ferences in multiple forms of children’s development as predictors of consumer
socialization outcomes. Although a relationship has previously been inferred to exist
between cognitive ability and brand symbolism understanding (Achenreiner, 1995;
John, 1999), no prior study has empirically tested this relationship. Further, the
findings contribute to the psychology literature by demonstrating the applied
value of psychological theories of children’s development. In a marketplace con-
text, age-stage theories of children’s development have previously been seen to
provide a vague outline of children’s socialization as consumers; however, appli-
cation of theoretical frameworks that acknowledge the role of individual differ-
ences are seen here to explain substantial variance in children’s brand knowledge
within one stage (i.e., within the preschool period).
Summary of Findings. Brand recognition. It was anticipated that the use
of stimulus brands other than fashion brands would enable children as young as
three to demonstrate emerging brand knowledge. Indeed, this is what is found.
The results of the brand recognition study indicate that children’s recognition rates
Table 6. Regression Predicting Brand Symbolism Understanding from
Executive Functioning, Cognitive Ability, and Theory of Mind, While Control-
ling for Age and Language.
Step Variable bsrisri2tR
2R2Fchange
Age 0.37 0.28 0.08 2.48* 0.50 0.52 20.88***
1 Language 0.43 0.33 0.11 2.93**
2 Age 0.28 0.18 0.03 1.88 0.64 0.16 5.81**
Language 0.05 0.02 0.00 0.25
Executive functioning 0.16 0.12 0.01 1.30
Cognitive ability 0.20 0.16 0.03 1.65
Theory of mind 0.47 0.29 0.08 3.08**
*p0.05; ** p0.01; *** p0.001.
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for a variety of brands range from 0% to 92.90%. The brand most commonly rec-
ognized by children is McDonald’s, followed closely by other brands of fast food,
soda, and toys.These figures are consistent with prior reports that 3- and 4-year-
olds can name brands of take-out and snack foods (e.g., Derscheid, Kwon, & Fang,
1996; Haynes et al., 1993). The present findings are also consistent with prior con-
clusions that brand recognition is not advanced in young children (e.g., John,
1999). Average recognition across all brand stimuli was found to be relatively
low at 38.78%. Clearly, for preschoolers, brand recognition is emerging.
Consistent with H1, preschoolers were found to be more likely to recognize
children’s brands than brands that are targeted primarily to adolescents and
adults. What is it about children’s brands that make them more frequently rec-
ognized? One possible explanation may be that children recognize the brands
with which they have the most experience. For example, brands of fast food
and toys might be readily recognized because children see the brand logos each
time they open a packaged item and they may have a vested interest in being
able to request an item by brand name to ensure a parent purchases precisely
the desired item. By comparison, only a limited number of 12brands are rec-
ognized, perhaps because children experience less incentive to store informa-
tion about these brands, and most likely do not discuss 12brands with peers.
Further possibilities may center on the appearance of children’s brands that are
attractive in terms of colors, shapes, or characters used to define the image. Col-
ors, fonts, and general tools used to present 12brands may be less interest-
ing to children.
A further factor that might distinguish between the extent to which chil-
dren’s versus 12brands are memorable could be children’s experience with
advertising. Brands for which children are the primary target segment will
inevitably be marketed more directly to children. When messages are tailored
to captivate children’s attention, information may be more easily processed and
stored, thereby increasing children’s subsequent brand recognition.
Brand representation ability. Brand representation ability was tested to
ensure that children held a mental representation of each brand before their
brand symbolism understanding was assessed. The collage task assessed whether
a child knows sufficient information about the products offered by each brand,
where they are sold, and what characters or merchandise items are associated
with the brands. Along with six other brand pairs, children’s ability to form
mental representations of a pair of fashion brands was also tested. It was not
surprising to find that children’s brand representation ability was significantly
lower on the fashion brand trial compared to other trials using brands that were
recognized by most children in the sample.
Why is it that children cannot distinguish between the offerings of one fash-
ion brand and its competitor, but they can do this for competing brands of fast
food, drinks, toys, cars, and entertainment (keeping in mind that the latter two
brand pairs are classified as 12)? It may be argued that the results are due
to a lack of experience with—or interest in—fashion brands. To perform well at
the mental brand representation task, children needed to demonstrate knowl-
edge not only of the brand logo, but also of each brand’s products, sales venues,
and related merchandise or characters. In relation to children’s brands, it may
be efficient for a child to remember venues where particular brands may be
purchased in order to request a shopping trip to the desired location. Similarly,
having knowledge of a range of products might allow children to communicate
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a desire for their parents to purchase products not yet owned by the child or to
engage in conversations with peers who own similar toys. Comparable levels of
knowledge about fashion brands may serve much less of a purpose for a pre-
schooler.
The finding that children were relatively successful at demonstrating their
ability to form representations of two pairs of brands for which they are not the
target segment (i.e., the car and entertainment brands) warrants some discus-
sion. In relation to the entertainment brands, the results are not particularly
surprising. Although these brands are labeled as 12by the coders, they are very
salient to children since their logos appear at the commencement of many pop-
ular television shows and movies. Children’s success at differentiating between
competing brands of cars seems more surprising but may be readily explained.
Possibly, success at recognizing and differentiating between car brands occurs
because the toy cars children play with are produced as replicas of real cars. For
instance, Hot Wheels produces replica Toyota, Dodge, and Ford cars and Barbie-
branded cars are replica VW Bugs and Corvettes. Such toy replicas may encour-
age children to attend to brands of real cars, thereby facilitating brand
representation.
It was hypothesized that brand representation ability would be significantly
predicted by children’s executive functioning. This hypothesis is supported.
Executive functioning is found to be the most significant predictor of mental
representation of children’s brands after accounting for age and language.This
significant relationship is consistent with research in psychology showing that
3- to 5-year-olds exhibit executive functioning that is advanced enough to sup-
port abstract reasoning to classify stimuli according to rules (e.g., Frye, Zelazo, &
Palfai, 1995). Moreover, the present finding questions the Piagetian notion that
preschool children are incapable of abstract thinking. It is concluded that the use
of standard executive functioning measures allows preschoolers to demonstrate
their higher-order abilities, and that the use of age-appropriate brand stimuli
allows preschoolers to exhibit emerging brand representation abilities.
Theory of mind is also found to be a significant predictor of brand represen-
tation ability. Although this relationship was not anticipated, it perhaps should
have been, given that theory of mind—the ability to think about others’ thoughts—
inherently requires mental representation. It requires that the child be able to
form a mental representation of another’s mind (McAlister & Peterson, 2006,
2007). So, despite the fact that generation of mental brand representations is
thought to be independent of understandings of emotion, intentions, beliefs, and
desires, it is logical that children with advanced theory of mind are better prac-
ticed at representation and that this practice translates to their greater ability
to think schematically about brands.
Brand symbolism understanding. To perform well at the brand symbolism
understanding task, children needed to express attitudes regarding the popu-
larity of brands and attributes of brand users. Although prior studies have not
specifically measured brand symbolism understanding with preschool children,
it has generally been concluded that preschoolers would not understand brand
symbolism (John, 1999). Preschool children probably have little if any experience
thinking about the “prestige” associated with various teen/adult brands. How-
ever, the present results clearly show that preschoolers do make attributions
about user popularity and perceived product quality of “children’s” brands that
are salient and relevant in their lives.
CHILDREN’S BRAND SYMBOLISM UNDERSTANDING
Psychology & Marketing DOI: 10.1002/mar
223
As with brand representation ability, children’s brand symbolism under-
standing is not yet fully developed. The 3- to 5-year-olds in this sample show an
emerging ability. Consistent with H3, theory of mind shows a significant asso-
ciation with preschoolers’ brand symbolism understanding. This finding sug-
gests that the emergence of brand symbolism understanding is more rapid
among children who possess a mature theory of mind. It is concluded that the
ability to reason about the thoughts and feelings of others results in a height-
ened awareness of the ways in which brands can be used as symbols in a social
world (e.g., to represent status, popularity, quality). When one is free from the
Piagetian stages assumption, one is able to see that these capabilities arise
much earlier.
Methodological Contributions. Piagetian stages versus age-appropriate
testing. In contrast to the Piagetian notion that young children are incapable of
the abstract thinking required to group items together to form mental repre-
sentations of brands, the present findings suggest that children are quite adept
at the collage task, which requires sorting between images belonging to a brand,
its major competitor, and distracter items. This outcome is not surprising. In
the modern psychology literature, it is thought that Piaget’s tasks are too tax-
ing on a variety of other resources (e.g., language, memory) and that tasks that
minimize such requirements allow children to demonstrate abstract reasoning
abilities (Young, 1990).The level of brand representation ability exhibited by chil-
dren in the present sample is believed to have been facilitated by the use of the
collage task, which minimizes demands on language.
Similarly, the finding that theory of mind is a significant predictor of chil-
dren’s brand symbolism understanding shows that modern psychology has a
place in the marketing literature. Since the early 1980s, researchers in psy-
chology have been increasingly aware that theory of mind explains variance in
children’s performance at tasks that require a child to think about the thoughts,
feelings, or intentions of others (Wellman, Cross, & Watson, 2001). In 2002,
Wright suggested the need for marketing research to steer away from Piaget-
ian explanations of children’s consumer socialization. In 2005, Moses and Bald-
win reiterated this suggestion, but it seems that the present research is the
first to integrate measures of theory of mind and executive functioning into an
investigation of children’s consumer socialization. The significant findings serve
as evidence to support Moses and Baldwin’s claim that empirical research incor-
porating theory of mind and executive functioning will be more fruitful in terms
of interpretations based on empirical data.
Stimulus brands. Having found that children are better able to recognize
children’s brands than 12brands, an important contribution is made to the mar-
keting literature in terms of highlighting the inappropriateness of using unrec-
ognized brands when testing children’s brand symbolism understanding.
Although it is not at all surprising that children are better able to recognize
children’s brands than 12brands, the use of empirical data to illustrate the
magnitude of the effect might dissuade researchers from using “non-child” brands
in future tests of children’s brand-related knowledge. A child is in no position
to demonstrate any understanding of a brand if they do not recognize it from the
outset.
Control variables. Age and language were used as control variables in the
analyses. This practice should continue in future research with children. Although
MCALISTER AND CORNWELL
Psychology & Marketing DOI: 10.1002/mar
224
the tasks used in this research were chosen to minimize language requirements,
language was still significant at the first step of the regressions predicting brand
representation ability and brand symbolism understanding. This is most likely
because children need verbal receptiveness skills to follow test instructions.
Societal Implications and Directions for Future Research. Contrary
to conclusions drawn in prior research, the present findings suggest that chil-
dren aged 3 to 5 years have an emerging capacity to understand the symbols of
brands for which they form part of the target segment. Preschoolers can and do
judge others on the basis of brand use. This finding has clear public policy impli-
cations in relation to at least two issues: materialism and the formation of eat-
ing habits. The present results show that children as young as 3 willingly judge
their peers. They see other children as popular or unpopular, fun or boring,
because of the brands they use. Such judgments suggest that, at an early age,
children attribute great importance to the use of branded products to cultivate
and promote self-image. These findings, therefore, seem to flag an early emer-
gence of materialism among preschool children. Any study seeking the begin-
nings of materialism in children should, therefore, be commenced during the
preschool years.
Formation of eating habits is also relevant since the findings show that chil-
dren use brand names as cues to determine the extent to which food products
are likely to taste good, be enjoyed, or be exciting. Children make attributions
about the consumers of different brands of food, a finding that indicates that food
consumption may also be influenced by the desire to promote and maintain a
chosen self-image. Although it was not a specific focus of the current research,
the data show that this sample of 3- to 5-year-olds tended to judge fast food as
fun, exciting, and tasty. Cola brands were often reported to be fun “because the
drinks are fizzy,” “the bubbles are fun,” and “lots of people like them.” These
findings suggest that values associated with food choices are formed early in life.
Therefore, it is suggested that public policy targeting eating habits should focus
on intervention during the preschool years.
The development of future public policy regarding materialism and eating
habits may be most successful if restrictions are combined with education. The
findings encourage the design of education programs for young children. See
Wright (2002) for a discussion of a consumer behavior curriculum that might
be implemented to promote young children’s marketplace social intelligence.Wright
suggests a Preadult Education on Marketplace Persuasion Tactics (a PREEMPT
program) and clearly states that the curriculum should be informed by research.
The present research is intended as an initial contribution toward Wright’s goal.
Where Wright called for the need to identify factors that facilitate early com-
petencies in marketplace knowledge, the present research responds with the
findings that theory of mind and executive functioning predict mental brand
representation ability and that brand symbolism is understood earlier among
children whose theory of mind is mature. These findings are intended to con-
tribute to the prosocial efforts of consumer behavior researchers.
Future research in this area should first aim to determine the extent to which
findings obtained in the present research generalize under various conditions.
While the children examined in these studies were recruited from upper-
middle-class preschools, it would be interesting to determine whether the results
hold true among children from lower-income families.This might be achieved by
CHILDREN’S BRAND SYMBOLISM UNDERSTANDING
Psychology & Marketing DOI: 10.1002/mar
225
examining socioeconomic status as a variable of interest. Ethnicity or cultural
heritage may also be important. Ideally, future research in this area might inves-
tigate lower-, middle-, and upper-class children concurrently. Although this
would be time consuming in terms of recruiting children and collecting data at
a number of different locations, such a large-scale project would be valuable in
terms of testing the generality of the present findings with among a much larger
sample of children.
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CHILDREN’S BRAND SYMBOLISM UNDERSTANDING
Psychology & Marketing DOI: 10.1002/mar
227
APPENDIX A
List of Stimulus Brands Employed in Brand Recognition Study
Brands Marketed to Children Brands Marketed Primarily to
(Children’s Brands) Adolescents and Adults (12Brands)
McDonald’s Hungry Jack’s Woolworths Coles
Pizza Hut Domino’s Kleenex Band-Aid
KFC Red Rooster Holden Toyota
Lego Hot Wheels Brumby’s Baker’s Delight
My Little Pony Bratz Caltex Shell
Smiths Arnott’s Nestlé Mitre 10
Cadbury M&M’s Warner Brothers Disney
The Simpsons Looney Tunes Golden Circle Cottee’s
Nickelodeon Sesame Street Heaven Baskin-Robbins
Coke Pepsi Energizer Duracell
Donut King Nintendo Telstra Optus
Pumpkin Patch Bonds Nike Puma
Kellogg’s Qantas
Note: The distinction between children’s brands and 12brands is whether children form part of the target
segment. So, for instance, brands such as Coke and M&M’s may be consumed by adolescents and adults just as
frequently as they are consumed by children, but the important point is that the coders judged these brands as
being marketed directly to children as well as adolescents and adults. Kleenex or Duracell, on the other hand,may
be used frequently by children but the coders judged these brands as being marketed to adolescents and adults
only.
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Psychology & Marketing DOI: 10.1002/mar
228
APPENDIX B
Sample of Children’s Responses to Brand Representation Task
Child A (Trial Score
18): Three collages produced on the trial assessing men-
tal representation of competing fast food brands. Child A showed perfect per-
formance, distinguishing between McDonald’s items, Hungry Jack’s items, and
distracter items.
collage score 6
(All product, venue, and
character images correctly
placed around logo.)
collage score 6
(All product, venue, and
character images correctly
placed around logo.)
collage score 6
(Phone used as focal card by
the researcher. The child
placed all “irrelevant” cards
here.)
Child B (Trial Score
7): Three collages produced by another child on the same
fast food trial. Child B showed poor performance in terms of distinguishing the
brands from one another and from distracter items.
collage score 3
(Fries, “drive thru” sign,
and restaurant image
correctly placed around
logo.)
collage score 4
(Character image, “drive
thru” sign, dessert, and
restaurant image correctly
placed around logo.)
collage score 0
(Phone used as focal card
by the researcher. No other
distracter cards were
placed here by the child.)
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