The evolution of family life is hard to quantify, so in January 2019, The Family Panel questioned and observed more than a thousand UK-based mums, dads, kids and grandparents about everything from their eating habits and hobbies to their relationships.

The study, The Future of Families – A Reality Check 2019, has important messages for brands and retailers.

Family meal time influenced by children

Children have authority

Post-demographic consumerism now characterises the UK family. Parents empower their children from an early age, to encourage individuality and independence. They know their children are learning from multiple sources – school, YouTube, apps and clubs – and credit them with worldly and useful knowledge.

Consequently, children have a new and powerful role. They influence their elders’ behaviour through their ability to persuade and make independent choices.

For example, our study respondents believe their children understand nutrition: 89% say their kids know what they should and shouldn’t be eating. Eighty-five per cent of children aged five to 18 ask for healthy foods, and this new authority may explain why 90% get a say in what they eat at mealtimes.

Forty-one per cent of respondents cook different foods for different family members when preparing the household’s main meal, generally to cater for different preferences rather than separate eating arrangements (families prioritise shared mealtimes).

One commented: “My daughter has chicken nuggets, I have fish and my older one has turned veggie so eats couscous and falafels – none of us have the same tea!”

Many adults have been persuaded by children to change their behaviours; to attend park runs, pick up litter, buy foods that will help their children perform well in sport or at school, recycle more.
Meanwhile, those children are active and engaged with brands. Yes, many spend time facing screens, and most are online, but they do this as well as lots of other things.

Children do more activities now than five years ago. Those aged three to 18 take part in an average of three activities a week. More than half play organised sport, a third attend dance classes and a third play a musical instrument.

Children make lots of choices, are aspirational and brand loyal. They decide what to wear, where to go and what to watch. Knowledge is only ever a swipe away, and their parents are constantly organising and running against the clock to keep up.

What does this mean for brands and retailers?

The old methods of demographic profiling and segmentation don’t work any more. There is far too much choice for anyone to be predictable. Families are groups of individuals, each living customised lives, with diffuse authority and decision-making. While that may sound like a marketer’s nightmare, it actually offers great opportunity and potential.

Families’ view of children as educators and decision-makers is an important change, but families are fundamentally collaborative (71% can talk to their children about ‘anything’), with messages to children taken home to parents. So, brands must authentically engage with families, including children, via peer networks and authoritative bodies like schools, if they want their attention.

It’s time to ditch the blunt instrument of broad-brush profiling, and meet modern families where they really are, not go where marketers think they ought to be. In particular, it’s time to start engaging with children – they are not merely the consumers of tomorrow, but very much the decision-makers of today.