A view from David Howard

Royal baby buzz shouldn't blind marketers to the reality of modern families

The royal baby is on its way but brands need to understand that families come in many forms, writes David Howard, head of planning, Fold7....

The Duchess of Cambridge will, any day now, give birth to a baby girl named Alexandra who’ll study at the University of St Andrews and whose first boyfriend will be named Robert. That’s what the British public is putting its money on, as bookmakers tuck in to a baby betting frenzy in the final days of ‘bump-watch’.

Needless to say, brands are also betting on cashing in on the royal baby buzz. Unilever is one of a multitude firmly on the royal baby brand wagon, lining up its commemorative royal baby packs of Comfort and Persil. The Kate-effect is in full force, with photos of the Duchess leaving a luxury baby boutique carrying a white wicker Moses basket leading to a Moses baby basket buying boom (Asda has since reported a 57% increase in sales of similar-looking baskets).

The giant baby shower going on in the marketing world at the moment will do nothing to dampen people’s views that advertising is biased towards traditional views of the nuclear family.

Kate, Wills and their anxiously awaited new arrival are nothing like the average family in Britain. Yet, we as an industry continue to market this precise image of the modern household.

A recent Parentdish survey found that 85% of parents believe advertising is biased towards mothers and upholds an outmoded idea of family. Kate, Wills and their anxiously awaited new arrival are nothing like the average family in Britain. Yet, we as an industry continue to market this precise image of the modern household.

Harder to define

Today’s average family is much harder to define due to a number of societal shifts. One factor is the rise of stay-at-home dads, with 227,000 men acting as primary carers at the end of last year, a rise of 19,000 compared to the same period in 2011 and the highest rise since figures began in 1993.

Falling fertility rates and an increased life expectancy mean that we're having less children and having them later, with 49% of women now over 30 when their first baby arrives. Add to this changes to civil partnership laws, a growth in "Living-Apart-Together" relations, increasing gender equality in the workplace and the emergence of a "Peter Pan Generation", and the conventional idea of family starts to look rather old. 

According to the Parentdish survey, 56% of parents said that advertisers should make an effort to talk to both parents equally. This view - albeit a slightly stronger version of it - presented itself with quite some clarity last Christmas when Morrisons and Asda came under fire from viewers for reinforcing "outdated" gender stereotypes in their TV advertising.

Although it would be naive to make claims about the family construct turning on its head altogether, it's important for brands - and particularly FMCG brands that sell an idea of what family is - to reevaluate their idea of family, or risk alienating certain demographics.

Family values

Procter & Gamble is a brand that has done extremely well out of reinforcing family values, no doubt with mountains of data behind it to back up why it should. "Proud Sponsor of Mums" was an undisputedly inspired campaign, but is this an approach they'll be taking in twenty years' time, or will "Proud Sponsor of Parents" be more appropriate? Its latest "My Ariel" ads are perhaps proof that the paradigm is shifting, casting a much younger user of laundry detergent than we’re used to.

Cheerios hit the headlines in the US recently when it attempted to present an alternative idea of the family model by depicting a caucasian mother, an African-American father and a mixed-race daughter. The ad sparked a number of racist comments on YouTube, forcing the brand to disable comments on the video due to the nature of the responses. The result? Cheerios was applauded for sticking its neck out and displaying an authentic understanding of American families.

If the rise of stay-at–home dads and same sex adoption continues at the rate that it has done, it's perfectly plausible that we'll start seeing a shift in how household products are marketed, and who they're marketed to. Couple this with recent research from Pew that revealed mothers are the sole or primary provider in four-in-ten households with children, and perhaps one day we'll see washing up liquid aimed at men instead. 

Most brands still sell the idea of a traditional family, but it's rapidly becoming an inaccurate reflection of their market. As consumers, we want to feel that brands understand us, and our everyday lives. We don't want to feel that they are trying to pigeonhole us.

Advertisers need to show that they understand the different forms that the modern family now takes. Those who do so will be capturing the zeitgeist in a way that will resonate with the British public much more deeply than a tactical royal baby ad ever could.