Home / Industry / Latching on to dad’s changing role

He has spent more than 30 years as an adviser and polling analyst to large companies and heads of state including Bill Clinton and Tony Blair and business leaders such as Bill Gates. Mark J. Penn, worldwide CEO of Burson-Marsteller, a leading global public relations and public affairs firm, reveals how the real trends wielding a large influence on society today and tomorrow are small patterns of behaviour involving as little as 1% of the population in his best-seller Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Today’s Big Changes.

He identifies more than 70 microtrends in religion, leisure, politics and family life that are changing our lives: how people are retiring by continuing to work; why the most influential millionaires are the most shy; how new geeks are the most sociable people around. And how even some of the most basic trends are being overlooked—such as how women are driving technology and how dads are older than ever and spending more time with their kids than in the past.

Edited excerpts from his chapter on “Neglected Dads":

It took fast food marketers a couple of years—and the development of $200 billion (Rs7.86 trillion) in children’s direct and indirect purchasing power—to realize that marketing to kids was a really smart way to boost sales. Ronald McDonald, you may recall, with his enormous red shoes and goofy clown face, wasn’t meant to attract the people driving the family to McDonald’s for dinner.

Trend spotter: Mark J.Penn, worldwide CEO, Burson-Marsteller.

That strategy worked well until the mid-1990s, when moms started paying more attention to what their children ate. Then, despite the pleas for Happy Meals, moms started overruling their kids on fast food. (In Britain, they call these moms the “female handbrake"—moms who won’t let sports-dominated satellite TV into their households.)

The fast food industry stumbled, gauged the trend, and refocused its energy, this time on moms—adding foods such as salad that they could feel comfortable eating along with their kids. If it sounded like a lot that children influence $200 billion a year in spending, women control something like $7 trillion.

The mom focus reached its height at McDonald’s in 2004, with a new “McMom" initiative offering everything from an online newsletter with tips on parenting, women’s health, and nutrition, to individual McDonald’s locations featuring “Mom Corners" and “Mom parking". In 2005, one company executive summed up the industry giant’s strategy simply as “It’s All About the Moms."

Indeed, the only group still hanging on to anything like that level of attention from fast food marketers is what industry analysts call the “young and hungry men"—males aged 18–34, who eat more than anybody else and are known to eat anything put in front of them. (“Supersizing" was for them, not for the moms.) But before getting too comfortable with the two-pronged strategy of hurried-and-worried moms and young-and-hungry men, the fast food industry might want to watch the emerging trends again. In fact, at a recent company retreat to discuss moms, McDonald’s executives asked me what the next trend is that they should be thinking about. And I looked around at their McMom strategy paraphernalia, and said, “dads."

Since the 1970s, dads have been spending more and more time with their children…

…The changing role of Dads in families has many untapped marketing implications. Billy Joel’s book on being a dad is a runaway best-seller because it’s the one-in-a-hundred children’s book that features a dad. Where are the daddy-and-me books? Equally ignored are the dads buying back-to-school clothes, or holiday presents for the kids. (Do an Internet search for “dads buying gifts for kids," and all you will find is sites that help kids buy gifts for dads.)

And, dare I say it, what about marketing household cleaners? A 2003 study from the University of California at Riverside showed that school-age children who do chores around the house with their fathers are more likely to get along with peers and have friends, and less likely to make trouble at school or become depressed. Not only that, but according to research from the “love labs" of Dr John Gottman at the University of Washington, when men contribute more to household chores, their wives find them more attractive.

(Gottman says wives interpret husbands’ domestic contributions as a sign of love and caring, and are therefore more sexually attracted to them.)

But of the hundreds of commercials made annually for household cleaners, has any of them even targeted a man—let alone a dad? A man’s world is a-changin’. A typical man changes more diapers than ever before, and gets less credit than ever before. And in some parts of the world, fathers are staging violent protests to get guaranteed visitation with their kids. Men are spending more time with the kids, but neither Madison Avenue nor the media has picked up on it, and the potential of daddy-and-me relationships remains untapped…

Extracted from Microtrends by Mark J. Penn published by Penguin India. Copyright Mark J. Penn 2007.

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