Will Gen Alpha ditch humans for robots?

Robots

They call them Gen Alpha. The youngest generation, made up of 0-7-year-olds and the latest marketing opportunity.

Whether you’re the parent of a Gen Alpha or not, it can be a mental tussle deciding whether we should be marketing to this fledgling demographic or leaving them (and their parents) to enjoy their first years.

Soon though, that decision will be taken out of our hands, as Gen Alpha start talking to robots more than they do to humans – and rarely, if ever, worry about the difference. As they adopt behaviours and learn skills from AI-powered technologies, parents – and brands – may struggle to keep up.

Marketers need to get ahead of this trend.

It’s already nascent, as tech-savvy Gen Alpha can scroll before they walk. They’re also proving to be even more intelligent than adults when it comes to interacting with tech. Research from the University of California, Berkeley, showed that four and five-year-olds are better at understanding how toys and gadgets work than university students.

Now tots are growing increasingly close to their smart toys.

Infused with AI, products like Smarty and CogniToys Dino can answer a child's questions, remember their preferences and increasingly interact with them like human beings.

In China, an educational app called Little Dragon has been developed that’s emotionally responsive: AI tech detects moods like boredom and frustration in the child and adapts content accordingly. The company calls it a “personalised tutor” – it’s the beginning of a journey towards a future where our kids are more fulfilled by interacting with AI than they are with real humans.

And Gen Alpha aren’t just passively consuming tech – they're creating it. For brands, there’s a growing role to act as navigators, supporting the development of creative thinking and to nurture problem-solving skills.

Rather than promoting passive screen time, brands should look to design services that support the importance of mastering digital literacy. Unsurprisingly, Apple and Amazon are at the fore here. Apple is making coding accessible to anyone via its Swift Playgrounds iPad app, while Amazon’s subscription STEM Club sends children in the US an educational toy once a month, supporting the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects.

Taking this even further, Sam Labs is creating toys that enable kids to learn engineering and coding basics while playing. The company’s wireless Sam Blocks – mini sensors, motors and buttons – linked to an iPad app enable kids to build incredibly complex systems and inventions. The support of this type of learning and development is a big opportunity for brands.

As Gen Alpha spend more time interacting with algorithms than mum and dad, though, the question arises: is this a healthy future for our children? In the US, 94% of parents surveyed by US food company Nature’s Path said that they would like schools to help their kids get outside and discover nature, while according to Viacom, 72% of parents believe their pre-schoolers learn best through play.

As Gen Alpha parents – many of whom fall into the millennial bracket – move away from helicopter parenting, favouring outdoor exploration, perceptive brands are stepping in to help this young generation learn and discover away from screens.

Tapping into the outdoor trend, Persil supported more than 800 schools to take 130,000 children outdoors this May through its Outdoor Classroom Day, part of Unilever's global Dirt is Good campaign. While in the US, EnviroKidz’s Ecokeepers programme involves a treasure hunt featuring geocaching. Participants use mobile phones to find hidden containers (geocaches) at specific locations, combining both traditional and new-age forms of play.

This sort of blending of digital and physical is the sweet spot that brands should be aiming for. One of the most innovative apps we’ve seen in this area is the The Gruffalo Spotter. The app – a partnership between the UK Forestry Commission and London-based production company Nexus – enables kids to seek out and interact with characters from the Gruffalo books in their local forest. They can even take photos of themselves with the virtual creatures.

By facilitating breaks away from the home, brands can offer parents meaningful ‘check-out’ time – a trend we’re also seeing within the travel industry.

With access to more smart toys and devices than ever before, powered by AI that will engage them as naturally as a human, Gen Alpha represents a hugely complex, but equally exciting opportunity for marketers. Brands that can cement their position in this demographic’s lives from an early age will benefit from the ultimate privilege: to nurture the development of future you and I.

Article by Christian Ward, head of media & marketing at Stylus, the innovation research and advisory company.

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