KidZania; Branding a Society
Posted by <Gustav Heinsen> on 2022-02-15
This text was written for the book Uncanny Entrepreneurship which will be published in Spring 2022.
Imagine a global institution: An institution with its own government, rules, infrastructure, currency, language, anthem, flag, and mythology; an institution located in major cities across the world; an institution with millions of young citizens who are loyal supporters of its values. The name of that institution is KidZania.
The year is 1999: the global population has just surpassed six billion people, the world is at the anxious cusp of entering a new millennium, and the European Union has rolled out the euro to manifest itself as a powerful economic player. The same year in Mexico City, an entrepreneur by the name of Xavier López opens a theme park. As the name suggests, La Ciudad de Los Niños (“The City of the Children”) is a theme park for children to roleplay life as a working adult in a city. Instead of attractions like roller coasters, Ferris wheels, and water rides, La Ciudad de Los Niños offers children the opportunity of a nine-to-five lifestyle of wealth accumulation and civic engagement within a capitalist society. Since then La Ciudad de Los Niños has changed its name to KidZania and opened up 26 more theme parks around the world. The company strives to emulate an operating city with all its social structures and intricacies through collaborating with corporate brands to present day-to-day wage labor as a fun learning experience. KidZania brands this as edutainment. Its concept as a company can be described as building brand loyalty under the guise of civic education.
On their website, KidZania describes itself as a global nation-state: It issues its own currency, KidZos, and it has an anthem, a flag, national greetings, and hand signals as well as a Declaration of Independence. The CEO of KidZania is referred to as the President, regional managers are referred to as Governors, franchise managers are referred to as Mayors, and the children can obtain citizenship to become KidZanians. In combination with the promotion of a set of cultural and moral values through a fictional history, KidZania effectively establishes its own peculiar form of national identity.
The company currently has 27 locations across 20 countries. Usually located inside a mall, each theme park is a scaled-down version of a western-world-style city that follows the same basic blueprint city structure for each franchise. Ceilings painted to look like clouded blue skies, cobblestone streets, and two-thirds sized buildings make it a child-sized city complete with almost every kind of public institution or shop one would find in a real city. Everything from a fire station, hospital, police station, unemployment office, tax office, and dentist to commercial enterprises like commodity manufacturing factories, restaurants, supermarkets, retail shops, and news media exist at KidZania. Under the slogan “Get Ready for a Better World,” children between the ages of four and 14 years take on various jobs within the franchises. Under the guise of “experiential learning,” (footnote 1) children roleplay corporate-sponsored jobs to earn money and be able to spend it on commodities or activities. Through this work, they are supposed to learn about things such as “How a City Works,” “Financial Literacy,” “The World of Work,” “Model CitiZenship,” and “Good Habits.” (footnote 2)
By branding a theme park as a social movement, KidZania promotes certain political values and imitates a nation-state. In doing so, it enters the arena of public diplomacy, making it a bizarre example of a tendency in which corporations mimic and operate like nation-states.
Constructing a KidZania Community
López conceived the idea of his “pseudo-”nation-state -franchise while working as a vice president at General Electric Capital’s Private Equity Group. Before that, he got his MBA at Kellogs University in Chicago, Illinois, under the mentorship of marketing guru Philip Kotler. Kotler sees brands as responsible for contributing to positive change in the world for the common good of the people. He is credited to be the godfather of modern marketing and has in recent years pioneered brand activism as a marketing tool. Brand activism aims to make customers feel like activists through their consumption, thereby offering corporate philanthropy for companies to elevate themselves above the evil reputation of capitalism. (footnote 3) Brand communication strategies aim to influence the citizen-consumer by means of messages and campaigns created and sustained by political values. So when customers buy products, they buy them on the basis of the values that the brand embodies. Consumption becomes a moral compass to live by.
These ideas can be traced throughout KidZania’s company profile. In interviews with López, he typically seems to have the same pitch prepared that focuses on KidZania’s “win-win” business model. During a promotional visit to KidZania Jakarta, Kotler participated in a peculiar staged conversation between him and López at the child-sized news studio inside the franchise. In the exchange, López summarizes Kotler’s influence and the “win-win” model of KidZania:
I think what we do at KidZania is we combine three things: we combine children with a fun education, but most importantly, we bring brands and companies to become closer to these families. (footnote 4)
After describing his “win-win” model, López asks Kotler about his view on KidZania as a company. Kotler replies:
Yes, well I’ve always said that companies have to do more than just make products and make money, they also have an impact on society, and they should contribute to the education of the future generation who will be managing the world in the future, and your system allows them to manage the world better.
Managing the world better is a crucial aspect of the world of KidZania It presents itself as a model society from which children can learn about how the world should look and feel like. The company brands working nine-to-five as a meaningful and educational experience that will necessarily empower children to better be able to take on the world that awaits them. In presenting the purpose of living as being that of work, KidZania takes part in manifesting the myth of the economy’s well-being as equivalent to the well-being of society. According to López, “Kids deserve a better future” (footnote 5) and the commercial utopia he has constructed is an experience that will help create that future. On a section of their website, the history of KidZania is outlined in six parts, starting with “Kids Become Inspired” and ending with “A Government is Established.” The first part describes the desire of the children to change the world that they have inherited:
The time had come. Enough was enough. Something had to be done and kids were the ones to do it. The history of KidZania starts like all great stories start, with idealistic passion and an unwavering spirit that was stimulated by a communal desire to create something better.
The kids of the world became utterly inspired. Looking at the way the adults were running the world had become an exercise in exasperation. From a kid’s perspective things were just not going as well as they could be and it didn’t look to be improving anytime soon.
It didn’t just happen overnight; it was a long time in coming. And it didn’t happen just in one place, it occurred in the minds of numerous cultures across every continent.
Under children's perspective, governments operated inefficiently, societies were becoming inequitable, valuable resources were routinely squandered and values were seemingly more and more negotiable. With principles wavering and violence increasing it became apparent that kids were going to be inheriting a less than an ideal world. Something had to be done and they were the ones prepared to do it. (footnote 6)
The website continues to describe how the nation is formed: the children's independence from the adults in the form of a Declaration of Independence is written, and a set of rights is established. The visual manifestation of these rights and the general values of KidZania is a group of mascots called RightZkeepers, each of these representing one of six rights:
The right "TO BE:" The power to be self-determining, unique, and free in harmony among mankind. The right "TO KNOW:" The capacity to be curious and experimental when educating oneself. The right "TO CARE:" The responsibility to be supportive and protective of the environment around oneself.
The right "TO PLAY:" The ability to be playful, participatory, and fulfilled in life.
The right "TO SHARE:" The benefit to be generous and thoughtful to oneself and to others. The right "TO CREATE:" The faculty to be innovational, to dream up new things, and discover original ideas. (footnote 7)
Similar to the origin story, the kind of marketing language used here is much too advanced for a child to fully grasp the rights in their full meaning and implementation, yet it is all set up in a child friendly, fun package.
Together with the rest of its visual brand identity, the mascots play a very important part in connecting the fun with the educational—the edutainment component that is so essential in making the company more than just a chain of theme parks offering fun experiences. It leverages KidZania from regular theme parks by establishing a moral compass that visitors subscribe to when choosing to visit KidZania instead of another theme park. The mascots give the company some easily recognizable symbols to represent the values that KidZania wants to embody. They signal to the parents that KidZania provides a meaningful educational experience that they should purchase for their children. While representing positive values to the parents, their amusing and quirky looks are also visually appealing to children. When walking around a KidZania franchise, the mascots are featured everywhere inside, embodying literal walking mascots, figures on the currency, as signage, monuments, and on the gift shop merchandise. When the children have finished their work-as-play experience and exit through the gift shop, the children leave with merchandise most likely featuring the mascots on it. The merchandise they bring home is a visual token of their work that is associated with an enjoyable and seemingly meaningful experience of KidZania to both children and parents. Besides the value of having the customers leave with a branded product, the fact that the children have worked to earn the money they spend on the merchandise also aligns with the values of the kind of consumer society that KidZania wants to represent.
Like other large corporations, KidZania also has a corporate social responsibility program. Similar to how corporate management titles are replaced with government titles, KidZania’s social responsibility program is titled “Ministry of Social Responsibility.” The list of its social responsibility program promises KidZania’s dedication as a nation-state to be “Eco Friendly,” “Multicultural,” “Healthy,” “Accessible,” “Responsible and inclusive.” (footnote 8) Describing how they “want to make the world a better place,” they tick all the boxes of what is expected of a progressive company in the 21st century.
To further build its brand, the KidZania name itself is another addition to its mythology and legitimacy as a nation-state:
Kid (quid): short for the German word “Kinder”
Zany (Zanie): Anglo-Saxon English, wittines, wacky, fun
Ania (annia): latin suffix “land of” or “territory of,” Ee..g. Espania, Britannia, Pennsylvania9 (footnote 9)
Additionally, “The National Seal” of KidZania is a literal compass. The company describes on its website how: “The compass is a purposeful choice. As a universal symbol of guidance it is unencumbered by specifics of place or time and always guides one in the direction they need to go.” (footnote 10)
The name, slogans, origin story, mascots, governmental titles, and national seal of KidZania are all part of its effort to construct a community with a shared consciousness. By combining nationalist mythology with business-speak, its brand identity as a nation-state and as a company conflates as one intention. When children take part in this constructed community by roleplaying as citizens against the backdrop of a miniature city, KidZania cleverly makes them complicit in confirming its brand values as a moral compass to live by.
The Value of Work
At KidZania, play and work is inseparable. Everything centers around work. Work your shift, cash your check, and then decide whether to spend the money or to deposit it at the bank and save it for the next visit. Children can spend the money on leisurely experiences such as shopping at different establishments, like the gift shop, or paying to get a driver’s license. While the drivers license only holds value within the world of KidZania, the KidZos that the children earn can be exchanged for merchandise that can be brought home. They can also improve their chances of earning a better salary by paying for higher education. Salaries and time spent on each job are shown on infographic plaques outside jobs, so children can factor in which jobs take up the least time and pay the most money. Here salaries mimic a class society in that working as a dentist pays considerably higher than working as a window washer. To enforce the idea of visiting an actual nation-state, children check-in at a replica of an airport terminal to enter the theme park, they are then given a boarding pass allowing them entrance along with 50 KidZos in cash. For security reasons they are also given a Radio-Frequency Identification security bracelet to ensure that they cannot exit the facility without their parents. The bracelet also allows KidZania to track the visitor and thereby collect various data from the person wearing the bracelet that is valuable for the company as well as corporate partners. (footnote 11) After checking in they then enter a repurposed airplane fuselage and “fly” into the nation of KidZania. They are now ready to go to work.
Since the majority of the jobs that exist within KidZania are sponsored by corporations, the impression of a city primarily exists within the range of corporate sponsors that are interested in partnering with KidZania in the hope of ensuring future loyal consumers. Corporate sponsors include large multinational corporations, such as Shell, Unilever, DHL, Coca-Cola, Sony, Nestlé, Honda, Canon, and Kelloggs. Besides global sponsors, KidZania also works with local ones as well as governmental institutions and non-profit organizations. In total, they have over 950 sponsors worldwide. (footnote 12)
As the business model of KidZania relies on corporations sponsoring jobs to fund its operations, visitors are constantly bombarded with advertising for either corporations or KidZania, when they walk the child-sized streets. In this city there is no housing, there are no public parks, there is nothing that doesn’t serve to maximise profit. The kind of society KidZania portrays reflects its business model—it is harder to find a corporate sponsor for a public park than for a pizza parlor. This kind of profit-driven view is also visible in the emphasis on the value of work—it even correlates life itself with that of work. One print advertisement from KidZania Kuala Lumpur portraying a small girl operating a soft ice machine reads:
I work hard for a living. Sometimes I work ten shifts in a day. I’ve worked in an ice-cream factory. I’ve worked as the delivery person. I’ve cleaned windows. I’ve taken more than 50 different jobs around town. It’s tough. But it’s rewarding to make my own KidZos. I’m ready as a KidZanian. I’m ready for life. (footnote 13)
Besides sounding like a description of a nightmare version of the gig economy, the poster also keeps with the popular mantra that hard work equals success. Greetings like “Have a productive day!” are encouraged to be used by visitors and employees, and the concept of value based on productivity is also connected to citizenship. KidZania offers the possibility of purchasing citizenship; by receiving a physical passport, children increase the amount of money they earn for the work they perform as well as various discounts inside the facility. KidZania itself describes it as a loyalty program, and the feature is similar to how supermarkets entice customers to collect stickers to get a discount on products. By collecting passport stamps, they receive more benefits and discounts. A child starts out as a “Naturalised Citizen,” then when he or she has collected stamps from 30 different workplaces the child receives a “Distinguished Citizenship,” while at 60 stamps it is an “Honorable Citizenship.” The more you work the more valuable a citizen you become.
The selling of experiences rather than products or services, described as the experience economy, has become a dominant way for businesses to entice customers in the last two decades. KidZania exemplifies this tendency since all the company sells is one big experience of life in a capitalist society. Seeing as the corporate sponsors have a strong interest in offering an experience of their brand according to their values, the work that the kids do can better be described as a scripted performance—a gamified version of work that simulates a positive experience of the brand they work for. Using slogans like “Inspiration to Aspiration” and “An Indoor City Run by Kids,” KidZania brands itself as an empowering experience strengthening children’s chances of succeeding in the real-life job market later in life. In actuality, the experience is incredibly structured and with minimal deviation from the brand script allowed, as it is more about creating brand loyalty rather than empowering children.
With nine million visitors globally per year, it is easy to imagine the value that a corporation will see in building brand loyalty to so many future customers. Like one of their Mexican executives puts it: “Kids don’t have a lot of loyalty—they have a lot of options. In KidZania, the brands can work with the kids when they are kids, and in the future build a more loyal client.” (footnote 14) While corporate sponsors benefit from influencing future customers from a young age, KidZania at the same time affirms its own values as a trustworthy brand by its affiliations with other brands. In line with how culture and community have been substituted with brand loyalty across the globe, the comfort of seeing familiar brands inside the franchise contributes to KidZania’s brand as a community with healthy values. The way in which KidZania has managed to sell wage labour and consumerism as an entertaining and meaningful experience for parents to buy for their kids, while those parents themselves live that experience every day, is one of the most fascinating and obscene aspects of the company.
A Better World
With its tagline “Get Ready for A Better World,” KidZania markets itself as offering its visitors an experience of an improved society. The brand values of the company draws heavily on a Westernized idea of the free world in line with the image of that which the United States (US) has propagated throughout history. Its origin story is similar to the one of the US, describing how children from all over the world came together to form a new and better world, in the same way as immigrants came from all over the globe to start a new and better life in North America. Its Declaration of Independence is another obvious reference to US history. Besides drawing on US history to manufacture its own identity, Kidzania also makes an effort to present itself as an anglophone society. Many of the franchises located across Asia and the Middle East do their communication in English, offering special days where English is spoken instead of the native language. Despite having franchises across the globe all the mascots, except one that was introduced in 2017, are white. That KidZania aims to construct a reality in accordance with Western values can clearly be seen at the franchise in Dubai. Previous to women being allowed to drive in the United Arab Emirates, girls were allowed to acquire a driver’s license inside KidZania despite women not being able to do the same outside its four walls. Dancing in public is still not allowed anywhere in Dubai except for inside the KidZania theatre, where children can take on a job as a performer. The symbolic value of having exceptional rules for a theme park that promotes a specific kind of society makes its brand one which stands out as being exempt from governmental laws (!) thereby adding to its brand value and its significance in promoting values commonly perceived as Western.
With such a detailed brand identity, KidZania sets out to be something more than just a regular theme park. Referring to its customers as citizens, portraying wage labor as an educational experience, and constructing an experience according to Western free-market ideals, it brands itself as a social movement that has real political influence. In this way, KidZania’s values can be traced back to the developing tendency over the last 40 years of nation-states being run and thought of as business. Despite the rampant privatization of public goods and governmental services across countries all over the world, neo-liberal thought and policy still has not yet managed to completely eradicate all responsibilities of the state. At KidZania, there was never even a possibility of a public sector as the state itself is a corporation.
Considering Donald Trump’s presidency and corporate personas’—like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg—involvement in and distortion of societal structures, it is likely to see more corporate personalities considering if they can manage nation-states better than politicians. Former CEO of Disney, Bob Iger, considered running for President in the 2020 election with outspoken support from Oprah Winfrey, among others. Iger was responsible for making Disney the cultural powerhouse that it is today, leading the acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and 21st Century Fox. Although KidZania is not anywhere near the size of Disney, President López has spoken of moving the brand in a similar direction by making apps, games, and movies. An entertainment brand like Disney or KidZania holds large power in conveying a specific message to the public, and KidZania has managed to build a brand with a very specific set of values. Unlike Disney, KidZania is selling this set of values as a literal national identity, where instead of subscribing to corporate values you obtain citizenship of the corporation.
Equating cities, citizenship, and life with working inside the framework of a corporate structure reflects the real-life experience of people all over the world. And KidZania has managed to build a successful brand that makes this reality seem fun and educational. President López has cleverly managed to sell the experience of climbing the ladder of success by hustling away at your nine-to-five job as a meaningful experience.
KidZania and its corporate partners have during the last 20 years influenced a global generation of children to believe that the experience of a city and society is privatized and according to brand guidelines. This is not far removed from the reality that exists outside of KidZania, yet outside there are still shreds of cultural diversity, a public sector—and a life outside of work. KidZania has made a streamlined brand experience that fully embraces a view of citizenship as being exclusively about working, earning, and consuming within a generic westernized society. Offering a ready-made version of society to a generation already accustomed to a world where the line between government and corporation is increasingly blurred, gives KidZania huge political significance that they may or may not choose to capitalize further on. KidZania is currently planning to open new facilities in Toronto, Giza, Paris, Surabaya, Nagoya, Riyadh, Johannesburg, Chicago, and New York.
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