Purpose - The paper seeks to offer a critique of the Piagetian developmental cognitive psychology model which dominates research into children and brand symbolism, and to propose consumer culture theory as an alternative approach. The paper also aims to present the design and interpretation of an empirical study into the roles brands play in the everyday lives of junior school children, which demonstrates the richness of this alternative framework. Design/methodology/approach - The key literature on children and brand symbolism is reviewed and the main concepts from consumer culture theory are introduced. A two-stage qualitative study involving 148 children aged 7-11 is designed using group discussions and a novel cork-board sorting exercise. Findings from group discussions with 56 children in stage 2 of the study are analysed from a consumer culture theory perspective. Findings - The analysis focuses on two aspects of the ways in which children use brand symbols in their everyday lives: their fluid interpretations of "cool" in relation to brand symbols, and the constitution of gender in children's talk about iconic brands, notably on "torturing Barbie". Research limitations/implications - A key aim of this paper is to critique an existing framework and introduce an alternative perspective, so the analysis offered is necessarily partial at this stage. Future research could also use a consumer culture approach to investigate the role of brands in the everyday lives of children with differential access to financial resources, children from different ethnic groups, and children from different parts of the world. Originality/value - The introduction of a new framework for researching children and brands offers a host of possibilities for academics and practitioners to understand the effects of brand symbols on the lives of today's children, including a more informed approach to socially responsible marketing. This is also the first study to apply consumer culture theory to children's consumption behaviour. Studying consumption practice from the child's viewpoint offers exciting new angles for the development of this theoretical perspective.