New tactics on the youth battleground

Companies are discovering that targeting young consumers means more then throwing money at TV ad campaigns.

If your idea of a good weekend is spending 48 hours secreted in a house with six mates, a Sony PlayStation, Internet access, table football and as much Fanta as you can drink, you are either under 18 or a youth marketer.

Coca-Cola is attempting to boost Fanta’s credibility with youngsters with its eight-bedroom Fanta House, the “ultimate teen destination”, where at least some teenage fantasies can become reality (MW April 13).

It was encouraged in this strategy by its promotions company, ZGC, and its youth communications company, “teen experts” Informer.

Over the past ten years, as youth media has exploded and audiences have fragmented, youth marketing specialists have acquired an iron grip on the strategies of many brands looking for new ways to target an advertising-savvy youth audience.

Brand owners appear to be out of touch with the young and have outsourced the task to specialists who claim to have their fingers on youth’s thumping pulse.

Where there were two youth specialist agencies a decade ago, there are now scores of them and ad agencies are setting up their own youth divisions to cash in on the trend.

But how can middle-aged marketing executives be sure their advice is accurate?

Alongside the growth in youth “specialists” has come an increase in poor strategy, advertising and promotional work targeted at youth.

“Brands marketers spend so much time managing the business and going to meetings, they don’t have time to hang out with their target audience and see what’s going on. That’s what we do,” says Informer senior research executive Liam Daley.

Informer’s clients includes UDV, Bacardi-Martini, Allied Domecq, MTV, Levi’s and Barclays. Informer’s Youth Monitor Study is developed through eight monthly focus groups of youngsters across the country.

Daley says: “Brands have to realise it’s not just about the product; it’s also about having an eye on what’s going on in the world, because brands can become targets – look at Nike in the ‘Battle of Seattle’. Consumers now realise they are in control and can have an effect on brands through boycotts, like that of Monsanto, or protests.”

But many brands do not understand the value of what youth specialists are telling them and just want to bolt on a youth promotion to get “hip” with the kids.

“Many brands have no idea how to approach “grass-roots” involvement with their consumers and bring nothing extra to the table,” says Geoff Glendenning, former head of marketing for Sony PlayStation, now managing director of youth agency Third Planet, whose clients include Sony, MTV and Ben & Jerry’s.

To illustrate how large corporations fail to understand their audiences, he recalls how a marketer turned up to a snowboarding championship in a Chanel suit, complained about not having the best hotel suite and quickly became a laughing stock. “This type of behaviour just upsets and alienates the target audience, and all brands tend to do it,” he says.

“Youth marketing is not a short-term opportunity, it should be a long-term investment if you don’t want to be seen as a faceless corporation.”

He believes brands should add something to consumers’ lives, for example, building skateboarding facilities rather than spending huge amounts on a TV campaign.

But TV campaigns are what ad agencies do best and many are now setting up youth divisions. According to Glendenning, what the ad industry does is “insincere and dishonest with no real relationship between agency and client”.

He continues: “The traditional ad agency can only survive by advising clients to work within a quantity of hits rather than talking about quality and this is leading to a lot of mediocre work.”

Sean Pillot de Chenecey, 37, who has worked in youth marketing for ten years, says: “Ad agency youth arms are staffed by traditional ad people who have taken off their suits and put on a pair of jeans but don’t live and understand what drives alternative culture.”

Chris Ward, 36, managing director of youth communications agency Beatwax agrees: “The more people there are doing this type of work the more work I see that is wrong.”

He says that, whereas brands previously expected his company to have expert knowledge of the product, now they are happier to accept them as experts on the market.

“Increasingly, clients’ companies are becoming co-ordinators of activity. We know the changes that happen every day in the youth market – they know how much sugar to put in a drink,” says Ward.

Brand owners appear so alienated from youth consumers that they have to outsource the task of reaching them, and this should set alarm bells ringing. This devolved approach may mean youth markets spin out of the orbit of marketing control for good.

Brands which lose the youth plot may not lose just sales, they could also become targets of youth protest – and all the Fanta House projects in the world won’t remedy that.

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