Getting behind the scene to capture the teen spirit

Teenagers are notoriously difficult to market to, unless a company can make them feel they’ve discovered a product for themselves, says Polly Devaney

They’re hard to communicate with, even for those who live with them. They can be moody, angry and downright rude. They’re concerned about the environment and the threat of terrorism. There are 33 million of them and their spending power is greater than the gross domestic product of countries such as Finland, Greece and Portugal. Marketers call them “The Unreachables” and study what they drink, eat, wear and do with an anthropological fascination. According to Chicago-based Teenage Research Unlimited, last year American teenagers spent $115bn (&£63.6bn) of their own money and an additional $60bn (&£36.5bn) of their parents’ cash, making them one of the most lucrative, yet most elusive, market segments in the US.

Today’s teenagers are the first generation to have grown up online and are extremely marketing-literate, claiming to distrust big brands and flashy campaigns. The traditional method of plastering a message across MTV no longer holds sway with US teens and marketers continually have to find new ways to win them over. As Peter Zollo explains in his latest book about marketing to teenagers (Getting Wiser to Teens), “Painting teens with a broad brush or resorting to stereotypical images will backfire. This is not a monolithic group. You need to have a keen understanding of teen culture in order to develop products for them that they want and need and to create advertising and marketing that’s truly relevant.”

That may be true, but it hasn’t stopped detractors from claiming that media and marketing have created the wants and needs of today’s teens, playing on their insecurities and a desperate need to feel a sense of belonging to social groups.

So what are today’s American teenagers doing if they aren’t at home watching television? When asked what activities they are “into”, 90 per cent of teenage boys and 93 per cent of girls said going to the cinema, meaning that cinema advertising has become more popular and expensive than ever. Once all the movies have been watched, the most popular US teen pastime is hanging out at the mall: 68 per cent of 12- to 19-year-olds spend time at the mall in any given week and the average teen spends three-and-half hours there each week. The mall, for many teens, is more than a place to spend money. It’s a place to see and be seen, a place to entertain themselves; often just a place to escape their parents.

Music has long been the cultural reference point for the teen generation and a large proportion of their money is spent on it at the mall. A debate about the suitability of music industry marketing to teens was recently ignited by the appearance of 13-year-old JoJo, who is made up to look like an 18-year-old while being simultaneously marketed as the newer, squeaky-clean Britney Spears.

Parents on both sides of the Atlantic are less than thrilled at how JoJo (whose manager is her mother) has been styled in a midriff-baring top and with a full face of make-up, singing about love, sex and infidelity. But it seems to be typical of teenagers today who really are 13 going on 30, which makes them even harder to market to in a responsible but also a credible way. In a recent online survey of US marketing executives, 65 per cent said they did not think they were marketing products as responsibly as they could do to young people.

There is certainly a fine line between not alienating teens or parents. Brands that want to score highly with teens have to be authentic and generate trust in a way that traditional mass marketing does not allow. It can mean creating brand loyalty one teen at a time.

Peer-to-peer marketing and the use of “street teams” has become an established marketing tool in the US in recent years, with particular emphasis on teenagers. After all, teenagers would rather hear about a great new brand or product from a friend or someone in their age group, than a middle-aged executive. Initially used by the music industry but now adopted by many other sectors, street teams are groups of fans who work on- and offline to promote the music or brands that they like. They talk to their friends and anyone they meet about the brand and initiate conversations in popular chatrooms. While they usually receive no financial rewards for their efforts, they can earn themselves T-shirts, CDs and branded products.

Jones Soda is a prime example of a brand that has thrived by creating credibility with teenagers and using effective peer-to-peer marketing to win them over. It was founded by Peter Van Stolk in 1996, on the premise that teenagers might accept a new soft drink, even in an over-crowded and fiercely competitive market, if they felt they had discovered it themselves. Initially the drinks were sold only in shops that sold surfboards, skateboards and snowboards, which provided a credibly cool environment for Jones as well as being competition free.

Van Stolk believes effective marketing to teens is all about establishing an emotional connection. The Jones Soda website urges consumers to send in photos and quotes for possible use on Jones Soda labels. It receives thousands of entries a year although only 40 are picked and as Stolk points out, “Big companies would never do something like this.” As a result, Jones Soda has grown rapidly over the years – it even has an extensive clothing line for sale through its website, turning teenagers into walking billboards for its brand.

The founders of Jones Soda may have been among the first to use the tactic of hooking into teenagers’ own environment, but “lifestyle shop placement” has become an accepted part of marketing strategy, with cafés, fashion boutiques, tattoo parlours, music stores and comic shops becoming key targets for selling, sampling and boosting brand awareness. It is not only the independent non-cola brands that are scoring highly with teens through adopting an unconventional approach, as Pepsi has shown with its Mountain Dew drink brand.

The company regularly hands out samples of the drink at surfing, skateboard and snowboard tournaments. “There’s a Pavlovian connection between the brand and the exhilarating experience,” says Dave Burwick, a top marketing executive at Pepsi. He believes teens get a rush from consuming the drink, not just due to its sugar and caffeine content, but also the memory of where they first tasted it. Mountain Dew also paid to get its logo on the Pro Skater 3 computer game and has a huge sponsorship presence at events like the X Games, the Olympics of extreme sports.

Clothing and trainer brand Vans has been getting close to teenagers by building skate parks and has now set up its own record label, signing bands that include Too Rude and Western Waste. IMG, the sports marketing company, bought the US Open of Surfing to enable it to link its teen-focused clients to the event.

Sometimes being different and a little kooky appeals to teenagers most. With its limited budget, Argus cameras, for instance, decided to sponsor the World Dodgeball Association rather than get lost amid many sponsors of more established sports. This is just the kind of offbeat activity that can strike a chord with teens and make them feel that this is a brand they have discovered.

Amid these continuing attempts to be cool, one thing is certain: American teenagers are an amorphous bunch. Even if they are pinned down, getting the message right is critical and the wrong kind of campaign can do much more harm than good. Clumsy attempts at being cool are likely to be cringed at as much as their parents dancing. But the rewards for perseverance and achieving an emotional connection with teens are high. Luckily, that more quirky “under the radar” marketing can be cheaper than mass media.

Furthermore, a brand that creates success in the teen market will see almost unlimited possibilities open up in terms of brand extensions, as seen with clothing brands creating record labels and soft drinks brands having successful clothing lines. And while they may be fickle at times, US teenagers can also be some of the most valuable, committed and hard-working brand evangelists that any marketer could ever hope to win over.

Polly Devaney is a former Unilever executive now working as a freelance business editor

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