The teen commandments

Learning the lingo of youth is a hard task for brands, not least because just as marketers work out how to engage young people using the latest communications tools, teenagers have often moved on to something new.

A study, made available exclusively to Marketing Week, attempts to help marketers engage with young people in more meaningful ways. Hyper-connected teenagers and young adults aged between 15 and 21, or the influencers of this age group, took part in research put together by agency Iris in collaboration with youth network Ruby Pseudo. Together they have come up with ten “teen commandments”…

1 Help young people to be seen and heard: Teenagers like to share and need places to express themselves. The explosion of social networks, such as Bebo, MySpace and Facebook, has given young people that space they crave to communicate their thoughts and feelings.

Brands can tap into this by giving teenagers an “enabling voice”, according to Sam Noble, planning director at Iris. This involves giving them the “apparatus and the confidence for them to express themselves”.

If a brand can provide the means for youthful consumers to make clear their feelings or thoughts in a way they like, Noble says companies can “forge a deeper level of engagement” with them.

He adds that while young people often use multiple channels and appear hyper-connected, teenagers are prone to feeling marginalised. By engaging with them through blogs and social networks, brands can reach out to them in their comfort zone.

Charity DoSomething.org is an example of a brand that allows teenagers to express their ideas and encourages young people to make a difference. The charity, supported by Doritos and American Express, aims to encourage volunteering. Rather than being a branded networking platform or widget launched just for its own sake, it aims to develop relationships between companies and teenagers through offering a genuinely useful service.

2 Go “bump in the night”: Brands need to break the rules of traditional advertising. By having “little but often” conversations in teenagers’ territory, they can bond with a young audience over time.

Samsung, for example, provided chairs and blankets in a park for people to use while showing off new models of its phones. Noble says young people don’t mind this type of interaction with brands because they understand “there’s a clear value exchange”.

3 Give good face: Communicating with a corporate face doesn’t cut it with the younger generation. Teenagers want their brands to have a human touch and they expect authentic personalities from brands rather than staid marketing speak.

Many brands make the mistake of thinking that young people don’t care about social issues. Fashion store Rough Sleepers, which gives a large portion of its profit to homeless charities, is an example of a caring business model that teenagers cited in the research as offering a human touch in its branding.

4 Prepare to be disposable – if you love them, let them go: This is about trusting teenagers to make their own judgements about the brand, rather than trying to over-manage their perceptions. Brands that show confidence in their products and don’t try to control their image will have the most success.

Noble explains: “Relationship management for youth is about letting go. Do good and interesting things and trust that they’ll respond to it.”

5 Encourage them to experiment: Teenagers respect brands that experiment with their products and services. Teenagers taking part in the research mentioned a campaign by Motorola for its Moto Q model. The handset is advertised online using a cartoon rabbit called Tuzki, in a departure from the brand’s other advertising techniques. The rabbit acts as an expert on the internet and it appears that he appeals to teenagers’ imaginations, with one describing it as grabbing “wide attention” in the research.

6 Lend yourself to legends: Brands need to stimulate word of mouth by creating stories, ideas and information that teenagers and young people will pass on.

While many ways to do this involve digital viral campaigns, this can even work in small ways offline. A teenager from New York who took part in the research raved about some handheld fans that DeVry College handed out at the “scorching hot” Sirenfest festival. She says: “It has an ad for the college on the fan. It was basically a useful flyer – everyone had one.”

While this was no doubt a low-cost item for the education brand, it had seared itself into the teenager’s story of the festival experience.

7 Make authentic connections: Brands need to offer something that genuinely appeals – be defined by what you do as a brand, not what you say and how you look. Clothing store Uniqlo gives away a newspaper in-store which is regularly updated and oversized to attract attention. The object is popular among the young, who pass it around friends, sparking off conversation with their peers.

8 Make a commitment: Teenagers don’t want to feel used and abused and some described certain brand activities as being like a “one night stand”.

Orange Wednesdays, where the mobile brand’s subscribers get two-for-one cinema tickets, is an example of a long-term commitment that adds value to both the brand and consumer lives.

Brands that launch marketing activity without long-term thought can damage relations. Nike released a campaign called Joga Bonita (the beautiful game) in 2006, which required young people to interact with a football-oriented social networking site. However, once the FIFA World Cup had finished that year, the campaign ended and people in this study felt let down as they had become really involved in it.

9 Embrace the remix culture: Young people mix and match their look happily, wearing vintage jeans with a Uniqlo T-shirt. Although these fusions occur mostly in the fashion world, other sectors can also fuse together. Computer game Guitar Hero successfully marries music and gaming. The idea for brands is to form interesting collaborations to keep up levels of intrigue.

10 Have sex appeal: Once you’ve got past the purely visual attraction, brands need to flirt to evoke some kind of emotion from the viewer. Noble says: “It’s about these little touches you can bring to communications.”

Fashion retailer American Apparel is often talked about as a sexy fashion label among its young audience. It communicates this image through not only its louche style of clothing but also provocative print campaigns. American Apparel’s overall image is rated by teenagers as “lazy sex appeal”, which never fails to appeal.

We ask marketers on the frontline whether our “trends” research matches their experience on the ground

Hussain Chowdhury – European sales director, Habbo

In many ways I actually feel vindicated by some of the research commandments. Now it feels that we’re not a lone voice out there. The one that stuck out for me is commandment one: “help them be seen and be heard”. We’ve put together a campaign with 20th Century Fox around the film Night at the Museum where we built a branded space to help the target audience express themselves by helping to write the story line.

“Making a commitment” is a really interesting one too because few clients have long-term conversations with this audience.  

Chris Birch – founder of fashion label Joystick Junkies

The “going bump in the night” commandment is important. I’ve got a constant Google alert for my company name and occasionally you’ll see someone talking about us on a forum. If I think I can add something useful, I’ll pop into that forum and say “hello”.

The fact that you are listening to people and not a faceless business is important. I think big businesses can have these small conversations too – clothing brand ASOS is very good at connecting with a youth audience through the likes of Twitter.

Kerry Taylor – vice-president of marketing, creative and consumer press at MTV

 The whole point of encouraging people to “be seen and be heard” and experiment is something that MTV has really identified. We recently did an initiative with COI called “show us what you’re made of”.

We invited a set of consumers to create content and asked them what they thought of knife crime, hosted it online and showed some of the content on air.

The commandment “give good face” is also something we’ve noted. Following the COI initiative, we invited these young people to MTV studios and gave away prizes for the work they had done on the initiative with bands playing as part of the whole experience. You have to give them the tools to do their own stuff.    

Spencer McHugh – head of brand communications at Orange

One of the best reactions from our Rockcorps initiative (a concert young people can attend in exchange for getting involved in community work) was from some of the youngsters who saw that this activity treats them as “people” rather than as “young people”; they can be inspired by getting involved in the community.

In a world where young people are marginalised and there’s lots of negative association around youths and “hoodies”, it is important to inspire young people.

Antti Öhrling – co-founder and UK CEO of youth mobile phone company Blyk

Asking questions is such a strong way to engage with teenagers. Young people say to us that they see us as a person rather than a corporate because we care what they think and therefore we have an honest relationship with them.

That is indicated in the teen commandments. I also think trust and quality is important for teens in terms of what the brand has to say and offer.

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