Teens of today, consumers of tomorrow

With an average of 2,000 a year to spend, teenagers are an important market for brands. But their need to fit in and follow the latest craze makes them hard to pin down. Thankfully, with in-depth research and sympathetic use of digital channels, they are not out of reach.

There are few adults who do not have an opinion about being a teenager. Some sailed through as spot-free individuals, while others sat cooped up in their bedrooms with only Axl Rose for company. But whatever your story, thinking about it rekindles strong emotions. So teenage research often sparks interest as something quite fun to study – just to see how the newest generation is coming to terms with their angst. 

Spending power

Fun, yes. But worth marketing and advertising budgets? It’s well-known that teens have a considerable amount of spending power, both in terms of independent purchases and influence over the family spending. The large number of Millennials who have grown up with divorced parents also “benefit” financially from the possibility of double handouts. Though individual purchasing power varies considerably, average annual spending is around £2000, rising among older teens as they start working or receiving student loans.

But doesn’t the oncoming recession lessen teens’ appeal to marketers? Not necessarily. Teens are often less sensitive to financial crises than adults. While most adults have one source of income, many teens have several, with cash handouts from parents, allowances, birthday cheques, grants and more. Moreover, teens operate in a mostly cash-based economy (surprisingly few even want a credit card), so in this sense one would expect them to bear up well.

However, as we fall deeper into the crisis and “Mummy-taps” run dry, there may be cutbacks on more expensive purchases. The current generation of teens have done well out of the boom – most report high levels of durables ownership, so it’s upgrades that are likely to feel the pinch. In harder financial times it is more valuable than ever to know what’s really important to teens and vital to identify what products they will not do without. This is the time to sow seeds and build future loyalties, and size matters here. Though teenagers can be fickle when it comes to consumer brands, the ones they name as favourites tend to be giants like Nike and Coca-Cola.

Priorities obviously vary dramatically by gender and age: boys spend more of their money on electronics, home entertainment, and takeaway food, while girls invest more in their appearance (clothes and cosmetics). However, all teens tend to prioritise their social lives. Currently this means spending money on going out, as well as on mobile bills, but it’s worth noting that teenagers’ favourite hangouts tend to be their mates’ houses. So perhaps expect a scaling back of nightlife in favour of the house party.

Friends and trends

Teens define themselves by their friendships: being a teenager means moving from the family, where your status seems fixed for good or ill, to the more unpredictable opportunities presented by fluid peer groups. It’s important to understand that mainstream teen attitudes aren’t rebellious, they are more idealistic. They want fun, they want to be admired, but, most simply, they do not want any trouble, whether from their peers or from a hostile media.

This is nothing new, but what has changed for Millennials is the plethora of channels opened up by the digital environment – more avenues for expression, inspiration, information, flirtation, gossip, culture, and knowledge. Kids are digital natives. They are like spiders, most at home moving through the online web, and as such will happily juggle several such channels at once. They are impatient and their critical, fun-seeking eyes zip through screen after screen, while simultaneously striking up Instant Messaging (IM) conversations and sending text messages.

Expression and experimentation, so crucial to teen life, have been made much easier – and also much safer. Social networking – more popular in the UK than almost anywhere else in Europe – lets teenagers conduct their social lives 24/7, but it also gives minority interests an opportunity to thrive. Most teens want to feel normal, but their multi-channel lifestyle lets them flick between several definitions of normal: there are more opportunities to fit in.

Adolescence is a time for experimentation – cigarettes, perfumes, shoes and personalities – and kids are using different sites for different types of conversation.

Of course, this exploration comes with age. As teens get older, the pull of individuality calls and they gain cultural capital by discovering new stuff, rather than liking what everyone else does. Younger teens are the last refuge of the “short tail” in a long-tail world – they have a much more unified culture than their older peers, in terms of the TV they watch, the magazines they read and the stars they idolise.


Kids are used to being targeted by marketers as children, so by the time they reach their teens they are well acquainted with brand speak. That doesn’t mean they will automatically reject any marketing effort: they have a high tolerance for advertising and love their favourite commercials, but at the same time they’ve grown up in a spam-heavy environment and their mental “delete finger” is always twitching. Teens don’t have a short attention span – their top ad, the Cadbury’s Gorilla, lasts three times as long as a normal spot – but they have a highly cynical, critical one.

Teens have always been naturally inquisitive and creative, and adverts are just more raw material for that creativity. Reward their marketing literacy, give them something they can use – information, digital freebies, opportunities to collaborate, or just something they can take the mickey out of – and you’ll keep their attention. Follow them across their channels of choice, but be cautious – there’s a definite hierarchy of public and private teen spaces, with IM and mobiles needing to be handled with particular care.

Sixty percent of teenagers click on ads online – e-marketing is still the future – but most of them would prefer to be contacted via the most traditional of media, the TV. This is an example of the key lesson for teen researchers: don’t project your expectations of novelty, rebellion or restlessness onto a generation who want to fit in as much as stand out. Today’s teens might remember the wild highlights of their youth, but they’re spending money all the rest of the time too.

CV Paul Edwards
Research International UK
CEO, Research International UK
2004 Chief strategy officer, Publicis
2001 UK chairman and CEO, Lowe
1996 Chairman and CEO, Henley Centre
1994 Head of planning, SP Lintas
1992 Head of planning, Young & Rubicam
1986 Deputy head of planning, Bartle Bogle Hegarty
1985 Pedigree Petfood
1983 Smith & Nephew
1978 Research International


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