ATLANTA — Millennials are turning fashion marketers into rule breakers.

While fashion has yet to fully exploit the consumption behavior of the lucrative 25-and-under demographic, now 71 million strong, style makers are starting to seek new ways to reach them. Necessity, once again cast as a mother of invention, is spurring the fashion crowd to stretch beyond traditional vehicles, like ads in fashion magazines. Those methods by themselves often fail to trigger purchasing among teens and young adults.

“Millennials want to feel involved with and in control of the message — not that they are being dictated to,” observed Ted Murphy, president and chief executive officer of MindComet, an Orlando, Fla.-based marketing firm that specializes in consumers age 25 and under. Rather than simply hewing to pop culture icons and images, as have previous generations of youths, Murphy noted, “Millennials love [reality TV] contests, like ‘American Idol,’ where they can choose the next hero.”

Or become the next hero.

That was the proposition presented this spring by Sunset Beach, a junior swimwear label owned by Warnaco’s Authentic Fitness unit, which sponsored a “Design Your Own Bikini” contest. More than 1,000 contestants vied for a $1,000 prize. Five entrants, whose designs were deemed strongest, were flown to Los Angeles to work with Sunset Beach’s designers and pattern makers for three days. The swimsuits they designed during the experience are now part of the brand’s 2004 Cruise Collection.

The contest was promoted in ads in Gadzooks stores nationwide and in YM’s April edition. The event also garnered editorial coverage on TV programs such as “Good Day Live,” and in stories in contestants’ hometown newspapers.

“The publicity went beyond anything we expected; we were surprised,” said Kathy Van Ness, president of the designer division at Authentic Fitness. “Something like this is more difficult than traditional [marketing], but it allowed us to become part of our customers’ lives, and let us in on what they think.”

Gadzooks itself is planning a fall ad campaign, slated for Seventeen, Teen People, YM and Lucky, enabling its target teen customer to personalize the ads’ message, by filling in the blank in the tag line: “As ____ As You Want to Be.”Working with The Richards Group, a Dallas-based branding firm, Gadzooks is aiming to further engage teens by boosting the interactivity of its Web site. It recently added a “Style Guru” advice column, and earlier this summer it posted a Dear John e-mail girls can customize (think Mad Libs) when breaking up with their boyfriends. They took down the e-mail form in late July.

One reason Millennials like to play a more active part in marketing than prior generations is they’re quicker to see through the poses struck in traditional marketing messages, sources pointed out. That’s largely because of the information saturation they’re experiencing as the first generation to grow up online and with 24/7 news — media that’s numbing them to the messages in traditional ads.

Authentic Fitness’ sister company, Speedo, for one, has been striving to boost the brand’s swim cred with its young customer target through event sponsorships and online marketing. “We have to become embedded in an event or show,” acknowledged Craig Brommers, Speedo’s vice president of marketing, referring to raising the brand’s profile with Millennials. For example, Speedo was an unpaid sponsor of the movie, “Swimfan,” which premiered last August as a “dive-in” movie, screened at a swimming pool on the U.C.L.A. campus. Speedo also is aiming to make a splash via Internet chat rooms and message boards on a new Web site, targeting teen swimmers, set to go live in September at speedo-swimming.com.

For most Millennials, marketing with an aura of authenticity rules. If they haven’t seen it all by their teen years, they’ve seen a lot more than their predecessors had at the same age. Subsequently, it takes more to move them.

“This group is bombarded with more information than any generation. Traditional forms of advertising are no longer effective,” noted Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y.-based market researcher. And the Millennials’ skepticism-to-outright-rejection of traditional marketing messages, he said, signals a need for customized marketing to the cohort.

“Bigger is out,” Cohen counseled. “Advertising is evolving toward a more personalized approach. In about five years, ads will be tailored to individuals. With a card or a key, one will be able to get a whole program addressing his or her interests.”That approach is akin to existing personalized media, such as cable TV on demand, and downloading music from the Web into MP3 players, but the technology costs for customizing ads are still prohibitive, marketing experts said.

Ironically, the need to augment mass marketing aimed at Millennials with downsized, localized and interactive ads, sponsorships and promotions has posed a particularly significant challenge for fashion’s biggest players, observed Marc Gobe, president and chief executive officer at brand-image creation firm desgrippes/gobe.

As a result, Gobe said, “Department stores have missed this customer.”

Despite existing communication gaps, Gobe sees an opportunity for department stores to lure teens by operating more like specialty stores, as well as using alternative methods of marketing. A case in point: La Foret Roppongi, a Tokyo-based department store devoted entirely to teen product, including music, movies, and fashion.

One department store player making such an effort in the U.S. is Saks Inc., which held casting calls on Aug. 2 at the Parisian store in Madison Square Mall, Huntsville, Ala., for fledgling actors and actresses, ages 18 to 25, interested in walk-on rolls in various TV shows on the WB Network. The event drew several hundred young adults to the auditions.

The WB event was preceded by a grassroots promotion mounted this spring by the Proffitt’s/McRae’s unit of Saks, pairing activewear with competitions in a trio of outdoor sports. The event, dubbed Bikes, Boards and Blades, or B3 competitions, drew 5,000 spectators and participants, ages 6 to 16, to the events, held in the parking lots of four Proffitt’s stores. The effort was tied to the opening of 16 B3 activewear shops in the Profitt’s/McRae’s division.

In-store and Internet tie-ins, including sales promotions and online links to fashion Web sites, complemented both the Warner Bros. and B3 events. Brands aiming to strike a youthful marketing profile participated in the events, as well, including Oakley sunglasses and MAC and Clinique cosmetics.

Online apparel shopping and the spread of product placements in TV shows and movies only hint at new ways in which media will enable fashion brands to communicate with consumers, with a big assist anticipated from the coming changeover to digitally based, high-definition TV, and its eventual convergence with online technologies.As for virtual entertainment, the joint venture between America Online and Teen People, which went live Tuesday, hints at the possibilities, offering users a virtual fashion show, with teenage models, in full-motion video and still shots that can be viewed up close — and the option to buy online the styles modeled, with a few clicks of the mouse.

And despite the proliferation of product placement in entertainment vehicles, apparel marketers have simply scratched the surface of the tactic, sources said. Today, for instance, the Manolo Blahniks worn on “Sex and the City” by Sarah Jessica Parker’s character, Carrie Bradshaw, may show up in fashion magazines weeks later. Several years from now, what people see in programs will be available for purchase instantly.

“There are big opportunities down the line, with HDTV, to click on an outfit during a show and order,” said MindComet’s Murphy. “Right now, we’re looking at immediate rebroadcasts online of top episodes of a hit show like ‘Sex and The City,’ maybe sponsored by a store, where consumers could buy online most of the products featured.”

In addition, product placements and celebrity tie-ins can be incorporated into local events and public relations campaigns to create a buzz, in lieu of a costly blitz of traditional ads. Monkeys in Pants, an Atlanta-based product placement company, has brought smaller players, like niche jeans and accessories lines, exposure through TV, special events and celebrity tie-ins. Leveraging contacts she made as a costumer and publicist in Los Angeles, company president Beth Beasley sends product placement candidates directly to stylists and celebrities, rather than taking the more circuitous route, through producers.

For instance, Beasley has placed Cultural Persona, an Oklahoma City-based jeans line, on such TV shows as “Will & Grace,” “Friends” and “Sex and the City.” Currently, she is working with p.r. firms to help launch Xvala, Cultural Persona’s new jeans brand targeting 14-to 30-year-olds, by seeking product placements on TV; with high school trendsetters, and in rock bands like Atlanta’s The Hiss, who wore them recently on an international tour. And a pair of Cultural Persona jeans have been known to appear in goody baskets at celebrity-dotted events and parties, such as Beyoncé Knowles’ 21st birthday fete held last summer at an Atlanta roller skating rink.Beasely said she charges clients anywhere from $1,500 per show, for a guaranteed product placement, to a $3,500 package that adds monthly fees for p.r. and branding efforts. By comparison, sources said, major product placement firms in Hollywood charge around $50,000 for placements in a dozen TV shows over the course of a year, or about $4,200 per placement.

Naturally, executing an effective apparel placement in entertainment vehicles is trickier than placing, say, a box of Captain Crunch or a can of Coca-Cola, as, beyond the fashion cognoscenti, most people are unlikely to know one fashion item from another — unless they feature a logo or other unmistakable marker, like Burberry plaid.

Beasley’s solution? “That’s where public relations comes in.”

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