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Grabbing the attention of teenagers in an advertising-saturated world requires a fresh approach. One thing that isn’t hard to motivate them to do: spend their cash.
It’s been said that raising a teenager is like nailing Jell-O to a tree, and a recent WWD survey indicates that successfully marketing and advertising to this demographic can be just as challenging.
“Anyone who thinks one specific approach can address teens is very wrong, because the group is a mosaic. It’s very, very complex,” said Richard Sardouk, North American director of French trend firm Promostyl. “And it’s a fickle market. Teens have no brand loyalty at all.”
That’s a point advertisers tend to forget, according to Marshal Cohen, co-president of NPD Fashionworld. “When they market to a teen, they always think, ‘Oh, it’s about the things they care most about.’ Well, the things they care most about change — and quickly.”
Even so, most analysts come to the following consensus about the youth market: Today’s teens have grown up in an environment of media saturation, so to be effective, advertising must stand out. Trend forecasters agree that to get teens’ attention — and their spending money, which is expected to be $61 billion this year for apparel — companies will need to supplement traditional advertising with alternatives that are more localized, personalized and meaningful.
Sharon Lee, co-president of Los Angeles-based youth market research and marketing company Look-Look, also gives the retailer high marks. “I think Target has a message, but it’s more the way that they execute the message — it’s very distinct and very unique to their brand and very aspirational. They’re not dumbing anything down. They give the audience the credit to understand and aspire up.”
Cohen also cites Joe Boxer’s “Dancing Guy” ads — (featuring boxer-clad model Vaughn Lowery bopping joyously to the tune “Jet Sounds”). “Joe Boxer [at Kmart] and Mossimo [at Target] are two brands clearly marketed to the younger more fashion-forward consumer,” he said. “I’m talking about value stores. With two very different campaigns, they’ve been able to go out and captivate the young market — to say it’s acceptable and ‘cool’ — which is the key word. It’s ‘cool’ to shop at Target and Kmart. Literally five years ago, no one would have remotely thought it was cool to shop in those stores.”
Nike makes the grade, too. Lee credits the company’s diverse approach to advertising, including print, TV and sponsorships, with reaching every age group in a “customer base that’s zero to 80 years old. They manage to feel big and small at the same time.” Michael Wood, vice president of Teenage Research Unlimited, pointed to Nike’s Battlegrounds, a nationwide series of one-on-one basketball competitions that culminated in a New York City tournament, televised on MTV, crowning a “king of the court.” “It’s very grassroots, it’s very small-scale and it’s getting the brand out there where the teams play. I think you’ll see more and more of this type,” said Wood.
Darra Baker, Promostyl’s West Coast and Hawaii director, observed that Quiksilver and its junior brand Roxy also manage to tap into the teen demographic: “They started off as a true surf brand, and they continued to sponsor surfers. They continue to be dedicated to the core sport even though 80 percent of their clothing is everyday wear. I think their key was staying literally involved in the youth market, sponsoring events and athletes and not just buying ad time.”
Steve Madden’s ad campaign featuring big-eyed, computer-generated models is also singled out as having the right formula. “Madden’s print campaign still comes back as one of teen girls’ favorite ads,” said Wood. “It does a great job of being recognizable to teens as a Steve Madden ad, and at the same time they’re able to keep the campaign very fresh and very new by changing up the product. That’s another key to the success of connecting with this age group — and it will be in the coming years: looking for ways to add newness to [an ongoing] campaign.”
Who isn’t getting through to today’s teens? “All the rest,” said Lee. “Literally open up a magazine and pick any ad. Advertisers are serving up lots of bland, generic, same-same lifestyle photography. You could just switch out the logos and nothing changes. And that’s pretty much wallpaper at the end of the day for a lot of young people.”
“Anything that includes a skateboarding scene kind of worries me,” said Wood. “It’s sort of an outdated model to say, ‘What genres of music are in? What celebrities are in? What sports are in?’ And then immediately throw those images into an ad.”
And forget trying to beam your message into the living room during “American Idol.” “Who cares?” said NPD’s Cohen. “This age group doesn’t care. They may watch it, but whatever’s advertised doesn’t speak to them because it’s Hollywood sensationalism. It’s non-real TV.” He suggests companies would be better served sponsoring local talent contests. “[Teenagers] don’t believe that they can win a million dollars, but they do believe they could win a local contest where the odds are one in a hundred.”
In addition, look to new mediums to help spread the word. “The Internet is a very critical part of the puzzle,” said Cohen, explaining that teens will often check out products online and then go buy them in person. “It’s sort of Web shopping instead of window shopping. That way, they can just hit the ground and go.”
Even video games are being enlisted in the battle for market share. “There’s a lot of buzz right now about getting product placement in video games,” said Wood. “Video games have become the new cinema as far as product and celebrity placement go.”
Cohen also forecasts that in a future of one-size-fits-all ad campaigns, taking a stand will stand out to teens. “The young market loves Kenneth Cole because he’s out there saying, ‘Save the whales today.’ He’s making it stylish to make a statement instead of trying to be all things to all people. He may not speak to everybody, but it’s going to speak to someone. That’s the difference; he’s not trying to be a universal answer.”
Analysts think the future will truly belong to companies who engage in grassroots, peer-to-peer networking, supporting what teens support and marketing their product by word of mouth in teens’ skate parks, school hallways and sleepovers.
“Marketing to these kids is a localized endeavor,” said Cohen. “Kids care about what goes on inside their community…. They’re being influenced by a pocket of kids who decide which is going to be the hot, trendy item in that school, and it has nothing to do with the school right down the road and certainly nothing to do with a school across the country.”
Lee concurs, “Marketers have to figure out how to be emotionally relevant in the homes, in the classrooms, within social networks of friends, in small ways and not just big ways. Grassroots messaging is the only way you are going to truly, personally connect to people. A young person is going to believe a friend who says, ‘Go see this movie,’ over a commercial any day of the week.”
That was exactly what the marketing department at Mary Kay Cosmetics did when it tapped into its existing network of independent sales consultants — and their daughters — to launch its Velocity line of beauty products for teens in 2001.
“We used them as our arms and legs into the teen market,” said Diana Gold, corporate communications manager for Mary Kay. “They’re our ‘Velocity Girls’ — they are models in our look books, they attend our seminars and they are used for makeup demonstrations or to test a fragrance. So they sort of become celebrities in their own right. They’re able to become the face of the product among their peers.”
“The interesting thing about these girls was that they were active in social circles, at the top of their classes and in very influential leadership positions among their friends,” said Rhonda Shasteen, vice president of Mary Kay marketing. “For the peer-to-peer approach to work, you need to tap into the trendsetters, you have to get the group that people are ready to follow.”
The effort to tap into the teen market at the most personal level has paid big dividends for the company, which does very little traditional print advertising. “Oh, we were thrilled at the success,” said Shasteen. “It really took us by surprise.”
Analysts point out that companies may be reluctant to head down this path because it fails to yield the “hard numbers” of the Audit Bureau of Circulation or Nielsen ratings. But in the end, the only numbers that matter come after the dollar sign of the balance sheet. “In the teen market, chances are you’ll be wrong more than you’re right,” noted Cohen. “But when you’re right, the payback is worth all the investment.”