NEW YORK — Buzz power is gaining voltage.

Teens and young adults are leaning more heavily on the words of their peers and are increasingly looking to them to learn about fashion products, among other things.

In fact, 46 percent of 14- to 35-year-olds said friends were their leading source of information about fashion merchandise, in a nationwide online poll of 251 females and 72 males taken in May by trend consultant Look-Look for WWD.

The reliance on friends is significantly greater for females than males.

Just under half, or 49 percent, of female teens and young adults indicated buzz was the primary way they get information about fashion — 11 percentage points more than the 38 percent of their male counterparts who said the same. “Young women have a higher frequency and volume of personal communication on the phone and via e-mail, text messaging and socializing in person,” said Sharon Lee, co-president of Look-Look.

It’s an age group that has steadily sought more knowledge about fashion from their friends, over the past five years or so, as they have become desensitized to an ever-mounting number of traditional ads, Lee recounted. About one-fifth of those girls and young women also turn to family members for such information.

Indeed, 86 percent of teens and young adults, ages 14 to 30, ranked word of mouth as the most credible source among nine news outlets, up from about 60 percent five years ago, Lee said. A group comprising 311 females and 209 males gave that assessment when surveyed in April by Look-Look about their media and marketing preferences.

TV commercials ranked a distant second in the May poll, cited by 53 percent. They were followed by magazine ads, named by 43 percent; guerrilla marketing, 27 percent, and ads in movie theaters, 20 percent.

“Buzz was on the fringe five years ago; it was [mostly] about branded gossip,” noted Marian Salzman, a consumer insights specialist at J. Walter Thompson, in an e-mail interview. Now marketers have moved to the opposite extreme, added Salzman, author of “Buzz: Harness the Power of Influence and Create Demand” (John Wiley & Sons, 2003).

This story first appeared in the June 29, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“Today, you hear brand managers and marketers reference [the use of] buzz as if it were a constant, versus a living, evolving technique that is both art and science.”

Even as they look to friends as their main source of fashion information, Millennials and Gen-Xers are tending to develop individual style sensibilities — a mind-set reflected in their stated indifference to product placements and their taste for indie boutiques.

While product placements have seen a rising visibility on TV and in movies in the past few years, Lee said, “young people don’t want to re-create anyone’s exact anything in their lives. It’s a very small audience who says, ‘I want to wear what Jennifer Aniston is wearing,’ from watching a TV show.” The few who are so influenced, Lee added, usually are big fans of a particular TV show or movie.

Placements in TV shows rated as only the 11th favorite way to glean information about fashion goods, cited by 19 percent of the 14- to 35-year-old females polled in May, and placements in movies ranked 12th, named by 18 percent.

Store settings had a far greater presence as fashion information conduits for that group, accounting for four of their top 10 choices, a list led by in-store and window displays, noted by 45 percent and rating as third favorite; stores of individual fashion brands, chosen by 40 percent (fourth favorite); indie boutiques, 38 percent (fifth favorite), and department stores, 35 percent (sixth favorite).

“About two-thirds of our fashion purchases are made without any prior intention to do so, so we’re educating ourselves at the point of sale,” observed consumer behavior specialist Paco Underhill. “Part of it is it’s so easy — stores are all around us,” he continued. “It’s not just product acquisition, it’s product worship.”

Indeed, the physical presence of products and sales people in stores offering apparel can provide a strong sense of connection with various style sensibilities and fashion brands. Indie boutiques are perhaps best positioned to capitalize on the power of the street’s influence on youths and young adults — a milieu rated as the second-most important source of fashion information, as it was named by 47 percent of females ages 14 to 35. “Some fashion [today] is local; it has caught the retail industry somewhat by surprise,” said Underhill, who is chief executive officer of consultant Envirosell. “The basic issue is the street, which is hard to predict or control. Nimble, sharp-eyed indie merchants can offer goods in contrast to the ubiquity of those found at the larger stores.”

Roughly three-quarters of the 14- to 30-year-old group asked by Look-Look in the April poll about their relationships with marketers said they wanted more opportunities to connect with companies and advertisers, with the balance reporting they’re satisfied in that regard. Further, 89 percent said they’d like a two-way dialogue between themselves and advertisers, but only 26 percent said they currently have such exchanges.

That said, an eye-catching 20 percent of 14- to 35-year-olds in the May survey professed no interest in seeking information about fashion goods, including 18 percent of females and 28 percent of males. For the most part, Lee said, “the fashion media world is still hierarchical and dictatorial. A lot of fashion magazines are still about do’s and don’ts.” But when it comes to the fashion expression of Millennials and Gen-Xers, Lee added, “anything goes.”

(Females ages 14-35, May 2005)
1. Friend 49% 38% 46%
2. On the street 47% 32% 44%
3. Store displays 45% 25% 40%
  Magazine reviews 45% 35% 43%
4. Magazine ads 40% 29% 38%
  Fashion brand stores 40% 24% 37%
5. Indie boutiques 38% 15% 33%
Source: Look-Look, national online poll of 251 females and 72 males, May 20, 2005
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