On curveballs and keeping it real

When it comes to youth attitudes towards marketing, there are two pervasive schools of thought: optimistic and pessimistic. ...

When it comes to youth attitudes towards marketing, there are two pervasive schools of thought: optimistic and pessimistic.

Optimistic marketers mistakenly believe they can market to youth as they would to less media-savvy consumers. Using this opiate-of-the-masses approach, the Sunny Delights of the world can suddenly turn into jingoistic ‘Sunny D’ hepcats overnight with the clean conscience of naiveté. Pessimistic marketers, on the other hand, often subscribe to the theory that young people hate advertising. As such, they try to make their ads not look like ads at all. This is not such a difficult thing if you are a $2-million skate brand with a 23-year-old CEO, but this pessimistic posture is much more difficult to pull off when your brand is part of a multinational corporation built on conventional ad dollars.

The pessimists only have it half-right. Young people today are advertising critics but, like movie critics, that doesn’t mean all ads get a thumbs-down. The youth of today did not grow up in a channel-2-to-13 universe – they have been bombarded with media since they learned how to use the remote. Is it any wonder that they have become students of marketing? That’s right, savvy ad students, not ad-haters. During my tenure as Nike’s advertising manager, I even recall focus group respondents telling us that Nike ‘was above’ doing radio advertising and that we were cheapening their perception of the brand. Bet you wouldn’t hear that kind of savvy commentary from the Grecian Formula demo.

If the optimistic pick-up line is ‘What’s your sign?’ and the pessimistic pick-up line is ‘Don’t you hate singles bars?’ then, when it comes to youth marketing, I subscribe to the honest realism of ‘Hi, my name is Jeff.’ The realistic approach is one that takes the empathy of the pessimistic approach, but the magic comes from melding that empathy with something that most brands are actually capable of pulling off – a credible sense of self.

Allow me to illustrate the need for both empathy and self. When I conduct research groups with young people, I can get props (proper respect) by participating in a discussion on whether Limp Bizkit has sold out with its latest album in spite of the fact that I am wearing a Banana Republic shirt. Wearing a red, fitted cap backwards (à la Fred Durst) or a pair of Wes Borland’s patented ‘blackout’ contact lenses would not strengthen my connection. On the contrary, it would serve to reduce my level of individuality and self-confidence. In adopting the entire Limp Bizkit persona, I’d go from ‘cool, old guy’ to laughable poseur/wanna-be in a New York minute. The key is in knowing what you can appropriate and what you cannot.

Youth marketing is like ballet: one-half of a brilliant performance is posture and the other half is the way you kick your legs around. And, with all the media hype about the vast disposable income of youth, there are a lot of dancers fighting for an ever-shrinking piece of the stage. PMB studies confirm that TV viewership among youth has dropped considerably over the past two years. In 1998, 17% of English-speaking teens aged 12 to 17 fell into the heaviest TV-viewing quintile. By 2000, that percentage dropped to 15%. Over the same period, the number of teens in the lightest viewing quintile went up to almost 13.5% from 11%.

So while we were once able to throw a fastball down the heart of the plate and reach 30% of our target with a single buy during The X-Files, the strike zone has changed. Our 60-channel TV universe is gradually giving way to a fragmented 60-million-channel interactive universe and, as such, we must add a curveball or two to our arsenal. Herewith, some different approaches, tactics and philosophies for effective youth marketing programs:

‘Relevant cause’

goodwill marketing

In taking the time to understand consumers, you may find a way of championing a cause that they feel passionate about. For instance, if there was a shortage of quality skateparks in Toronto, wouldn’t Mountain Dew be better off taking a page of out the Vans playbook by supporting its X-sport positioning through a dedicated (branded) world-class skatepark, than having some ‘dudes’ stand by a Hummer at 7-11 handing out free samples?

To take this principle into another, more ironic arena, there is an abundance of cash-strapped youth-oriented Web sites that could benefit from brand sponsorship. Imagine how a benevolent sponsorship (by, say, Absolut vodka) of a hand-to-mouth graffiti art Web site could keep the site’s doors open and garner the undying respect/loyalty of the site’s members, as well as the people they influence.

Content hijacking

Levi Strauss had the foresight to recognize there was something uniquely cool about Flat Eric and inked a deal with his 25-year-old French creator before the puppet hit the mainstream outside of France. Not only did it realize that puppet possession is nine-tenths of the law, it also recognized the difficulty of creating puppet magic on its own.

Had it attempted to replicate its own version of Flat Eric, it may have ended up with something similar to Domino’s aptly named Bad Andy. There is nothing wrong with cool appropriation: Ubercool agency Wieden & Kennedy is always sending producers to indie film festivals in search of the next great undiscovered young director. The key is recognizing the genuine cool article and jumping on that horse before anyone else does.

Target inclusion

In describing the ideal youth brand, a brutally honest youth research respondent once said, ‘We want to fit in without looking like we’re trying to fit in.’ I cannot sum it up any better. At their core, youths want to belong. So, include them.

The Kellogg’s Jack’s Pack think tank is a brilliant idea for that very reason, but there are other ways to include them. Skate brand Con-solidated even went so far as to create a dedicated Web site (consolidatedarmy.com) where brand/

skate devotees can download Consolidated ‘propaganda’ and get instructions on how to illegally post the signage for best exposure. You need not go to this extreme. You could even include this marketing savvy, wear-out-weary target by creating multiple endings for your TV spots, or writing 50-second radio spots and donating the remaining 10 seconds to tags by deserving youths (‘Hi, this is Beth of Leacock and we’re having a bake sale for Covenant House’). I guarantee it will improve the retention of your creative.


This may seem odd, since I just spoke of inclusion, but sometimes effectively marketing to youth means exclusion. Why? Well, the best concert isn’t one that everybody went to, it’s the one that everyone wished they went to (such is the cruelty of high school). When I help my clients develop their marketing programs, I try to build in exclusivity whenever possible. Sometimes this means creating limited edition products and sometimes it means recruiting people for research by means of a face-to-face invitation (rather than some random phone survey) but the rule holds: the more exclusive, the more cool.

Jeff Spriet (jeff@wiretap.ca) is the founder of Wiretap, a guerrilla marketing consultancy based in Toronto.