Not hip with da kidz?

Good, says alias' Simon Crowther. Just make sure your strategy's sound, and we can worry about the skateboard ramp logo later

I need to confess something first: I’m an alien.

At least that’s what the very polite immigration officer told me when I became a Canadian resident two years ago after I arrived in Vancouver via time served in London, L.A. and New York. Two years on and one new youth marketing consultancy later, it’s a good time to take stock of how we in Canada stack up against our youth marketing counterparts overseas. Regardless of location, the question remains the same: how do you target the youth segment and develop effective marketing strategies?

The overarching issue is the confusion about what youth marketing actually is. For some marketers it seems to be the bit of budget allocated to doing ‘something cool.’ Invariably, it involves painful conversations about musical genres, sporting events and a growing realization that you’re a little out of touch. For others it means turning to so-called boutique ‘cool hunters’ who will advise you on everything from how to conduct your photo shoot, what baggy pants to wear for the focus group, hip new phrases you can practice and pearls of wisdom like, ‘you have to keep it real’ and ‘the soft drinks category is very competitive.’ Now that’s worth paying for – send me an invoice!

Or can we find a better solution by learning from how things are done elsewhere? By my estimation our overseas peers start with the business end of the challenge first and are not quite as easily seduced by the communications aspect, which often involves intense deliberation about how big the logo should be on the skate ramp. There’s no doubt that youth oriented communications should be at the edge of great creative ideas, blah blah, but great communications are the result of a coherent marketing strategy – knowing what the potential business benefits are, how big the market is for your product, whether it’s relevant, what the segment thinks about you and also recognizing that not all business is good business.

What am I talking about? Consider this: on many occasions businesses that have decided to invest in targeting youth take a cautious, half-hearted step and adapt exactly the same mind-set, planning and people that they would for a product or line-of-business approach. That’s dabbling, not full-on commitment.

There are some great examples of companies, such as Boost Mobile

in the U.S. or Virgin in the U.K.,

that think differently and display a

complete understanding of what it takes to be successful in this space. They have their hands in lots of pies and aren’t always successful, but they’re always credible. Other organizations interested in being effective in the youth space should consider that marketing starts inside the business, by making a commitment to the segment and fusing strategic thinking with credible values that can be brought to life and a team structure that promotes innovation, free thinking and long-term planning.

For example, how can you honestly say you are into youth marketing if your commitment extends to a one-off tactical promotion for ‘back to school’? There is not much point hiring us youth experts (unless you do genuinely need to know what pants to wear or how to get hip with da kidz) if you aren’t willing to concede that things may first need to change on the home front.

On that note, since coming to Canada I’ve heard two things that have particularly rattled my cage. One is a follow-the-leader attitude where people say, ‘We’d like to see whether it works down south first and then we might give it a try.’ Guess what? Down south they’re not holding their breath about whether stuff works up here first!

Another is too much of a focus on the message, rather than on nurturing the growth of a medium as an effective channel for reaching youth. That one happened right here on the pages of Strategy a few months ago, when a couple of my fellow youth experts managed to demonstrate a breathtaking lack of awareness of the growth and potential of text messaging. The success of the recent Bell Mobility Bachelorette text messaging promotion (done by alias) proves the medium can work.

Here in British Columbia, VanCity Credit Union (another alias client) is also following a formula of strategy first, message second. For its youth marketing strategy, the company is active in schools and runs a junior credit union for kids encouraging fiscal responsibility at an early age, and also offers a fee-free account for all young people up to the age of 24, regardless of who they are.

But most importantly they have asked and answered the business questions first and are now ready to talk about how big the logo should be on the skate ramp.

Simon Crowther is managing director of alias, a Vancouver-based youth marketing consultancy. With 15 years in the business, he has his tongue firmly planted in his cheek and does not presume to tell anyone how to run their business or what pants to wear. On the other hand he’s always up for a chat at