The right connection

Just when marketers thought they had youth all figured out, they've flip-flopped. The optimistic, exuberant teen that came of age in the mid-to-late '90s has disappeared. Quite the antithesis, today's youth are filled with trepidation (terrorism and all that), and at the same time, are much more passionate, courageous and determined to fight for what they want out of life. What this means is that many of the messages recently honed to reach youth have gone the way of the Ugg boots trend.

Just when marketers thought they had youth all figured out, they’ve flip-flopped. The optimistic, exuberant teen that came of age in the mid-to-late ’90s has disappeared. Quite the antithesis, today’s youth are filled with trepidation (terrorism and all that), and at the same time, are much more passionate, courageous and determined to fight for what they want out of life. What this means is that many of the messages recently honed to reach youth have gone the way of the Ugg boots trend.

At least, that’s the main thrust of Chicago-based Energy BBDO’s GenWorld global teen study, which surveyed 3,322 teens aged 13-18 last summer. (See sidebar on page 48.)

‘A lot of the advertising and marketing we saw that addressed youth in the past was all about ‘The sky’s the limit’ and communications were pretty mindless and frivolous,’ says Chip Walker, director of account planning at the agency. ‘These were young people who didn’t seem to have a care in the world, who seemed to think that money was freeflowing and for whom stuff – buying it, wearing it, displaying brands – was an amusing diversion.’

Nowadays, kids are consumed with ‘brand me,’ says Walker, who explains: ‘It’s figuring out my own true self…and I don’t want to substitute a label for [that].’

So what’s going to do it for them? In short, a meaningful connection. That means not only understanding youth culture but finding your place inside it, because posers aren’t welcome; in other words, it definitely has to be a genuine association.

This is now more crucial than ever, because young people are increasingly inquisitive about what brands stand for, says Walker, who adds that their number-one concern is their own ability to navigate through life. So themes like empowerment resonate with the average 16-year-old. Walker points to Adidas as a marketer that gets it, with its ‘Impossible is Nothing’ campaign. Also on his good list is denim brand Diesel’s marketing efforts, in particular an instalment called ‘Action for Successful Living,’ which depicts a young woman who appears to be protesting. The copy reads: ‘If you want a successful life, you have to fight for it.’

Adds Walker: ‘Diesel gets the nuance of the emotional tension these young people are up against, and they portray it in a likeable, fun way…. It’s funny, in the background of this ad, there’s a group of protestors and there’s a guy with a sign that says ‘Respect your mom.’ Which is something else that’s very true about this generation – they really love their mom.’

But while empowerment is a message that resonates, what your brand does at street level is just as vital. ‘It used to be grass after mass, but now they’re equally important points of entry to the youth sphere,’ points out Mike Farrell, partner and director of research and strategy at Toronto-based youth marketing consultancy Youthography. ‘Kids are looking for that now – they’re open for business but it has to be on their own level, on their time, at their leisure…. They’ll embrace you as long as you come in and embrace that culture. [But] you need to really support it.’

Of course, that is best achieved when your brand actually has a genuine role to play. And that means giving up on trying to be all things to all people. BBDO’s Walker calls it ‘passion branding,’ which he defines as ‘when a brand tries to appeal to a certain group of people that believe in something, with the notion that others will come along for the ride.’

And by the way, culture is no longer defined along racial, ethnic or religious lines. ‘I can be purple and glow in the dark, but if we listen to the same music, appreciate the same sports, like the same fashion, share lifestyle interests – that’s a culture-driven connection,’ says Courtney Counts, cultural anthropologist and director of cross-cultural communication at Atlanta-based GTM Group, the agency behind the ‘truth’ anti-smoking and Current TV grassroots campaigns in the States. GTM also recently published a white paper called ‘Interactivism: How to reach a mass market when individual customization rules.’

Brands ‘need to take an inside-out approach,’ says Counts. ‘Youth operate under a spirit of collective individuality, meaning there is a desire to belong and feel accepted and part of a greater mass, but at the same time they want to reflect their individual spirit in doing so. People want you to speak to them in an individual voice, understand them as the person they are. Culture is a key building block, and an authentic embrace of it is critical.’

That’s certainly been skateboard retailer West 49′s mantra. The brand was born 10 years ago, and is run by Sam Baio, who started skating himself in the early ’70s. Since its launch, the retail chain has grown to 67 West 49 stores across Canada, and has recently acquired B.C.-based retailer Off the Wall and the Amnesia/Detox chains in Quebec. As a result, sales for the fourth quarter ended Jan. 28/06 increased 70.7% to $50.7 million from $29.7 million the previous year.

Baio, who believes there is still room to grow 20% to 30% in the Canadian market, says the key to success has been West 49′s ability to stay true to its roots. ‘There are other parts of the [12-16] age group – strong urban influences, rap influences – but we’ve really not specialized in that or tried to go after those kids, because it’s not us, it’s not who we are.’

This has also meant turning down opportunities for short-term gain. For instance, Baio says West 49 could have made ‘hundreds of thousands of dollars’ if it had capitalized on the scooter trend, but it stayed away from the fad because it ‘wasn’t true to this specific group.’

Adds director of marketing Cindy Mielke: ‘From a marketing perspective, kids just want brands to connect with them, and be relevant and honest. That’s a philosophy we stick by.’

Indeed, West 49 gives to its community in a big way. The Burlington, Ont.-based retailer is involved in a number of grassroots initiatives. Along with sponsoring the West 49 Open, a pro event that attracted 15,000 attendees last year, it sponsors regional skateboarding events (20 to 30 in the summer and 10 to 15 in winter) and a group of 150 amateur skateboarders, known as its Flow Team. Chosen by local store staff to ensure a community-minded approach, its members get discounts on gear and are offered the opportunity to meet – and sometimes tour with – pro athletes.

They also have the opportunity to enter exclusive contests. Recently, the skaters were invited to submit footage of themselves in action; the top 24 from across the country were selected to appear on a DVD, 80,000 units of which will be given out in June as a gift with purchase. The winners not only receive the exposure, but also a sponsorship for a year with a skateboard deck company.

Mielke also points to West 49′s support of indie bands as an example of how the brand embraces the youth scene. In collaboration with MuchMusic, West 49 enables local bands to upload tunes to their website west49music.com, where they host a monthly band wars contest. After 10 months, the 10 winning groups square off against each other, and the champs get free studio time. The Web site receives 250,000 unique visitors and about 5,000 votes per month.

In total, the retailer spends about 40% of its marketing budget on grassroots initiatives, according to Baio, although even some of its mass advertising is used to promote such tactics. Due to all this effort, kids typically pick West 49 as the number-one brand in customer surveys conducted by the retailer – ahead of brands like DC shoes, Quiksilver and Billabong. ‘Kids are very media savvy,’ says Mielke, ‘and they also appreciate when a brand gives back to what they’re all about and tries to understand them, rather than sell to them.’

The way to get to long-lasting results, in Baio’s opinion? A lot of work and investment in long-term programs. ‘It’s like a restaurant/bar – if you open up and you have lots of sizzle, but no meat to it, you’re going to be the hot new number, until there’s another. Then you’ll lose a lot of your business to the new hot new number. Kids are fickle, and we want them to believe in us…so we can interact with them in an honest way.’

But some marketers say you don’t have to be born and bred into a culture to make a connection, as long as your involvement is deep. Or at least that’s what Solo Mobile is trying to prove on the snowboarding scene. With Youthography’s help, the cellphone brand just wrapped a program which saw it sponsor a team of pro boarders, plus partner with a number of core brands, including DC, Spy and Option. It also sponsored a major snowboard event called Empire Shakedown at Mount Saint-Sauveur outside of Montreal, as well as snowboard terrain parks at Cypress (Vancouver), Calgary Olympic Park, and Mt. Saint Louis-Moonstone (Barrie, Ont.)

‘The goal,’ says Jeff Roach, MD of youth marketing at Youthography, ‘was to be immersed in youth culture as much as possible.’ The campaign also included a microsite, which featured the pro athletes and had information about their 60-date tour. On that tour, a Solo Mobile Lounge was set up at the resorts, allowing kids to hang out, watch snowboard videos, and listen to music. There was also a contest, with a chance to win a trip to summer snowboard camp with a pal, not to mention secondary prizes involving free product from the sponsors.

In terms of mass, ads ran in mags like Dose, Park & Pike, and Snowboard Canada, starring the pro teen athletes ‘and focusing on how much [Solo] is supporting snowboarding,’ says Roach. ‘We felt the right way to bring a telco into snowboarding was to tell snowboarders about how we support their culture – so to say: ‘Hey we sponsored these resorts, we gave some money to these train parks so they could put in new features that you guys could ride all the time, we’re supporting these great Canadian athletes.’ That became the core of our program.’

Roach says media impressions, including print, radio and a promo spot on Musiqueplus, rung in at 24 million-plus. Plus, anecdotal feedback was strong. ‘The core comment from youth and snowboarders was that Solo Mobile got it right – ‘We’ve seen so much bad advertising in snowboarding and so many brands try to do snowboarding and don’t do it well…. Solo Mobile got it right and they fit in.’ That’s one of the best comments we could have gotten.’

BBDO’s Walker suggests that brands that don’t have a passionate appeal as such, won’t last much longer. But getting there isn’t easy; in fact, it requires a shift in the way marketers think. ‘You weren’t taught this – you were taught: ‘How big is the market? How much money is there to be made? What do we have to do to get people to buy this? How much will we charge them? And what’s the least we can deliver while charging as much as we possibly can?’

‘Today, we’ve added a new brand dimension where it’s: ‘Okay, brand team – what do you believe in? Do you deserve to stay in business? What is your difference-making purpose in this world?’ It’s almost like you have to do a bit of a brand encounter session, where you say: ‘Who’s running this brand and what do they believe in?’ If you can’t get there, it’s unlikely that you’re going to make an authentic connection.’