Youth marketing is just marketing – on their turf and terms

A broad 18- to 24-year-old target won't cut it, argues Sid Lee VP Eric Alper. To reach youth, you need to go niche.
Atari Pinballs. They don't play well, necessarily, but they look

By Eric Alper

“We wish to appeal to trend-seeking 18- to 24-year-old urbanites without upsetting our
core demo of affluent, tech-averse boomers.”

There it is: a clear proclamation of the fact that youth are an important constituency.
But also a reminder of the mistakes we make in not going deep enough to understand who they are and how we drive their behaviour.

Marketing to youth is not dramatically different from marketing to other constituencies. They may be more heterogeneous, more in constant flux and more seemingly contradictory than other groups, but the same discipline should apply.

The core mission should be to build any youth engagement around the behaviours and values of the target. And yet, I’ve found this isn’t nearly as common as it should and could be.

What I noticed while looking back at a number of youth marketing briefs is that many clients tried to ascribe the same values and behaviours to new youth targets as those demonstrated by their existing constituencies. Alternatively, and even worse, is the use of that all-encompassing group: young adults, 18 to 24. Youth culture, if such a thing exists, is highly divisible into subcultures. A suburban SK8er may not want to share the same space as an urban hip-hop fan.

Karl Rove once famously remarked that all marketers are either lumpers or splitters. In the case of youth, clients need to do a bit of both – identifying the key drivers, values and subcultures that unite them and demarcate them as different from some outside of the circle.

Among the issues that get me the most worked up is the suboptimal approach to youth consumer research.

A great deal of it is merely the application of adult research tools to youth marketing.

Remove college students from their natural habitat and install them in a windowless, fluorescent-lit room with a cheap conference table, lukewarm can of soda and the company of peers that may share only an age range in common – and a moderator that doesn’t speak their language – and the last thing you’ll get is insight.

Rather, marketers should invest in research that is more demonstrative of real behaviour, like true ethnographies, street and exit interviews, experimental marketing, seeding and the like – research that doesn’t divorce youth from the context in which they naturally experience brands.

Too many clients still seek one big idea that they deliver through a push-based communication approach. Forgetting the obvious need for two-way communications, the notion that one “message” (or, for that matter, a message at all) will consistently affect behaviour is misguided.

While this is increasingly a macro development, it is one that is most common for youth who treat their interaction with brands like they do interactions with people: we meet, we have many “lightweight interactions,” and over time, we decide if we’ll date, hook up, become friends or split.

This phenomenon was fascinatingly well-documented in Grouped, a book written by Paul Adams, former social researcher at Google and now with Facebook.

The simple takeaway is that marketers need to plan for a pinball approach to marketing rather than carpet bombing.

It’s not the age range, activity, product or existing communications platform that drives youth behaviour, but the integration of true understanding into action.

Maybe your target isn’t males and females 18-to-24, but instead 20-something free-thinking urbanites.

Maybe the brief of creating a social campaign isn’t right; maybe what your target really would engage with is a mobile game.

Maybe the notion of having a brand or product message is fatally flawed and, instead, what you need is great content or a movement.

You’ll never know until you outline a truly addressable group, make real choices, abandon self-reference, embrace a desire for understanding over validation and build new communication paradigms predicated on interactions. All of which is based on the biggest learning of all – we can’t just show up in the ’hood wearing the right threads. We have to earn the right; we have to walk the talk.

Eric Alper, Sid Lee VP & partner, is a leader of the agency’s burgeoning strategy practice, and has worked on an array of youth programs across apparel, automotive, consumer electronics, CPG and retail.