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Teens: Making or Breaking Brands?

Rebecca Weeks
Teens: Making or Breaking Brands? Rebecca Weeks

At the second annual "WHAT TEENS WANT: Marketing to Teens Using Music, Movies and the Media," a two-day event held this week in Beverly Hills, California on Tuesday, the hotel was filled with keynotes and dialogues with top executives, direct feedback from teenagers and panels, all tackling critical niche marketing issues. Hosted by AdWeek, BrandWeek, MediaWeek, Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter, the event attracted media and marketing executives hungry to understand the dynamic generation of current teens who last year spent over $170 billion.

Why is teen marketing so important? Like never before, this market has the most power to make or break brands. No other generation has ever been confronted with a greater opportunity to reshape marketing.

The first day opened up with "A Look Behind the Curtain: Challenges Facing a New Generation," a co-keynote presentation by Jim Taylor, Futurist, and Erika Machamer, Senior Vice President at Intellisponse. They explored the ways that innovations in intelligent computing, political organization, global competition, family relationships and economic choice are having a dramatic impact on the behaviors and thoughts of today's teens.

Taylor highlighted three major factors affecting the way this group acts. The first is technology. Teens do not see technology as an innovation; instead, it is considered fundamentally an extension of their consciousness. While marketers may taut innovation, teens see it as a mere fact of life. The second factor is the economy. The middle class is shrinking and teens recognize only two groups: the affluent and the poor. They perceive no middle between theses extremes. The third factor is aging. Since this generation may see people live to be 150 years old, they have no sense of the age-related process of growing up. In an ageless world, it's hard to know when growing up begins and when being a child really stops.

Machamer walked the audience through the characteristics of this dynamic generation. "Gen Xers want to hate these teens. They've bonded together in a way that no other generation has. They are a generation on a mission. They find solutions to the mistakes made by previous generations. Their relationships allow for interpersonal discourse. They are savvy to the economy and to saving. They don't just see a celebrity on television; they actually want to have a conversation with him."

Freedom is at the core of the teen belief system. They want the freedom to go wherever they want and to be whoever they want to be. They challenge old environments, such as that of the workplace. They collectively formulate ideas about the world and believe in only what they agree upon. They value the freedom to build their own sense of style, often influenced by the entertainment industry.

The era of passive consumerism is over, said Taylor. Only 25 percent of teens are considered passive consumers. This generation is opinionated and takes action. They have been trained as shoppers since their early childhood and influence billions of dollars in spending.

Next, Taylor and Machamer described the five major changes that face the millennial generation:

  1. Unprecedented financial risk is a powerful force. This generation is $10 trillion dollars in debt. They feel that they are in the midst of World War III and that the war concerns their ability to live in relative peace. This perceived war clashes with teen desires for freedom. As a result, there is increasing anxiety among teens who assume a "predator and prey" posture. For example, they have a prey response against marketing -- they see themselves as victims and the older generation as unable to manage financial risk.

  2. For teens, the most effective role models exist within the family. The love of family is pervasive within their lives and the teen/parent relationship is strong. The mother has emerged as the strongest role in the family. There is still angst among teenagers, but at the end of the day the relationship holds. For example, the mother/daughter relationship on the WB's "Gilmore Girls" demonstrates a high level of love occasionally disrupted by miscommunication. Teens have learned how to change nagging into negotiating: "C'mon, Mom. I know we don't need a new car, but don't you think you'd look great driving that new X5 around town?" What does this mean for marketers? Popular brands are those that prove to be safety nets, not necessarily fashion statements. Brands should allow people to make their own decisions.

  3. Interpersonal communications trump media. The information space has changed. A teen spends on average nine hours a week on direct phone communication. Networking never stops. The Ryze Blog Tribe shows that opinion leaders control the flow of information. One person in this tribe has over 400 IM relationships. The distribution of opinion depends on the strength of the agreement or disagreement with the message. The implication for marketers is that more companies should follow eBay's strategy of offering a peer-to-peer connection. eBay works because it enables a transaction in which a person makes a one-to-one purchasing connection with someone who shares a common interest, with eBay merely facilitating that connection.

  4. Everybody is somebody's leader. Leadership tends toward specific categories, that is, handbags in particular rather than fashion in general. Teens look to certain knowledgeable teens for influence in a specific category. For teens, it's not so much that because someone is an expert she will be offered her own television show. Instead, a person is considered an expert because she already has a television show. Celebrities can be self-professed and their credibility can be self-generated. How should brand marketers respond? Successful brands today let teens lead. Reverse the marketing process from aiming for awareness to achieving shared network respect. Let teens have an influence in shaping your brand's identity.

  5. Teens create their own worlds. Their reality is under their control -- the line between reality and non-reality has dissolved. They prefer simple, linear stories -- ones that have beginnings, middles and ends. Teens love the Geico ads because they are simple and linear, but still entertaining and educational despite its existence in a boring industry. Brand advertising should engage teens in linear and entertaining stories.

With these changes in mind, effective marketing requires brands to demonstrate authenticity (voice brand opinions and stories and do not stray from it), be bold (make a statement that offers them something new), connect consistently (responses to messages in all media should be consistent or you'll lose their interest and trust), build relationships over time and learn to speak in the teen's own idiom.

The keynote wrapped up with a description of the five teen segments in the current marketplace:

  1. A-listers. These teens stand out by fitting in and doing well. They are smart, love to shop, love to date and play sports. They lead by endorsement. The A-list movies do well because the teens are tolerant. The way to reach this segment is through what is called "Ugg marketing:" managed scarcity. Give them something to talk about to their sphere of influence.

  2. American dreamers. These are the squeaky clean kids that dream but follow others. Teachers love them because they are self-directed and hard workers. Lucky magazine markets to this segment well by showing these teens what items are hot and which are the right brands.

  3. Independent thinkers. These kids are at odds with the world. They prefer endorsement - a positive influence -- versus elimination -- a negative influence. Unlike the A-listers, they lead by rejection. They try things first, are opinionated and inspire counterculture. They are against brands but love fashion that criticizes those brands. Do not try to mass market to this group.

  4. The J&Bs. This group comprises partiers who only want to have fun. They are always dating, less educated and interested in instant gratification. They mock the sacred and want to be amused. For instance, this group supported Burger King's Subservient Chicken Web site with 20 million hits.

  5. Outsiders. This group feels displaced, sad, quiet, less-confident and generally targeted for failure. They express hopelessness. Brands can reach them through emotional promises, risk avoidance and confirm that they didn't make purchase mistakes. Materialism is a short-term way to bring them happiness.

With over $170 billion at stake, these are segments well worth targeting.

Programmatic needs more care and feeding than we thought

You are saying to yourself, "Programmatic is a trend? Isn't it at this point more of a given?" Well, yes. The plumbing of online buying and selling is being upgraded on a daily basis in every home and business, making sure good, clean inventory flows from every faucet. But for those of us who work on clients that are not top 50 or top 100 advertisers, there's still a lot of opacity. I am regularly asked about programmatic: What does it mean? How does it work? How is it used? How much do I have to spend to use it?

All media is under assault -- not just digital. The system is over-complicated by gazillions of moving parts, with some estimates putting the number of ads served at more than 4.5 trillion annually. This is something like 2,000 per person, per month. Big data is on everyone's lips, but the true value of data is unclear. Metrics are still, in large part, in a state of being determined. This means a lot of clients need a lot of hand-holding, and more than a few need explanations that go beyond the "our kung fu is better."

For the sake of ready-made, countable metrics, programmatic is an obvious slam-dunk. And it's being used as such by major advertisers. There is what we like to call a "self-sharpening knife" aspect to it that is appealing. But advertisers and agencies are finding out that it isn't just a matter of "set it and forget it." There's a lot more care and feeding that is necessary.

This isn't obvious from the outside (and let's be honest, outsourced solutions don't always want that fact to get attention), but machines are dumb and are only good at doing what the humans tell them to do. I remember a time when I was working for a large holding company, and it was developing its trading desk. When programmatic was being explained to the president of one of the agencies in that holding company, his eyes gleamed. He rubbed his hands together and asked, with equal parts greed and glee, "How many employees can I cut by using this kind of solution?"

What programmatic does, we've found, is not allow fewer people to do more work; it just allows for more media to reach more audiences and provide feedback faster. This means it frees people up to do different work. And now that brand metric optimization is being onboarded more and more frequently, this is only going to require even more human attention.

Conclusion: Programmatic is going to stop being used synonymously with "automatic."

Dynamic audience segmentation

This is something made possible by programmatic. It is something that nearly all the machines and robot armies can already do. It's just a lot of advertisers don't think this way. What am I talking about?

There is more to be gained from watching what consumers do than relying just on what they report in a survey. It isn't just about enabling the optimization of your advertising against a prescribed audience. It is about finding audiences you didn't even know existed.

Instead of identifying a target audience pre facto and then seeking it out, let the audience for the category, brand, and product identify themselves. We use all kinds of technologies to target media. But let's look at things from the other side of the microscope to identify target segments and parse them, over time, according to value and opportunity.

The first time I proposed doing this to a agency that was running a project for a significant telecommunications company, people's eyes grew wide. Especially the research people, who kept being asked by the client to find high-value audience segments that were shifting sometimes on a monthly basis. It wouldn't suffice to tell the client that survey data with six-month latency isn't good enough and conclude that there isn't any other way to get at what the company is looking for.

This is something that most all DSP-DMP combos can provide; it's pretty much how they optimize your media. For example, Rocket Fuel more or less asks you, "What's your goal?" Not, "Who's your audience?" Achieving the goal is finding the right segments, not having the segments defined in advance. You just have to ask the right questions to get at "who" is being reached, not just "what" is reaching them.

Conclusion: Look for major providers of programmatic, or the data sources that feed them, to offer this more overtly.

"Storytelling" instead of just "social"

This is really just a move back to what brands used to do: tell their stories. Tweets and Facebook posts are lovely, but unless you are Demi Lovato or Justin Bieber, you don't stand much of a chance to move markets -- your own or your categories -- through them. They are important to keeping your loyalists involved, and those folks are the brand evangelists that are good to motivate the base, so to speak. (Kind of like politics.) But at the end of the day, the people like content. Good content.

This is why Facebook just bought Storylane. Longer, more meaningful narrative has an important place not just in how brands can talk about themselves, but how individuals talk about themselves. Social is not just a picture of my sandwich or a snarky 140-character quip about someone on the bus. Content -- real content -- is still king. That content can be long form (found at an advertiser's site, for instance) and short form (found in advertising, sponsorship, advertorials -- aka "native" advertising).

Marketing predictions for the next 6 months

Connection online to offline

This has been a dream all along. And we've done a variety of things to get at it. CPGs in particular have been keen on being able to connect the digital dots to dollars at the cash register.

More tools have come online that are going to let us connect these dots between advertising event and point of sale. Specialized DSPs like Catalina BuyerVision and MyWebGrocer promise to connect advertising events to products being purchased.

More and more media use offline datasets from the likes of Kantar, Nielsen, Experian, and others. Programmatic mentioned above frequently uses these data sets too. What it hasn't always done is close the loop of cause, effect, and re-cause.

This isn't anything new, per se, but it's finally more possible than it has been before. Combinational analysis with multiple data sets to normalize those data and link them to offline behavior is going to continue to grow, as the robot armies get smart and more profligate.

Conclusion: You'll see more specialized vertical DSPs start to emerge, like we did with ad networks back in the day, for a number of scale-dependent advertising categories.

Mobile moments

Consumers will continue to look to their mobile devices -- smartphones, tablets, mini-tablets -- to maximize every moment. There's little that remains undocumented in a human life today. The same device that is used to take a picture of my cat is used to help me stick to a diet, talk to my mom, and read the news. Mobile is used to document life, share it, enhance it, and satisfy it.

At the iMedia Agency Summit in May, Ben Fox gave a presentation on the state of media today and its future. His first slide was two pictures side by side. One was of the funeral of Pope John Paul II. The other was a picture of the new pope being elected. In the first, you saw people holding cameras and camcorders, or just witnessing the event with their own eyes. The latter had everyone standing there with phones in their hands, looking into the screen, and taking a picture. His line was, "What a different a Pope makes." This is the world of the "mobile moment" we live in -- a device that goes everywhere and does everything. The mobile device means the collapse of form and function into a singularity.

This means researching and shopping for products at the same time. I not only learned about a book via my mobile device, but I also searched for it and then bought it through my Amazon app.

According to an April 2013 report from eMarketer, only 6 percent of female internet users reported still researching products primarily in store, while another 5 percent asked friends and family for recommendations most often. The rest -- 89 percent in total -- did their browsing mostly on the web, either via desktop (71 percent) or on mobile devices (18 percent). Forty-seven percent bought via desktop and laptop most often, and another 8 percent were most likely to buy on mobile. Now that mobile number isn't huge -- yet -- but it is amazing nonetheless.

Marketing predictions for the next 6 months

Conclusion: Mobile has arrived -- if not as an advertising platform, as an important midwife for daily experience. Marketing that seeks to be an experience or part of one and not just an advertising opportunity (e.g., augmented reality, value exchange platforms) will be the mobile execution that will lead us to the best new place.

I could be wrong about all of the above. That's the nice thing about punditry -- there's only accountability in the present. After that? "Always in motion is the future," Yoda says.

Jim Meskauskas is co-founder and partner of Media Darwin Inc.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Fortune teller with her crystal ball" image via Shutterstock.


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