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Alf's Articles

Tantalizing Teen Trends

by Alf Nucifora

There seems to be an inversely proportional relationship between our prodigious knowledge of the Boomer sector and our appalling ignorance of the Gen Y, teenager set. Yet the teen market represents enormous, untapped potential even for those companies that market products not traditionally associated with the category. A recent report, "Youth Truths" published by the Detroit-based ad firm, Campbell-Ewald, sheds revealing insight into the motivation and behavior of this easily misunderstood group.

Who Are They?

Born during the period 1976-1994, the Gen Y's, 78,000,000 strong, now comprise 30% of the US population, a group larger than the Boomers and twice the size of the Gen X sector. It's in the "sliced and diced" subsets that the information really gets interesting. According to industry trade publication, Advertising Age, "marketers traditionally defined kids as ages 6 to 12...Today, there are at least six recognized youth segments: ages 0-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12, 13-15 and 16-18."

Most marketers carry a distinct bias with respect to kids' buying habits and motivations. Some project Gen X behavior to the Y's, an obvious mistake since the personality of either group could not be more distinctive or different from the other. Worse still, many marketers tend to "project back" or interpret current teen behavior based on the filter of their own experiences when they were that age (with all of the forgetfulness and revisionism that accompanies the aging process). In reality," the interests of each (teen) age group are now in flux" notes Advertising Age. "A tween, a youngster between ages 9 and 12, will have markedly different interests today, than a tween had just a few years ago." A number of factors are at the root of this acceleration process including "access to influences and information, working mothers and the speed with which trends move across the country."

The Unifying Elements

They're being called the "next greatest generation" primarily because they share many of the attributes of the World War II generation. As Youth Truths points out, they're idealistic. 95% indicate that spending time volunteering or helping people is very or somewhat important (Yankelovich). 50% actively participate in volunteer work in their communities (Ifuse).

They're also patriotic. 79% consider themselves to be such, according to Campbell-Ewald's Youth Research. In fact, 68% say they would be willing to make a personal sacrifice for their country. Their patriotism, however, is not the flag waving type of their parents and grandparents. As Arthur Mitchell, Director of Strategic Planning for Campbell-Ewald notes "theirs comes from a nuanced appreciation of the US for the unique freedoms it offers… freedom to be who and what you want to be…a place where even a Dennis Rodman can live happily ever after."

They take their education seriously, which makes sense given their intuitive understanding that their futures will be tied to an education-dependent information society and not an industrial economy. As such, 87% want to go to university or college (Yankelovich). They also possess a stronger moral compass than their parents. "Trustworthiness," "determination" and "honor" are of great importance to this group, understandable, given their constant exposure to the frailties and ills of today's society with its 60+% divorce rate and a political ruling system that rewards and encourages hypocrisy and deceit.

Optimism also prevails. Although they fear being left behind, 87% are still optimistic about their future (Campbell-Ewald Youth Research.) In the 9-17 age group, 69% view owning their own business as a sign of success. (versus 34% for adults.) This is a generation that firmly believes that it can have it all from personal happiness to career advancement to material success.

These are marketing-savvy folk. Don't forget they've been exposed to media saturation. They know the marketer's tricks. Therefore, they don't have the patience to waste time with a product or message that claims to be something that its not. And if in doubt, they can easily go to the web to validate the claim and verify the truth. But even though they know they're being marketed to, they're accepting of the fact as long as the marketer tells them the truth. What they value more than anything else is authenticity. While they view advertising as fake, that's OK as long as it's fun. What's more, 71% agree that advertising is still the best way to learn about new products (Yankelovich).

Yet when it's all said and done, we cannot forget that they're still kids…irrational, passionate and hormonal to boot. They know it too. 76% of the 9-17 age group tell us that "they are in no hurry to grow up" (Yankelovich). The problem is that teens are being given more adult responsibility particularly in households where both parents work. This can encompass buying the groceries as well as voicing an influential opinion on the next auto purchase for the family. For parents and for marketers, there must be a realization that their (teens) opinion must be taken seriously.

The marketing lesson to be gleaned from the data and trend information is a simple one…get to know this generation now and not when it's too late, particularly if you don't market "of the moment" products such as music, cosmetics and fashion. Gen Y's will have long memories. Loyalty to person or product will therefore be one of the defining elements of their personality and ultimately their buying behavior.

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