When marketing to teens, trends live fast, die young

By Peter Zollo
February 16, 2004

Thanks to teens' enormous and growing consumer power - they spent $175 billion in 2003 - the age group is more than enticing. And teens are trend-obsessed. Yet their preoccupation with the "next big thing" can be a double-edged sword.

Young people are particularly receptive to messages that promise either a new experience or one that satisfies a need-state that's unique to this age group. But they're also adept at blocking out messages they deem false or misdirected. Brands that overpromise, underdeliver or falter even slightly in an ad's tone or execution are often shocked to learn just how unforgiving teens can be.

You'll recall, for example, that only a couple of years ago it was nearly impossible to escape the word "extreme." The term gained popularity as a way to describe action sports that favored adrenaline and independence over teamwork and tradition. Before long, marketers seized on the "extreme" lifestyle as a way to convey their brands as youthful, daring and rebellious.

Although such imagery was a natural fit for athletic-related brands, the lifestyle's focus on fitness and activity made high-calorie snack foods and soft drinks somewhat less appropriate candidates. Still, such products frequently promised increased energy or a "flavor rush" that teens accepted as sufficiently powerful to justify the "extreme" descriptor.

By the time shampoo and toothpaste hopped on the extreme bandwagon, teens concluded that these products had not only showed up late to the party, they'd barged into the wrong place entirely. Such marketing gaffes damage "brand cred." And the damage isn't always limited to those guilty of misdirected marketing. Once teens deemed that the corporate world had co-opted the fiercely independent "extreme" spirit, nearly all attempts to market under that banner became suspect.

As marketers become more youth-savvy, they logically keep an ever-keener eye trained on emerging trends. This attention often results in an abbreviated life cycle for many trends. Typically, the teens responsible for establishing and broadcasting trends don't want to be part of the mainstream; they value their position either at the top of the trend-adoption hierarchy or outside of it entirely. As marketers aggressively mine youth culture, trends move more quickly into the mainstream. In turn, those teens who first established the trend abandon it and move on to something else. It's a catch-22: As "cool" becomes more sought-after, it also becomes more fleeting.

Rather than simply chasing after the latest and greatest, we advocate a more holistic approach. We prefer to help clients discover the nuances of how teens regard their brand: what young consumers expect of it and where else the brand can take them, including how to leverage trends that fit with and appropriately add to their brands.

The key is to turn the pursuit of trends into a powerful, brand-fortifying strategy, rather than a costly red herring.

For further information:

Rob Callender
222 Merchandise Mart Plaza, Suite 250
Chicago, IL 60656
+1 312.951-4822

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