Courting Gen-Y: Forget the Hype, Find Street Cred

March 5, 2003 | By Valerie Seckler

What do Kenneth Cole and Coca-Cola have in common? Both are perceived as the real thing by the Millennial generation, marketing consultants contend.

Achieving such status is a deceptively difficult trick for brand marketers to pull off, since most of them are Baby Boomers or Generation Xers who are too far removed from the Millennial culture to make an appeal that has the sense of authenticity—and relevance to their lifestyles - sought by today’s teens and young adults.

Fashion brands, in particular, have struggled to convey a sense of authenticity to today’s teens and young adults, whose fancies—and funds - are being more readily captured by cars, travel, electronics, entertainment and eating out. Designer brands from Calvin Klein to Gucci to Prada are pouring millions of dollars into ad campaigns aimed squarely at the Millennials, yet most of youth culture remains unmoved by such efforts, observers pointed out.

“It used to be good enough for a designer like Ralph Lauren to do an ad campaign with a particular image, and young people simply aspired to be like that,” observed Marshal Cohen, co-president of Port Washington-based market researcher NPDFashionworld. “Today, it’s more about being associated with a larger cause. Kenneth Cole has done this better than anyone in the past 20 years. The brand rates high with teens consistently.”

In fact, according to NPDFashionworld, Kenneth Cole leads a list of brands perceived by teens as “prestigious,” followed by Donna Karan, Victoria’s Secret, Ann Taylor, Liz Claiborne, Banana Republic, Jones New York and Ralph Lauren.

A more genuine appeal would enable fashion brands to sell more apparel to the generation, ages 8 to 25, now 71 million strong. Teens spent approximately $ 170 billion on products and services in 2002, found Teenage Research Unlimited, while college students, ages 18 to 30, spent about $ 155 billion last year—about $ 39 billion of it discretionary, according to Harris Interactive research conducted for 360 Youth, the marketing arm of Alloy Inc.

The stakes will continue to climb through 2010, the period in which more people are projected to enter the cohort than leave it. “There are currently more eight-year olds than 15-year olds, so the prospects are bright for youth marketers,” said Matt Diamond, chief executive officer of Alloy Inc., a direct merchant and marketer targeting Millennials.

With those population gains projected, fashion marketers’ still can effectively appeal to Millennials. The remedy to their current predicament, as prescribed by marketing executives and generation experts, is straightforward: Fashion players must better grasp the Millennials’ values and aspirations—and start stirring more word-of-mouth via grassroots marketing—if they expect to spur the group to spend more on their products.

Mistakes currently being made by marketers targeting Millennials are many. For one thing, Millennials are often portrayed in advertising as dumb or naive, and typically they are neither. They also get along better with their parents than prior groups and shop with them, yet seldom are both groups addressed in the same marketing campaign. They are America’s most ethnically and racially diverse generation ever, but multicultural campaigns targeting the group are rare. And running counter to sexuality’s growing presence in marketing and the media, most Millennials say they’d like to see less of it—a gripe they don’t have with violent imagery, however. In fact, generation experts said the past few years have seen steep declines in teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

“Millennials like to participate in consumer marketing culture, but they also take it with a grain of salt and push back against it,” observed J. Walker Smith, president of Chapel Hill, N.C.-based market researcher Yankelovich Inc. Unlike Generation Xers, who have resisted ads, Smith said, Millennials like them—but only if they ring true; a hard sell is a turnoff. This marks a shift from the mind-set of the last group who enjoyed ads, and wanted to be featured in them, as they were growing up: the Baby Boomers (aka The Pepsi Generation).

At work, Smith noted, is the manner in which the youngest cohort receives news from mainstream media, as distinct from the way Xers and Boomers did at the same age. Characterizing Millennials as the Monica Lewinsky generation, he said, “The more they find out [via traditional news media], the less they want to know. Baby Boomers were the Watergate generation. They thought the more you find out, the more you know about what’s going on. Gen-X was the Iran Contra generation. They thought the more you find out, the less you [truly] know.”

Not surprisingly, Millennials’ antipathy toward judging others—a sensibility informed by their optimism and idealism—also is reflected in the marketing voice they prefer: unpretentious and authentic. This poses a paradoxical challenge, as marketing, by definition, is about selling something. The solution, marketing observers advised, is simply to be up front about it. Failure to do so is perhaps the biggest mistake one could make in appealing to the 25-and-under set.

Youth-savvy alternatives lie in both the approach to marketing campaigns aimed at Millennials and their actual content, observers counseled. “You can’t market to teens without acknowledging it is an effort to sell something,” Smith said. “The solution is to collaborate with teens, rather than trying to outthink them,” he advised, in reference to the development of marketing campaigns. “A participatory experience feels more authentic.”

Some brands have already tried this: Gap, which recently asked users of its Web site to volunteer to model for an upcoming ad campaign (digital photos were submitted for an online vote); Pop Tarts, which asked youths to invent new versions of the food; Apple Jacks, which enabled teens to become the brand’s managers for the cereal’s relaunch in Canada, and Icehouse beer, which held a marketing contest in which it told consumers: “You make the billboards, we’ll make the beer.” Others have turned to grassroots marketing: Coca-Cola is narrowly distributing Coke in Club Cans, only in places where teens hang out, while Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein are taking it to the beach, aiming at college students during spring break.

Implicit in such an interactive approach is a respect for the intelligence of young consumers—and a willingness to experience and learn from their culture firsthand—a regard that is missing in much of today’s marketing targeting the group. That disconnect is something Millennials find alienating, or even offensive, about many such campaigns, observers said.

“Today’s high school kids feel as though they’re part of a very smart, active, engaged, competitive, stressed-out group of people,” related generation expert William Strauss. “So, when you [try to] appeal to them, like many advertisers do—by showing people in their 20s as stupid, or sitting around angsting about failed relationships—it just doesn’t speak to them.”

For brands not yet ready to take the leap to teenage brand managers, or teens selecting their peers to model in ads, there are smaller steps they can take to better address Millennial culture. They include spending time viewing Web sites, movies, television and videos created by teens and young adults, and attending theater productions, movies and concerts they produce. Fashion marketers may be surprised to find elaborate costumes, complicated choreography and sophisticated acting well beyond anything they themselves created as teens or young adults. Much of it has stemmed from skills acquired in an array of after-school activities, from dance instruction to video production classes.

“Thirties production values appeal to today’s kids—a return to bigness—as does anything on the breaking edge of technology, used in a way kids find spectacular,” said Strauss, a founder of the Capitol Steps satiric troupe, who, in 1999, created theater awards called Cappies, now given in 58 high schools around the country.

That larger-than-life atmosphere, colored by a strong sense of fantasy (think “Lord of the Rings,” PlayStation and cyberculture), has wrought a double-edged sword for marketers. Most teens are seeking to be entertained nonstop; they’re living in a constant state of noise. And the resulting absence of quiet in which to relax and reflect gives them far less opportunity than their predecessors had to consider their choices—including things they buy—and the impact of those decisions, generation experts pointed out. “So many of today’s teens say they can’t concentrate or study unless there’s some noise in the background,” said Robert Wendover, director of the Center For Generation Studies in Aurora, Colo. “Very bright kids walk away from the crowd because they want to think. It’s hard for them to find someone to talk with.”

It’s a sharp departure from the teenage years of the Boomers, who often are the ones developing the marketing campaigns aimed at today’s teens. The gap is humorously portrayed in Gary Ross’ 1998 movie “Pleasantville,” when a Nineties teen played by Tobey Maguire—transported back to the Fifties—flips on the TV before school and is puzzled when his mother, played by Joan Allen, says, “You’re watching TV now? It’s 8:00 a.m.”

Less quiet time also has limited teens’ use of imagination and sense of freedom, said historian Neil Howe, who, with Strauss, has written numerous books about generations. That, in turn, has led to burnout among a growing portion of high schoolers. Marketers ought to realize, Howe added, that “a major aspiration for this group is to have a more balanced life—time for travel, family and community, and days for doing nothing. They see how stressed out their parents are and they don’t want to end up that way.”

A related issue, Howe noted, is vulgarity, both spiritual and material. “Vulgarity is an issue for the Millennials. They know it’s out there in our culture, and turning it into a theme for a TV show is a running gag for them. That’s why ‘The Osbournes’ is a Millennial phenomenon,” Howe said of the MTV series. “The show’s portrayal of kids that were natural-looking and a little overweight was also something they could relate to.”

Others making strong connections with Millennials, observers said, include pop songstress Avril Lavigne, whose music and style suggest an every-woman sensibility; movie stars like Vin Diesel and Angelina Jolie, who reflect a realism also seen in rock music’s renaissance, and fledgling cable network Varsity Television, which went live last September, claiming the turf somewhere between Nickelodeon and MTV, along with its four-year-old companion Web site at

From this cultural crucible are emerging teens who are generally optimistic, energetic, civic-minded, put off by excessive behavior and planning for the long term. For example, many high schoolers are carrying day planners—a far cry from the live-for-today spirit of their parents’ youth - and they are thinking about college as early as ninth grade. According to a Harris Poll, 993,000 high school students took the PSAT in 2001, up 72 percent from the 577,000 who took the preparatory test for the college entry examinations in 1993, and 50 million day planners were distributed to high school and college students in 2000, a steep ascent from the million given out to their counterparts back in 1990.

Millennials also are more willing than their Gen-X predecessors to give other individuals the benefit of the doubt. Indeed, one of the worst gaffes marketers can make in an appeal to Millennials, particularly those now in their 20s, is to appear judgmental, said Lois Huff, a senior vice president at Columbus, Ohio-based management consultant Retail Forward. “When Millennials were growing up, the economy was fantastic, there was a burst of materialism and an explosion of technology. It’s a generation that hasn’t known trouble until recently,” Huff said, noting that experience has raised the group’s aspirational profile. As a result, she added, “they are somewhat like the Boomers, as they have higher social goals, yet still like to indulge.”

To date, fashion has been a small ingredient in the culture cooked up by Millennials. The fashion business could add some spice, though, if it could convey the sense of energy and individualism that typifies today’s teens and young adults, marketing consultants contended. “Young women are getting more expressive of their personal identity,” said Marc Gobe, president and chief executive officer of brand image consultant Desgrippes Gobe. “With the formulaic nature of most big-chain brands, there is some loss of individuality,” he continued, citing American Eagle and Abercrombie & Fitch as examples. “They brought a point of view to this group five or six years ago, but they are not necessarily speaking to a whole new group [of teens] now. This group has decided to make their mark and expect brands to reflect their belief. Stores that have faster fashion and frequent product introductions are more appealing: Zara, H&M, Forever 21, Urban Outfitters.”

Millennials spent approximately $ 46 billion on apparel between January and November 2002, or 21 percent more than the $ 38 billion spent on it by the larger Boomer cohort, based on NPDFashionworld data. But observers said the difference mostly reflects the group’s practical needs and size—not apparel marketers maximizing their appeal to the group. For example, just 11 percent of females ages 13 to 17, and 9 percent of those 18 to 24 said they bought apparel last year because of advertising, The Zandl Group found. When asked which apparel brands they bought because of ads, Old Navy was the only name to elicit a response of more than 1 percent: It pulled 2 percent among 13- to 17-year-olds. None drew more than 1 percent from the 18-to-24 set.

While most college students, ages 18 to 30, told Harris Interactive they “don’t pay a lot of attention to ads.” Most female students said they paid “at least some attention” to the following: TV commercials, 90 percent; outdoor media, 83 percent; magazine ads, 82 percent; radio spots, 75 percent; newspaper ads, 75 percent; ads preceding movies in theaters, 78 percent; school newspaper ads, 58 percent, and online ads, 48 percent. Nearly all collegians said that, at least some of the time, they want ads to feature humor (98 percent) and everyday people (92 percent), and ads that appeal to both themselves and their parents (81 percent).

Like collegians, high school students would respond to ads intended to appeal to both themselves and their parents, but those teens depart from the young adults in their preference for word-of-mouth over traditional media. Online advertising and grassroots promotions—from hiring trendsetters to wear items for $ 8 an hour to sponsoring extreme sports events—also resonate with them. “Word-of-mouth buzz is essential to reach teens; it’s very strong, especially with their use of cell phones and Palm Pilots,” said Center For Generational Studies’ Wendover. “That can be backed up by traditional media.”

As of now, few fashion firms are capitalizing on such opportunities. Those that teens perceive as “hot and in,” NPD found, are the usual suspects: Abercrombie & Fitch, followed by Victoria’s Secret, American Eagle, Gap, Old Navy and Aeropostale.

To be fair, marketing based on a generation’s life stage, rather than age groups, only began to take hold around 1993. That’s when Advertising Age coined the term Generation Y—a label now disliked by 56 percent of today’s teens; three years after Doug Coupland’s novel, “Generation X,” was published, and shortly after the media made much ado about the election of the country’s first Baby Boomer president and vice president, Bill Clinton and Al Gore. But in the 10 years that have followed, fashion marketers have made few strides to catch up with the sensibility and spending of the Millennials (nee Gen-Y).

Clearly, fashion brands are still searching for the fountain of youth marketing. “There is an essential blandness; a high-gloss, happy image that teens relate to,” Strauss advised. “An outreach to a star mom and dad would be OK with most Millennials—not edginess.”

10 Things Millennials Don’t Remember

  • A 45 record—and a flip side.
  • “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”—it’s always been a banned book.
  • Grace Kelly, Elvis Presley, Karen Carpenter—they’ve always been dead.
  • Not being able to afford designer brands.
  • Dressing up for a plane flight.
  • Red China.
  • Renting phones from AT&T rather than buying them. Phones that ring.
  • Banking before ATMs.
  • Using a bottle of White Out.
  • Coors Beer being unavailable east of the Mississippi River.


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