Teen Consumers and the Trials of Youth Marketing Next week in New York City, a group of global marketers will gather to talk about the challenges of marketing to teenagers. Ed Gordon talks with marketing executives Hadji Williams and Deborah Patton about how marketers sell to young people, and issues of corporate responsiblity.
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Teen Consumers and the Trials of Youth Marketing

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Teen Consumers and the Trials of Youth Marketing

Teen Consumers and the Trials of Youth Marketing

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Generation Y is widely considered to be the last generation of Americans born in the 20th century. This group includes people from their early 20's to children over the age of five. The group makes up a consumer market that spends billions of dollars annually.

Next week, a one day conference called What Teens Want will bring together some of the top global marketers to find out exactly what Generation Y consumers want in music, movies, sports and fashion trends.

For some insight into the growing consumer power of Generation Y, I spoke to Hadji Williams, CEO of Prodigal Pen Publishing. Mr. Williams is a veteran of the marketing and advertising game. And Deborah Patton, Vice President of communications for VNU Business Media, a company that specializes in media marketing and business information. Ms. Patton says by the year 2008, Generation Y will spend close to $205 billion dollars annually and corporate America is taking notice.

Ms. DEBORAH PATTON (Vice President of Communication, VNU Business Media): Well, I think for the teen market what most companies have come to realize is that it is definitely a moving target. We're dealing with a generation that defines itself as pretty much it's all about me. And that requires most companies to have think ahead and figure out how they're going to customize products, deliver customized messages, reach people individually. It's not a one-stop shop anymore. And it takes a lot of stamina, and it takes a lot of creativity and imagination to get the right marketing message to the right kids.

GORDON: Here's what interesting to me as I look at just advertising across the board. The teen market, and this is reflective of our society unfortunately, but the teen market, the younger market, has become so powerful that no matter who you're targeting, there is this sense of youth and being vital and vigorous that is infused in all advertising.

PATTON: I think you're absolutely right. I'm not sure that it's segmented down to the teen level, but definitely 20's up even for the boomer parents of these teenagers, the advertising is skewed much younger. But the Gen. Y, which is what we're talking about in the conference we produce, teenagers are probably the single biggest change agent in our society since their parents.

So it's a really attractive market in terms how they view the world, how they use products, how they consume media, what they think about, what their goals and dreams are. So it's not surprising that everyone wants a piece of it.

GORDON: Before I go to Mr. Williams, let me ask you one other question and that is the hip-hop phenomenon that we know today and the urban youth market. It really has broadened to the suburbs, to white teens and the like. Talk to me if you will about this phenomenon.

Ms. PATTON: Well, phenomenon is putting it mildly. What's interesting is that the true core hip-hop fans or aficionados among teenagers, I think they love it because it's a voice; it's poetry to them. They feel that they have somebody that's an advocate for how they feel and what their lives are like.

But what's happened commercially is that the hip-hop style and the hip-hop attitude has expanded into clothing, footwear and music has had just a profound effect. So the kids in the suburbs out in the middle of the country are adopting this look so that they feel like they're part of the inside track.

GORDON: Mr. Williams, let me bring you in. One of the concerns that a number of people have is the idea of it being, forgive this language, but bastardized by corporate America, by advertisers, nixing what images they, quote, "think" should be portrayed. Is that an issue and a problem that you see, and what does that say to young if these messages aren't true?

MR. HADJI WILLIAMS (CEO, Prodigal Pen Publishing): That's a problem that I've seen for probably my 15 years in the business as an advertising copywriter and a brand consultant is that urban culture, specifically black culture and what ultimately spills over and becomes urban or youth culture, is that it does get bastardized; it gets commoditized.

And when you're dealing with corporate America or you're dealing specifically with marketers who are trying to build brands to reach the largest audience possible, they're just looking for the next trend, whatever is going to make their brand hot, whatever sells and whatever they can claim.

GORDON: Here's the interesting point. The hip-hop generation has become spokespersons for many laid back, if you will, tried and true corporations. This kind of marriage, what does that say to you? I'm sure 20 years ago one would not have envisioned, for instance, someone like Snoop Dog as a corporate spokesperson.

Mr. WILLIAMS: It's a fairly complex thing, but some of it has to do with a lot of artists cross the board, hip-hop artists, in particular, signing really bad record deals so they make as much money off their albums sales. So they're forced to look to corporate America for alternate streams of revenue, just as they have to go on tour to make money. So then they're forced to go corporate America.

I mean, that's something that I've done with you with clients like Mercedes having to deal with people like Jay Z. These guys go to corporations looking for endorsement money. Essentially, your culture and your essence gets packaged and you don't have a whole lot to say about how it gets packaged.

GORDON: Ms. Patton, let me ask you about corporate responsibility in marketing and dealing with teenagers. As you noted, you'll be holding a conference that will be a day-long conference, talking about the kinds of things that teenagers will be looking for. Yet when you deal with these companies and corporations, how much do they own responsibility in terms of being accountable to parents and teenagers in terms of how they advertise?

PATTON: I think it ends up being self-selective in a way. The one thing that you cannot do as a marketer is to be inauthentic. And teenagers, whether they're conservative or hip-hop or cheerleaders or whatever their point of view is, will smell a rat. And if you use hip-hop stars, for example, to endorse products where it makes no sense, it does great deal of harm not only to the performer, but to the product and to the brand.

So I think that the smart companies are not in it just to make a quick buck. I mean, this is a market that's important to them. It's a market that they continually cater to. So they can't afford to make terrible, terrible mistakes.

GORDON: What have you seen over the last five or six years, some would say arguably the last decade, but certainly the last five or six years, in terms of these companies having to deal with a market that some would say, I should suggest, had been ignored before, and that would be the young, what is called, urban market.

Ms. PATTON: The young urban market is not well understood. And I have to say that although it is idolized by the hip-hop community and frequently used, as you stated before, as spokesperson platform for products, a lot of companies still tend to shy away from it. I mean, they like the suburban want-to-be hip hopper who has a ton of money to spend, which is not to say that urban kids don't have money to spend. They're a little trickier to connect with and it becomes a question of viral marketing, or it becomes a question finding the leaders in these communities to be a spokesperson for your product.

But as with all teenagers, as I said before, it's a moving target. They're never in one place very long. So you've got too got to them.

GORDON: Mr. Williams, what about the accountability for these corporations, many of whom target market, as we say. And when you talk about urban kids, and I'll get away from that vernacular - when you talk about African-American kids and minority kids in this country, often the dreams in the pipeline are given by these marketers and these ad people; and the inability to live that dream, if you will, financially, becomes a burden not only on the parents, but brings a lot of grief to young people as well.

Mr. WILLIAMS: It's about the American dream, which is validation and acceptance by the larger society. So we push a lot of products and a lot of brands on these kids, which is, you know, to tell them that if you buy this you're going to accepted by the larger culture. And that's something no matter whether you're black or white or Hispanic or Asian you buy into that because you believe that, okay, well, this is what validates me, particularly if you feel like you're part of a marginalized group.

You know, when it comes to hip-hop, hip-hop was always about, you know, outsiders, specifically African-Americans, saying that, you know, this is our voice and this is what we are and you don't define us.

And then when you have corporate America or mainstream consumers stepping in and buying into it, it's a crazy dance of saying, you know, well, we want to be a part of this and we want to buy it.

Kids, they don't really know what they're buying into. And they just buy it because - they buy it because they can afford it. You know, and it gets to a point after awhile where you can't tell some kid in Iowa that he can't be a part of it because it's been commoditized. He bought - he paid his money for the CD and she paid her money for the baggy jeans, so she's just as much a part of it as anything. You can't tell her no.

GORDON: Ms. Patton talked about authenticity. What about the idea of authenticity from the true ad sense? We did a program a couple of weeks ago talking about the inability for black marketers and advertising agencies really to participate on an even playing field across the board for national ads.

When you talk about speaking to your own, whether it be women to women, blacks to blacks, Hispanics to Hispanics, that becomes problematic in this game as well.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, it's an incredibly segregated industry. I've had the good fortune as an ad copywriter of working in what we call the general market sector or the mainstream ad sector and also what we call targeted sectors, or African-American and, you know, Hispanic agencies, et cetera.

And it's incredibly segregated. It's also incredibly, for lack of a better term, it's incredibly racist. You have what you call agencies of record, which those are the lead agencies. And this is something that Ms. Patton is, I'm pretty sure, is very familiar with.

Those agencies are always white. They're the ones that pick the strategies. They're the ones that clients work with. If you're at a black agency, you have to take a back seat. If you're at a Hispanic agency, you have to take a back seat.

Last year, the ad world spent something on the order of maybe $200 billion marketing to consumers. But ethnic agencies and media outlets got something like four or five percent. I mean, so when you start your own agency, you get, you get jerked that way. But then the general market agencies - I mean, the general market industry is something on the order of maybe 95 percent Caucasian. So they're not hiring. And then when you go off and start your own, you get screwed that way, too.

GORDON: Yes. Ms. Patton, let me take you to that. And taking it from whether we talk gender, whether we talk teen to adults, whether we talk race, the idea of the advertiser, the marketer, being able to talk to that person in that authentic voice, are you seeing any growth in that department?

Ms. PATTON: Yes. We definitely see growth. And ironically, the most successful marketers are teenagers themselves. And I think a lot of companies have come to realize that drawing them in, using them as viral marketing agents or panels, you know, alpha panels of kids that are opinion leaders and who have influence among their affinity groups that that's almost the smartest way to go.

Instead of second-guessing what kids want and how to speak to them, they use the kids to speak to themselves. And it's a whole new - we face it in journalism with citizen journalism, but certainly there's a citizen marketing move that you have to be very courageous to be a brand marketer today in the teen space.

GORDON: Yes. And black, white or otherwise, when we talk about teenagers, the one thing that we know that has not changed over the years is that they are ready, willing, and able to spend the money.

Ms. PATTON: They have a lot of money to spend. And they have a lot of influence for household purchases, as well. So we're not just talking about what they put on their own backs but influence their parents about car purchases, all kinds of things. It's a halo effect that extends deep into the community.

GORDON: All right. Well, Ms. Patton, Mr. Williams, thank you so very much for participating today.

Ms. PATTON: Thank you.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Thanks for having us.

GORDON: Hadji Williams is CEO of Prodigal Pen Publishing in Chicago and author of Knock the Hustle. And Deborah Patton is Vice President of communications for VNU Business Media in New York. VNU Business Media is hosting next week's summit, What Teens Want.

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