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Thursday, December 13, 2001

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Youth -- get them before they get you

Ramanujam Sridhar

ANYWHERE in the world, its great to be young, was the line for Marvel, a soap marketed by Godrej way back in the eighties. Even today, there is no denying the fact that it is great to be young.

Youth can be exciting, exhilarating even. And yet, one wonders if marketers share the same excitement about marketing to youth. Youth is too fickle, says a hardened marketer. Its like entering a minefield, say a battle-scarred veteran. How many successful youth brands are there in India? asks another.

The teens is a funny phase. Its something that you are anxious to get into and equally desperate to get out of. There is a point of view that there is a lot less heartburn and a lot more stability in targeting and marketing to 25-34 year olds for instance. But you need to be blind to ignore the sheer magnitude of the youth market, particularly in the Indian context. India is a young country with 11 crore people in the age group of 15-19 years.

Another 10 crore are in the 20-24 year age group, whilst a whopping 72 per cent of our massive population is below the age of 35. So, the obvious inference is that a marketer ignores this huge potential at ones own peril. But neither can we ignore the nuances of this not so homogeneous mass and its preferences. The world over, marketers are grappling with the tremendous challenge and opportunity that is simultaneously being provided by this generation. Automakers in the West, for example, are targeting youth aggressively. What should we do here in India to harness the enormous potential of youth? What works and what doesn't?

Here's looking at you, kid

Perhaps the first thing that needs to be said is that the generation is no longer the homogeneous market of the seventies and the early eighties. MTV in its latest youth study classifies youth as follows:

Homebodies who are traditional, collective and have low individuality

Two-faced - inwardly traditional, outwardly modern

Wannabes - those who show-off, are materialistic, desperate to be a part of a crowd

Rebels who want to think and do differently but who wont rebel overtly

Cool guys who work hard, play hard, are confident, have strong individuality and are full of aspirations

Yes, youth seem to come in all shapes, sizes and, if one may add, attitudes. So before we market to youth, or anyone for that matter, we need to understand what makes them tick. You must walk with them in your shoes, not walk on them in your shoes, is sage advice on how to deal with youth.

Blame it on the times

We need to remember that men resemble the times more than they do their fathers. To borrow an example from the US, the mature generation (as classified by the Yankelovich report on generational marketing) could readily relate to the Timex watch line which said It takes a licking and keeps on ticking. Thats how this generations life had seen a lot of adversity, which they saw through patiently. Similarly, our generation needs to understand and realise that its a different set of kids out there whose experiences and expectations are different from ours. We run the risk of generational myopia if we expect todays Generation X to behave in the way we did as kids. The most important need of the hour is research and understanding of youth. Studies such as the MTV research are important beginnings. Its also important to remember that they (youth) see life differently from you and I. They see it in raw terms. Raw is right. For starters, the MTV research says that they dont mind putting their parents in an old age home! Are you ready?

The latchkey generation

I grew up in a household with mom, dad, grandma and granddad. My children are growing up with mom and dad. Will their children grow up with either mom or dad? One hopes not. And yet, the important thing to remember is that parents are delegating (or is it abdicating) more and more of their decision-making to their children, who are growing more in confidence and pocket money at the same time. As a sheepish parent said, the pocket money is certainly growing faster than the inflation.

Clearly youth is growing in importance and we are not merely talking economics here. There is also a significant shift in the growing-up pattern of todays kids, which affects their development and their subsequent behaviour. Many urban kids in India are growing up in households where both mom and dad are working. They let themselves into empty apartments with latchkeys. They are confident, albeit, a bit lonely. I guess they tend to be a lot more inward-looking. They belong to Metopia which seems merely to reaffirm their individual importance. They want to make their own choices, and be treated as intelligent.

They want to feel that their opinions count. And the signal to the communicators is fairly obvious. Appeal to the individual, dont aim at the lowest common denominator. The Net seems a great opportunity. And maybe this generation will buy more from the Net than we ever would.

Be quick. Be friendly. Be gone.

Many of us tend to lecture. I guess it comes with the territory, if not with the age. And yet, one needs to be reticent. Just observe the expression on your teenagers face when your spouse lectures him or invite her to observe him when you rave and rant. That will give you an important pointer. Lecture only if you wish to lose your audience. Treat your young audience with respect and intelligence. And as equals! Its so easy to sound authoritarian or judgemental. (And so boring in the bargain.)

Another important fact to be borne in mind whilst communicating with youth is to remember that their attention span seems to extend to nanoseconds. This makes communicating with them all the more challenging. And as Janet Kestia, Creative Director, Ogilvy and Mather, says, They have a great bullshit meter, and they are very critical of advertising. I am not sure if our youth is as critical or as cynical towards advertising. And yet, I am quite sure that we shouldnt communicate in stereotypes while talking to teens.

And whilst we are on the subject of communication, lets not forget that word of mouth is perhaps the strongest endorsement for many products and services for young people. In a study conducted in Canada amongst students 40.2 per cent of the students polled said they trusted word-of-mouth over all other forms of advertising. Sounds familiar?

Wear your attitude

What distinguishes the youth of this generation is the fact that they wish to belong and dont wish to stand out overtly from the crowd. They exhibit a strong need to be accepted by their peers and need parental approval of their choices. India is one of the few countries where you can see 16-year-old sons coming into jeans stores accompanied by their mothers! They also have a strong need to be taken seriously by adults. If you treat the young with less than the seriousness they deserve, then you are failing both as a parent and as a marketer. (Theres the adult in me, surfacing judgemental as ever!) And yet, winds of change are blowing too. Heres what Aditi Bhatt (16) has to say to other young people like herself:

Dont live up to anybody elses ambitions or dreams, you are your own person, live your own life.

Dont go out of the way to be accepted; if people dont accept you for who you are, they are not worth the trouble.

Troubling as these words may seem to conservative parents and marketers, they still cant be ignored. Yes, youth is changing. By the day. Catch 'em young

One of the very advantages of youth, you dont own any stock in anything. You have a good time and all the grief and trouble is with the other fellows. We are the other fellows who could easily come to grief if we dont recognise the opportunities that the youth market presents. The youth represents a growing market.

Today's niche can become tomorrows mainstream. And savvy marketers who catch them young and hold on to them despite their idiosyncrasies will reap enormous benefits. Imagine the lifetime value of a kid who opens a bank account at the age of 18 and stays with your bank for the next 50 years! As Lisa DInnocenzo, News Editor, Strategy, the Canadian marketing report, says, The belief is that if a brand can successfully seduce young consumers, it can forge a lifetime relationship with them. Just get them before your competitor does!

(The author is CEO, brand-comm. Feedback can be mailed to bleditor@thehindu.co.in.)

 
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