Marketing lessons from my teenage daughters

This article appeared as a ‘Futures’ column in Marketing magazine, Canada’s version of Advertising Age, in June 2001, before Facebook and social media.

We try too hard. Far too often, marketing professionals use brute strength in an attempt to force ideas and products onto consumers instead of relating to the core needs and attitudes of their target audience. The greatest marketing successes tapped into emotional realities that already existed: Volkswagen. Apple. Nike. Molson. They saw what people were already thinking and touched it. Cultural sensitivity has never been more important for marketing than it is today when we’re at the leading edge of a whole new era of change.

One of the best ways to understand tomorrow’s consumer is to study today’s teenager. Fortunately, I have three teens at home to observe and talk with daily. Each one has been using computers since the age of two. They’re comfortable with technology. All three are building Web sites and one manages a busy online forum. I view them as a focus group for culture. It’s been enlightening and a bit scary. They’ve taught me that marketing isn’t really more difficult than before, just more intimate. Let me share some observations.

Watch a teen use communication tools and you begin to grasp one obvious reality — tools are not converging. Observing teens has convinced me that convergence isn’t a driving passion in their lives. They use the telephone when it makes sense to use the phone, they use e-mail for specific kinds of messages, and they use the Web to get facts and to place orders. All three tools are used to interact with brands, but each one has a unique role to play and teens instinctively know what that role is.

Teens recognize the telephone as a medium ideal for communicating emotion. Where previous generations used it as their primary messaging tool, tomorrow’s consumers use it for emotional impact. They laugh on the phone. They use it to communicate feelings in ways no other technology can match. Smart marketers can tap into this reality with “conference call” focus groups or live announcements where participants can express themselves freely.

While older generations are still trying to figure out how e-mail works, young adults know exactly when and why to use it. Forget about unsolicited sales messages. This is an unwelcome intrusion into their personal space, and they hate it. They crave e-mail, but only when it comes from sources they agreed to, from brands they have already granted permission to build a relationship. E-mail is used most often to communicate information-rich messages.

A cool new URL to look at gets sent to a whole group of friends in a second. News about a team, band or favourite brand is hot, and gets passed along quickly. Once they’ve “opted in” to receive mail from your brand, they welcome your messages as long as they aren’t self-serving. Marketers who involve their subscribers as a genuine community and recognize the value of these brand loyalists will win big, while those afraid of tapping into this dialogue process will lose ground. Yes, it’s scary to allow open public discussion of your brand. What teens seem to understand better than most executives is that this dialogue is already taking place anyway.

The Web is used for brand information. Smart marketers will respond to the way tomorrow’s consumers use the Web today. Offer up relevant content on every page. Make it fast and meaningful, or they change brand loyalty. Make it easy. Promotions that combine digital media with analog communications are also effective.

Best of all, there are whole worlds of culturally relevant marketing opportunities we haven’t even thought of yet.

One of my daughters is seriously into a CD-ROM game called The Sims. After setting parameters for computer-generated individuals, you can watch your simulated people interact with each other, get jobs and find romance. Not long ago, she breathlessly announced that one of her Sim women had proposed to a man, he accepted, and they got married.

“Did the ring have an Ekati (Canadian) diamond?” I asked.

“There are no brands in The Sims, Daddy,” she replied.

Interesting. “Would you like to have brand choices?” I probed. She needed no time to think about it. “Of course,” was all she said.

The opportunities are right in front of us all the time, in the midst of today’s teen culture. We merely have to see them. Just like always.

George Pytlik

George Pytlik has been involved in the advertising industry for over 30 years and designed his first website when the Internet was one year old. He was an internationally recognized speaker on advertising and branding and served on a number of communication committees at various times throughout his career, as well as writing a regular column for Marketing magazine.

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