Conquering Consumerspace

Conquering Consumerspace
Marketing Strategies for a Branded World

By Michael R. Solomon

CHAPTER 3: O Pioneers!
Scanning Global Youth Culture

In some cultures, an adolescent boy is sent off into the jungle to do combat with lions or tigers or bears (oh my!). Upon his (hopefully) triumphant return with carcass trophy in hand, he is awarded the status of manhood and all the perks that come with it. In our society, that man-child returns home with his driver’s license. Let the games begin.

Teen Angels

We accept without hesitation that there will be a period when boys make the transition to men and girls flower into womanhood. Adolescence is a time fraught with both magic and insecurity as kids find their way and figure out just who they are and who they are supposed to be. Typically we send them away for four years to let them answer these questions while exploring the wonders of fraternity initiations and spring break excursions.

Puberty has been with us for a long time, but the concept of being a teenager actually is a fairly new idea. Most cultures throughout history did not build in this transition period. Young people were expected to shoulder the responsibilities of their parents early on (remember that Shakespeare’s Juliet was all of thirteen when she tried to hook up with Romeo). The teen years are a cultural construction we have created to form a safe harbor for adolescents, a buffer zone to cushion the rude awakening of maturity.

Our thinking on this subject started to change in the last century as a youth culture started to coalesce. The magazine Seventeen, born in 1944, was built on the revelation that young women didn’t want to look just like a junior version of Mom. Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers became the first pop group to identify themselves with this new subculture. The stage was set for teens to rule the world.

And rule it they do. So-called Generation Y kids (children born between 1977 and 1995) number seventy million and make up 21 percent of the population. The percentage of Generation Yers in the total population is expected to increase at twice the rate of the population until 2010, and by 2020 this percentage will have reached 32 percent. Generation Y is an ethnically diverse generation. While minorities make up 24 percent of baby boomers, they form 34 percent of Generation Y.

Unlike their cynical Gen X predecessors, Gen Yers tend to be more upbeat about their lives and their prospects. According to a survey by U.S. News and World Report, alcohol consumption among high school seniors dropped from 72 percent in 1980 to 52 percent in 1998. Drug usage, pregnancy, and homicide rates among teens also are declining. There is a bit of a renaissance of family and religious values, and sociologists are predicting a surge in younger marriages and bigger families as these kids come into their own in a few years. Although some grownups who have seen one too many tongue piercings would argue we are on the brink of the apocalypse, these trends imply that we are actually raising a generation that looks like more like Eisenhower Republicans who have swapped their cloth coats for Abercrombie & Fitch lo-rise jeans. Kids (as always) are hard to figure out, but marketers who try can be amply rewarded. The future of consumerspace lies in the hands of its young pioneers.


Once known for discouraging kids from hanging out in its aisles, 7-Eleven is targeting teens in a big way.

The chain is adding eighty new products and limited-time exclusives on teen favorites such as Gatorade and Mountain Dew (a Mountain Dew Code Red Slurpee is in the works). It already struck gold with such youth faves as Pokemon cards, scooters, and prepaid cellular phones.

The chain figured out that, whether they’re buying skateboards or junk food, teens are an economic force to be reckoned with. Collectively, American teens spent $172 billion in 2001-that’s a lot of Slurpees. According to Teenage Research Unlimited, the average teen spends $84 per week, of which $57 is money he or she actually earns. Learning from their parents, many young residents of consumerspace have figured out they don’t even need to have cash on hand: 42 percent of teens aged 18 and 19 already have a credit card in their own name. Another 11 percent say they have access to a parent’s credit card. Debit cards like Splash Plastic and Smartcreds further encourage teen spending. A market research firm specializing in this segment has gone so far as to label teens Skippies-school kids with income and purchasing power.

A lot of this money goes toward “feel-good” products like cosmetics, posters, and fast food, with the occasional nose ring thrown in as well. That’s not the whole story, however. Marketers need to understand that teens may also be participating in more far-reaching purchase decisions, especially as fewer live in traditional families with parents who have ample time to do the grocery shopping. One survey of sixteen- to seventeen-year-old girls found that over a three-month period a significant proportion of them purchased staple items such as cereal, frozen meals, cheese, yogurt, and salad dressing. Marketers are beginning to respond to these changes. The number of pages devoted to food advertising in Seventeen magazine increased by 31 percent in one year.

Gen Y kids appear to be materialistic, but they’re hardly an easy sell. They are very savvy about marketing strategies and are quite aware that advertisers are doing whatever they can to get them into their franchise. Pandering messages are a major turnoff. Advertisers need to tread carefully in cynical waters. Marketers of entrenched brands like Nike, Pepsi, and Levi Strauss are tearing their hair out over Gen Y consumers. Image-building campaigns (e.g., Michael Jordan endorsing Nike) are not as effective as they once were-kids have figured out that someone’s paying these guys to endorse this stuff.

Still, because kids are so interested in many different products and have the resources to obtain them, the teen market remains an attractive target. Toyota, for example, created a special marketing unit called Genesis Group just to reach young adults. Genesis launched its first campaign to support Toyota’s new crop of youth-oriented models like the Echo.

Marketers view teens as “consumers-in-training” because brand loyalty often develops during adolescence. A teenager who is committed to a brand may continue to purchase it for many years to come. Such loyalty creates a barrier-to-entry for brands that were not chosen during these pivotal years. For this reason advertisers sometimes try to “lock in” adolescent consumers so that in the future they will buy their brands more or less automatically. As one teen magazine ad director observed, “We . . . always say it’s easier to start a habit than stop it.”

Teens are alluring targets for “feel-good products,” but marketers in mainstream categories also may find it advantageous to cultivate brand loyalty at an early age. In addition to discretionary items, many teens participate in grocery shopping and household maintenance. They form bonds with products that will serve as barriers-to-entry for rivals who seek their business later in life.

Reaching Kids Where They Live (and Learn)

The raw materials for a branded reality emanate from many sources. Marketing propaganda bombards young people virtually everywhere they turn-including school. Indeed, one of the most controversial interfaces between marketers and consumers occurs when companies wrap advertising in the guise of “educational materials.” In some schools third graders practice math by counting Tootsie Rolls. Others use reading software sporting the logos of Kmart, Coke, Pepsi, and Cap’n Crunch cereal. Many firms including Nike, Hershey, Crayola, Nintendo, and Foot Locker provide free book covers that happen to be swathed in ads. Almost 40 percent of secondary schools in the United States start the day with a video feed from Channel One, which exposes students to commercials in the classroom in exchange for educational programming. Education is turning into “aducation.”

Youth Is Wasted on the Young

To paraphrase Dickens, adolescence truly is both the best of times and the worst of times. Many exciting changes happen as individuals leave the role of child and prepare to assume the role of adult. These changes create a lot of uncertainty about the self, awakening the contradicatory needs to belong to a secure group while at the same time discovering one’s unique identity. Choices of activities, friends, and clothes often are crucial to social acceptance. Teens actively search for cues from their peers and from advertising for the “right” way to look and behave. That’s why advertising geared to teens typically is action-oriented and depicts a group of cool teens using the product.

Adolescents have a number of psychological needs, including experimentation, belonging, independence, responsibility, and approval from others. Product usage is a significant medium to express these needs. While it may be news to us, today’s kids largely accept the fact that they are what they buy. Brands like Nike or retailers like Hot Topic are enthusiastically adopted by teens to express their developing identities. According to a study by Teenage Research Unlimited (TRU), teens describe their generation as motivated primarily by entertainment and social activity. When asked to choose a statement that characterizes their peer group, the number-one answer chosen by 50 percent of respondents was “we’re about fun.” Not bad work if you can get it.

It turns out having fun can be hard work. As the vice president of TRU explained, “Today’s teens enjoy an enormous amount of freedom, both personally and financially. However, they also know that their world is changing quickly and that greater responsibility is just around the corner. Consequently, many young people admit they feel pressure to squeeze as much fun into their teen years as possible.” This need to multitask may explain why teens’ second-place choice in TRU’s survey was the statement “high-tech is such a (huge) part of our lives.” Many teens use technology like cell phones and pagers to help them organize social calendars that make their parents’ schedules look downright tranquil.

According to research by the Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency, there are four themes of conflict common to all teens:

1. Autonomy Versus Belonging: Teens need to acquire independence so they try to break away from their families. On the other hand, they need to attach themselves to a support structure, such as peers, to avoid feeling alone.

2. Rebellion Versus Conformity: Teens need to rebel against social standards of appearance and behavior, yet they still need to fit in and be accepted by others. Cult products that cultivate a rebellious image are prized for this reason. Hot Topic caters to this need by selling such “in your face” items as nipple rings, tongue barbells, and purple hair dye.

3. Idealism Versus Pragmatism: Teens tend to view adults as hypocrites, whereas they see themselves as being sincere. They have to struggle to reconcile their view of how the world should be with the realities they perceive around them.

4. Narcissism Versus Intimacy: Teens are often obsessed with their own appearance and needs. On the other hand, they also feel the desire to connect with others on a meaningful level.

Global Youth Culture: It’s a Small World After All

Walk down a street in Amsterdam, Buenos Aires, or Hong Kong and it’s easy to have a feeling of déjà vu. The kids look surprisingly familiar: Nike shoes, Levi’s jeans, Chicago Bulls T-shirts wherever you look. Indeed, the National Basketball Association is fast becoming the first truly global sports league. About $500 million of licensed merchandise is sold outside of the United States in a typical year. U.S. firms like Nike and Levi Strauss find it easy to go global because of the special appeal American products have around the world. They benefit from their strong association with innovation, rebellion, and a casual lifestyle fueled by youth idols from Elvis Presley to Kurt Cobain.

Multinational marketers know that their best chances to succeed in foreign markets lie in identifying consumer segments that share a common worldview. Other than affluent business travelers, the best candidates are young people whose tastes in music and fashion are strongly influenced by MTV and other media that broadcast many of the same images to multiple countries. Viewers of MTV Europe in Rome or Zurich can check out the same “buzz clips” as their counterparts in London or Luxembourg.

We are witnessing the rise of a global youth culture, fueled by the Internet and communications networks like MTV, that transcends national borders. Even rave parties are going global. Companies with names like BringItOn! Travel (motto: “On the beach ’til 7 P.M. In the clubs ’til 9 A.M.) and specialize in “Adventure Travel Party Scene” packages that unite ravers from many countries in the common pursuit of ecstasy.

It seems that kids are the same everywhere. The New World Teen Study surveyed over 27,000 teenagers in forty-four countries and identified six values segments that characterize young people from Cairo to Caracas. The results of this massive segmentation exercise have been used by companies like Coca-Cola and Royal Phillips Electronics to develop ads that appeal to youth around the world.

Young consumers are not a monolithic market segment any more than their older Gen X counterparts were. Some subgroups hold highly traditional values and are achievement-oriented. Only a minority conform to the extreme sports and body-piercing stereotype. Marketing strategies targeted to youth must recognize this diversity and develop a portfolio of brand personalities that align with the unique profiles of different subsegments.

Marketing: The New Esperanto

Hip-hop dancing is all the rage among China’s youth, who refer to the style as jiew, or street dancing. The emulation of a musical genre that originated on the other side of the world underscores the popularity of American culture in China, despite the two nations’ rocky political ties and the misgivings many Chinese feel toward U.S. military power.

If plugged-in kids around the world belong to the same club, its secret password is musical. MTV provides the codebook that lets young pioneers speak to one another. Our research that compared MTV videos in the United States and Europe found many similarities in content (though the American releases tended to contain more overt references to drugs and weapons). These videos are about much more than entertainment. They provide a window into different music-oriented youth subcultures, each with its own “code” that includes acceptable clothing styles, cars, body ideals, and so on.

As kids open these windows, they crack the code by absorbing reams of information about how to consume. When we showed videos from a range of musical genres (e.g., rock, alternative, hip-hop) to kids with the sound turned off, they still were able to tell us with great accuracy what messages the videos were transmitting. These clips literally serve as “training videos” in that they teach kids how to belong to a certain subculture. That helps to explain the co-optation of the music video grammar by companies hoping to embed their brands into the lesson. The deliberate usage of “MTV-style” editing by companies like Nike makes it more likely that kids will absorb the message because the commercial is more like a real music video than a conventional ad. Similar strategies are employed by advertising organizations such as College Television Network (now owned by MTV Networks) that beam hip messages directly to college dorm rooms and cafeterias.

Youth Tribes

Music is one of several types of “social glue” that hold kids together. They form allegiances based upon taste cultures as a way to bolster still-tentative self-concepts and to clearly mark group boundaries. The need for acceptance remains as acute as for previous generations. In a survey of 2,000 teens conducted by Teenage Research Unlimited, only 11 percent of respondents view themselves as “popular.”

In the old days, we called them cliques-groups of kids who had similar interests and who often made membership desirable because they mostly focused on keeping others out of the inner circle. Today, organized youth gangs are more powerful; they dominate many urban high schools, and their reach is steadily expanding beyond their origins in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Young people around the country proclaim their allegiance to a gang, often by the display of its colors (red for Bloods, blue for Crips). This boundary marking is so pervasive that recently Michelin came under fire in California for its new “Scorcher” tires that feature yellow, red, or blue treads. A San Francisco supervisor says, “These colored tires may appeal to gangs who will use red and blue skid marks to mark their turf and insult rival gangs.”

Now some analysts find it useful to think in terms of even larger cliques or youth tribes that unite kids by means of shared interests or values rather than geographic proximity or a shared interest in criminal activity. Although these tribes are often unstable and short-lived, at least for a time members identify with others through shared emotions, moral beliefs, styles of life, and, of course, the products they jointly consume as part of their tribal affiliation.

In France, a tribe of in-line roller skaters holds gatherings of as many as 15,000 young people who congregate to affirm their shared interest. There are specialized Web sites for members of the skating tribe to meet for chatting and to exchange information about the latest skate models and looks. Within this tribe there are subdivisions such as fitness skaters versus stunt skaters, but all members share a connection to the overarching activity.

The challenge of tribal marketing is to link one’s product to the needs of a group as a whole. In-line skating, for example, provides manufacturers with an opportunity to strengthen the tribal bond by selling ritual artifacts (as described in Chapter 1) such as shoes, key chains, belts and hats, backpacks, and T-shirts to members. Although many brands of skates are available, including K2, Razors, Oxygen, Tecnica, and Nike, the original Rollerblade product retains cult status within the tribe. Companies like Tatoo, the pager arm of France Telecom, build upon tribal bonds by sponsoring skating events as well as hosting a Web site dedicated to the activity. Some companies like Pawn, Senate, and USD have targeted just a section of the tribe known as stunt skaters that have their own special dress codes and rituals.

In the United States, a similar tribe is built around skateboarding. California-based shoe manufacturer Vans is most closely identified with this movement, and the company aggressively seeks opportunities to cement this linkage. Instead of relying on mass-media advertising, Vans sponsors activities, produces documentary films, and even builds skateboard parks to celebrate the outlaw nature of the sport-and in the process promote its specialized shoes.

The New World Teen Study described earlier reminds us that while most adolescents are actively seeking an identity, the way they go about this is not necessarily the same. Many group identities gel around some form of symbolism, whether music (followers of neo-Grateful Dead groups like Phish), clothing (think “Valley Girls”), or sports. For example, the Bad Blue Boys (BBB) is a tribe of young male Australian soccer fans from the western suburbs of Sydney who (to put it kindly) exhibit aggressive and homophobic tendencies. Their nationalistic identity is supported and driven by their obsession with soccer.

Closer to home, an American sneaker company called And 1 appeals to members of a basketball tribe that sets admission standards based on the ability to blow by a defender on the court. The company carefully cultivates a trash-talking, street image (distributing shirts with slogans like “I’m sorry. I thought you could play”), and it recruits street players to match its renegade brand image. This group, known as the Entertainers Tour, puts on shows of hoops and music at playgrounds and appears in And 1’s TV advertising. Footage from the events was blended with some unreleased rap music to produce a videotape that was handed out at playgrounds, parks, and clubs by street teams to spread the word about this upstart company.

Made in Japan

The tribal phenomenon is most pronounced in Japan, where teenagers invent, adopt, and discard fads with lightning speed. Teen rebellion is a new phenomenon in Japan, a country known for rigid conformity and constant pressure to achieve. Now more and more teenagers seem to be making up for lost time. The dropout rate among students in junior and senior high school increased by 20 percent in a two-year period. More than 50 percent of girls have had intercourse by their senior year of high school.

Teenage girls in Japan exhibit what science fiction writer William Gibson calls “techno-cultural suppleness”-a willingness to grab something new and use it for their own ends-matched by no other group on earth. According to one estimate, cell phones sit in the purses and pockets of about 95 percent of all Japanese teenage girls. Unlike American phones, these devices are connected constantly to the Internet and plug these girls into a massive network. Index, a Tokyo software start-up company, offers a Net-phone service called God of Love. For about $1.40 per month, users can tap the birth date of a potential mate into their phones and receive a computerized prediction of the relationship’s future.

Japanese youth are very style-conscious, and at any time there are prominent tribes, each with very well defined looks and rules. A popular tribe for Japanese girls a few years ago was called the “Gals,” easily recognized by their bleached yellow hair, salon-tanned skin, chalk-white lipstick, and seven-inch platform heels. Other groups included the Sports Clique (low-heeled Air Mocs and Gap clothing) and the Back-Harajuku Group (baggy sweatshirts, colorful jeans, sneakers, and long scarves).

To try to win the loyalty of young consumers in Japan, a group of big companies including Toyota, Matsushita, and Asahi Breweries formed a marketing alliance. They are introducing a range of products, from beer to refrigerators, all with the same brand name of Will (yes, Will). About thirty Will products are now on sale in Japan. Asahi Breweries’ Will Smooth Beer nearly tripled its sales targets in the three months after launch. Matsushita’s Will laptop was a disappointment, but its retro refrigerator offering did so well the company added a mini Will fridge and vacuum cleaner. The jury is still out on this ambitious project; critics are not sure the plan “Will” work because some of the companies are handicapped by traditional images that don’t play well with their young targets.

Whether it does or not, this effort highlights the potential payoffs of using a constellation approach (as described in Chapter 2) to create a “lifestyle package” targeted to a specific lifestyle segment or tribe. Indeed, in the United States some major corporations are figuring out the value of teaming with very dissimilar players to develop youth-based products. For example, Nike and Polaroid have formed a partnership that lets teens personalize their sneakers by inserting pictures they take with the I-Zone camera directly into the shoes. Toyota is teaming with fashionable surf wear maker Roxy to create a surf-friendly version of its Echo sedan for the young female market, complete with water-resistant, neoprene-covered seats, a Yakima roof rack, and wet-gear storage bins. If this lifestyle strategy works, Toyota plans to roll out a male-oriented sport wagon or pickup linked to the trendy Quiksilver name.

Marketers can connect with Gen Y consumers by teaming up with other companies to offer a lifestyle package of products specially designed to cater to young lifestyles. The constellation branding approach will work especially well with this age cohort, which is accustomed to thinking about products in terms of groupings linked to a youth tribe.

Connecting in Consumerspace

Some futurists believe that we’ll soon reach a point where each of us is wired and online all of the time. We’ll be issued a username and password at birth, and a computer device will be implanted in our bodies to keep us connected to the Web. That hasn’t quite happened yet (though a primitive form of this technology already is being used to track wayward pets). But consider the service now offered by a Swiss company called Skim: Each user is issued a six-digit number that he or she wears on jackets and backpacks sold by the company. When you see someone on the street or in a club you’d like to get to know better, you go to, type in the person’s number, and send him or her a message. Talk about wearing your heart on your sleeve. . . .

If our future is a wired one, the young pioneers of consumerspace are definitely at the vanguard. Adolescence is a time to reach out to others-but tentatively. A thriving Internet subculture has developed among many teens to serve this purpose. The Net is the preferred method of communication for many young people because its anonymity makes it easier to talk to people of the opposite sex or of different ethnic and racial groups.

Virtual Tribes

For teens, consumerspace is very much a virtual place. According to Teenage Research Unlimited, more than 80 percent of teenagers have Internet access, whether at home, school, work, a friend’s home, or the library. In ancient times (i.e., before the Internet), kids would be parked in front of the TV all day watching Gilligan’s Island reruns. Today, they’re much more likely to be banging away at a computer keyboard, instant messaging to buddies around the world. Young people are among the most enthusiastic Web surfers. For many, this activity has replaced the old-fashioned fun of watching the tube or hanging out at the mall.

This virtual space will continue to grow because the younger members of Generation Y are more tech savvy than any kids in history. A July 1999 survey by ISP Global Internet found two-thirds of children under the age of eleven first used a computer before they were five years old, while less than a quarter of those over eleven did so. Jupiter Media Metrix estimates that there will be 26.9 million active Web surfers under the age of twelve by 2005.

According to one market research firm, 62 percent of teenagers log on from home for at least four hours a week. They spend most of their online time doing research, sending and reading e-mail, playing games, or checking out things to buy. Teens are expected to spend $1.2 billion online at hip sites like and To counteract parents’ concerns about security issues, some start-ups such as icanbuy, Rocketcash, and Doughnet are creating “digital wallets” that let Mom and Dad set up an account and limit the sites at which money can be spent.

A study of almost 4,000 young respondents conducted by Harris Interactive found that e-commerce spending among online teens and young adults currently constitutes 13 percent of their total spending–a figure that is more than four times the rate of e-commerce spending among all adults. What are teens buying? Of teens who make purchases online, 57 percent have bought CDs/cassettes, 38 percent have bought concert or sports tickets, 34 percent bought books and magazines, 32 percent ordered clothing, and 9 percent ordered cell phones or pagers. As these sites get more sophisticated, they need to keep in mind that kids value their surfing time as a social experience in addition to its shopping value. Dot-com companies need to work on building in some fun and adventure to lure kids away from the mall. As one thirteen-year-old shopper put it, “The Net kinds of takes away the whole experience-the hunt, the get, and the buy. Web shopping is just too perfect! You type in `gray cords’ and there they are. It’s not fun. The fun is in the hunt.”

Fantasies in Consumerspace

That comment is a reminder that kids are doing more than shopping online. They also are avid participants in virtual gaming sites as well as online communities forged around themes or characters (more on this in Chapter 6). On any given night, up to 50,000 people can be found roaming around a fantasyland in cyberspace called EverQuest. This is a “massively multiplayer game” that combines the stunning graphics of advanced gaming with the social scene of a chat room. And teens commune with each other about shared fantasies by establishing virtual communities devoted to fantasy characters. For example, anime sites like those devoted to Sailor Moon attract teens from around the world. Here are a few to check out:


The Web also provides a forum for experimentation that appeals to teens grappling with identity issues. Researchers report that teens value privacy when surfing the Web because they view it as a way to express their individuality-that’s why it’s common for them to have multiple e-mail accounts, each with a different “personality.” Indeed, many teens are using the Web to experiment with different identities. More than half have more than one screen name or e-mail address. Nearly a quarter of this multimonikered group keep at least one name secret so they can go online without being recognized by friends. And, 24 percent of teens who use e-mail, instant messaging (IM), or chat rooms pretend to be someone else.

Instant Messaging, Instant Gratification

To promote its Kit Kat candy bar to youth in the United Kingdom, Nestlé sent text messages to the cell phones of 6,000 consumers aged 18 to 25. These alerted them when ads for the candy would air and invited them to take a quiz about the ad that would in turn enter them into a drawing to win a month’s supply of Kit Kats (about 94 percent of British youth have cell phones with wireless messaging capability). This technique, known as short-messaging system marketing (SMS), is becoming a popular way to reach customers in the United Kingdom and throughout Europe.

New technologies provide exciting ways to communicate with kids in consumerspace, who are entering consumerspace via their phones as well as their computers. Young consumers view a cell phone as a necessity, not a luxury. It’s their primary means of staying connected with others. But a cell phone is not just a means of communication. It is an accessory, a fashion statement, an instant messenger, a toy, a social prop. It is a symbol of independence second only to the car, many teenagers say, and an extension of their personality.

Phone manufacturers are scrambling to provide what kids want. The companies have their sights set on young people for good reason: Since only 38 percent of American teenagers have cell phones, the market has plenty of room for growth. Some firms are retooling existing phone models, adding features like an FM radio or even access to AOL Instant Messenger. Others, like Wildseed, are designing fashionable phones for teenagers from the ground up. Its models have “smart skins”-replaceable taco shell-shaped faceplates with computer chips that allow teenagers to change functions as well as the phone’s appearance. There are graffiti-splattered faceplates for skateboarders, for example, that come with edgy urban ringer tones and gritty icons. Similarly, market leader Nokia has a line of what it calls “expression” phones, which have spawned secondary products like customized faceplates, add-on lights, and downloadable ringer tones.

The cell phone is a key access point that enables kids around the world to tune in to marketing messages. This medium’s potential trajectory is huge as wireless penetration steadily increases. Consider a novel marketing campaign to promote a musical group that doesn’t really exist, conducted in spring of 2002 by EMI Group PLC in Singapore. The music company gave fans of Gorillaz, a popular rock group consisting of four cartoon characters, the opportunity to exchange text messages over their mobile phones with the band member of their choice. Each member has a distinctive look and personality, and after a favorite character was selected, its cartoon face was sent to the recipient’s mobile phone. Kids who shared the mobile numbers of their friends won stickers, posters, and a free CD-ROM.

These phone numbers are, of course, a potential gold mine for EMI, as they’ll allow the company to communicate with music fans at will. EMI chose Gorillaz because its fan base is young, hip, and devoted. As the company’s managing director observed, “For a very cool band like Gorillaz, the last thing you want to do is go mainstream.” That explains why the text messages used in the promotion were distinctly anticorporate: A typical one read, “Greedy record company wants me 2 tell U 2 buy Gorillaz album. Record people suck. Buy or don’t buy, up to you.”

EMI’s foray into cell phone marketing makes sense because its young market is at the leading edge of M-commerce, promotional messages transmitted over mobile phones and other mobile devices such as personal digital assistants (PDAs). Right now, M-commerce is far more prevalent in Europe and Asia-the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company estimates one million text messages are sent every day in that country alone. The United States has the second-largest installed base of cell phone users (130 million; China has 148 million), but only 46 percent of the U.S. population had cell phones in 2001, compared with 82.5 percent in the United Kingdom and 75.3 percent for all of Europe according to the Yankee Group. They estimate mobile phone penetration by 2006 to be 66.9 percent in the United States, 91.6 percent in the United Kingdom, and 76.1 percent in Japan.

Young consumers are more technology-savvy than any previous generation. They network electronically as a way to affirm their connections with other kids and with the companies they value. American kids increasingly will learn about relevant products via such formats as mobile messaging, already a potent communications medium in Europe and Asia.

Slowly but surely, M-commerce is making its way to the United States. Even the MTV Music Video Awards now include a wireless advertising campaign to promote the event. Millions of consumers who use such networks as AT&T Wireless and Sprint will get messages urging them to tune in. Accelerating usage will open the door for M-commerce advertising campaigns like those now being conducted in other countries. One study predicts that despite the slow start, about 90 million Americans will be participating in M-commerce by 2007, generating more than $50 billion in revenues. Wireless connections to consumerspace will be a prerequisite to being cool, to which our attention now turns.

In Pursuit of Cool

Attaining the status of cool is the holy grail when marketing to youth. It’s an elusive concept that has defined cultural icons from James Dean to Puff Daddy. It seems so easy: Create a cool product and kids will flock to your brand in droves. But there’s a nasty paradox afoot: If you have to work at being cool, by definition you’re not. Kids have super-sensitive BS detectors that go off at the slightest sign someone is just trying too hard.

Coolness can be thought of as a set of shared meanings (language, values, self-presentation, etc.) within a peer group that signal affiliation with a desirable lifestyle or clique. The desire to be cool seems to be fairly universal, though obviously the path to coolness varies across people and time. As we’ve seen, certain types of dress, musical tastes, etc., are used as props to support an uncertain self and provide validation. The emulation of admired groups, what youth scholar Marcel Danesi calls signifying osmosis, makes it more likely that a sycophant will be admitted into the exclusive club. By adopting group-endorsed behaviors and lifestyles, kids signify an affiliation that anchors individual identity to a larger community.

Some colleagues and I asked young people in the United States and the Netherlands to write essays about what is “cool” and “uncool.” We found that being cool has several meanings, though there are a lot of similarities between the two cultures when kids use this term. Some of the common dimensions include having charisma, being in control, and being a bit aloof. And many of the respondents agreed that being cool is a moving target: The harder you try to be cool, the more uncool you are. Some of their actual responses are listed here:

  • “Cool means being relaxed, to nonchalantly be the boss of every situation, and to radiate that.” (Dutch female)
  • “Cool is the perception from others that you’ve got `something’ which is macho, trendy, hip, etc.” (Dutch male)
  • “Cool has something stand-offish, and at the same time, attractive.” (Dutch male)
    “Being different, but not too different. Doing your own thing, and standing out, without looking desperate while you’re doing it.” (American male)
  • “When you are sitting on a terrace in summer, you see those machos walk by, you know, with their mobile [phones] and their sunglasses. I always think, `Oh please, come back to earth!’ These guys only want to impress. That is just so uncool.” (Dutch female)
  • “When a person thinks he is cool, he is absolutely uncool.” (Dutch female)
  • “To be cool we have to make sure we measure up to it. We have to create an identity for ourselves that mirrors what we see in magazines, on TV, and with what we hear on our stereos.” (American male)

Chewing the Phat: Cool Hunters and the Teen Safari

Attaining coolness is a matter of survival in the jungle of social acceptance. Kids have a lot to gain by staying on top of what’s cool and a lot to lose by getting lost in this jungle. They stay tuned to what’s “phat” and what’s not by watching MTV and carefully observing the trendsetters who seem to have it figured out (much as their parents faithfully tuned in to American Bandstand or Soul Train). Some even surf to virtual nightclubs to spy on the partyers whom the bouncer let in at such sites as and

It’s hard enough for kids to navigate this jungle. Think about the marketer who has the bad fortune to be over thirty! That’s why many firms are aggressively ramping up their efforts to connect with kids on their own terms and collect marketing intelligence on the streets and in cyberspace. Staying on top of emerging ways to be cool is big, big business:

  • Mountain Dew executives try to connect with cool kids one person at a time by handing out beverage samples at surfing, skateboard, and snowboard tournaments. A top marketing executive explains, “There’s a Pavlovian connection between the brand and the exhilarating experience.” By this logic, “Doing the Dew” isn’t a rush just because of the caffeine and sugar. It comes to be associated with the hip places where the soft drink is consumed.
  • Just before Arista Records released a new CD from Babyface, the company flashed 10,000 e-mails to kids on fan lists. The e-mail gave them a chance to buy the album before it hit stores, and recipients were encouraged to join the “Arista Army” and also to send the message to others. The strategy worked: 62 percent of the e-mails were passed along to others and the “Army” quickly grew from 600 Gen Yers to a brigade of more than 20,000.

Still other youth-oriented companies tap into cool icons, particularly celebrities with an urban, street-smart image like tennis star Venus Williams or rapper Ja Rule. The Wall Street Journal reported in August 2001 that Reebok’s sales of basketball and tennis shoes increased by more than 50 percent by tapping youth-oriented celebrities to tout its products.

Tracking a Moving Target

Research firms are coming up with innovative ways to tap the desires of teens, many of whom don’t respond well to traditional survey techniques. Sometimes respondents are given a video camera and are asked to record a “typical” day at school-along with play-by-play commentary to help interpret what’s going on. Greenfield Consulting Group uses what it calls the “teen-as-creative-director” technique. The firm gives teens camcorders and asks them to complete a two-part creative assignment that will be judged by their peers. A typical task is to create a video collage of the “coolest/hippest/whateverest” things they can find and write a song/poem/story that describes what “cool/hip” is all about. After the teens complete their assignments, they present their work to each other at a focus group facility, judge the work collectively, and award prizes of $250 each to the creators of the best video and song/poem/story.

One company sends researchers to spend the night with respondents so they can observe them up close and personal. During the evening they talk about important stuff like their skin-care routines but then in the morning the interviewer watches to see what teens actually do in the bathroom while primping before school. When the Leo Burnett advertising agency was revamping Heinz ketchup’s image to make it cool, the account research team took teens to dinner to see how they actually used the condiment. These meals opened their eyes; new ads focus on teens’ need for control by showing ketchup smothering fries “until they can’t breathe” and touting new uses for ketchup on pizza, grilled cheese, and potato chips.

Cool Hunters: Now Lukewarm?

The quest for cool has also spawned a cottage industry of cool hunters who scour the streets to report on emerging trends. Some of these amateur anthropologists rely upon a network of “correspondents” who periodically report back from the field. They are a bit like cool Tupperware Ladies (or is that an oxymoron?) who rely upon personal contacts and intuition to spot opportunities. Correspondents typically supply headquarters with videotaped interviews of cutting-edge kids spouting off on topics from spirituality to blue jeans, then these random bits of data are used to craft a cultural scouting report that is sold to clients like Nike and Coca-Cola.

This methodology was itself a fashion statement for several years within the marketing research community, a fad that had sex appeal if not staying power. The bloom is largely off the rose now because in hindsight the track records are disappointing. Relatively few new product successes have emerged from cool hunters. There are several possible reasons for this lackluster performance:

  • By definition the real trendsetters don’t like to be tracked or emulated and may be reluctant to share their insights with the masses.
  • A quarterly report on emerging fads was not compiled quickly enough to really keep up with a fickle market.
  • The insights largely were journalistic rather than scientific, relying upon the skill of the cool hunter to assimilate idiosyncratic feedback from multiple sources.

The principle behind cool hunting is still solid: Locate market leaders and create a conduit to share their opinions with product developers. However, more systematic, ongoing, and rigorous approaches are needed. Most likely these will be in the form of online research applications that allow a large network of respondents to provide visual feedback in real time. These interfaces can either be created specifically to track young people’s product preferences, or, alternatively, analysts can mine existing Web sites where kids vent about products to track the ebb and flow of the ocean of style.

Teen CyberCommunities

Bolt knows what teens want-and why shouldn’t it? About 95 percent of the site’s content is written by teens themselves. The youth Web site is striving to maintain its lead as the place to reach Net-surfing teens between fifteen and eighteen years of age. With over 700,000 registered users, the majority clocking in at least once a week, Bolt has proved to offer the kind of personalized portal attractive to teens and those making the transition to collegiate surfer.

Bolt’s real attraction is the teen-created content. Concrete Media, Bolt’s parent company, while responsible for editorial decisions and page design, has a hands-off policy that allows the teen community to police what appears on the site. Teens are free to comment on opinion polls and news events, and even to submit entries unacceptable to their school newspaper editors. Subjects range from the latest music video to wrestling to concern over AIDS.

Trying to connect with kids is not exactly a new idea. After all, many local department stores have sponsored teen panels for years. What has changed is the ability to reach out to young consumers in electronic formats. Pizza Hut, for example, conducts roundtable discussions though e-mail with teens to make sure it is satisfying their tastes. Just to be sure, Pizza Hut sometimes invites some of them back to its own boardroom to have lunch with company executives.

More recently, an 800-pound gorilla named Procter & Gamble developed its own teen community Web sites, and, to help identify young opinion leaders. The Tremor site is for market research and for recruiting teens and pre-teens for word of mouth campaigns. Tremor last year ran a pilot program with AOL Time Warner’s WB network where teen panelists reviewed a script for Dawson’s Creek before the show aired. Toejam (unpleasant connotations aside, this is an acronym for “teens openly expressing just about me”) lets members preview new products and critique ads before they are widely distributed.

Cool kids are the innovators of the youth market. Track their ever-changing preferences quickly and reliably, and stay ahead of the new product development curve. Use a collection of techniques including ethnographic work (“live with the natives”), online surveys, and simple observation of street culture to triangulate the direction of these trends.

We are grateful to Michael R. Solomon and AMACOM Books for granting permission to post this excerpt. For further details, go to

Excerpted from Conquering Consumerspace: Marketing Strategies for a Branded World by Michael R. Solomon. Copyright 2003 Michael R. Solomon. Published by AMACOM Books, a division of American Management Association, New York, NY. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Michael R. Solomon, AMACOM

Copyright © 2003 Michael R. Solomon. All rights reserved.


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