The Kids Are All Right – Are You the Problem?

I have had the great pleasure, for the better part of the past seven years, to act like a kid, think like a kid and hang out with kids – or young adults as they like to be called – as a part of my day job. When I began working at Creative Strategies in 2000, I was tasked with trying to get inside the mind-set of the youth demographic and learn about their demands for technology products. Gaining insights into these future consumers is an increasingly desirable area of research, particularly for larger technology companies.

In this article, I’ll share just a few of my experiences from the past seven years as I sought to answer questions like, “Why is this demographic so unique from a technological point of view?” and “How do we reach this demographic with products, services and marketing in new and fresh ways?”

The Questions

I have found that when trying to get information about a demographic or group, it is important to ask the right questions. When I first began actively working to understand the Millennial mind-set, I found it was fairly easy to relate to them, given that I’m close to the upper end of the Millennial age range. Many of their demands and desires for using technology were similar to mine. But I was very interested in the “why” part of this question.

Exploring ‘Why?’

To a lot of people, the answer to “why?” seems rather obvious – this is the first generation to grow up with technology. While this is true to a degree, I would argue that they actually grew up with the idea of technology. To assume that every person under 30 in the U.S. grew up with a laptop or PC, a connection to the Internet and a TiVo box is a stretch. However, even among those without prolific access to all these technology luxuries, the vast majority in this age-group share many traits. If technology played any role in these kids’ lives as they matured, it was more because of what they understood to be possible with technology, as opposed to how technology directly impacted them. The next generation of kids, the ones who are younger than 7 today, will have much more opportunity for technology to directly impact and shape their entire lives.

I call this Millennials’ technological worldview. When products and technologies exist, the capabilities of that new technology are generally known and understood. This is primarily a result of marketing, but the rise of online community and user-generated content has introduced a new wrinkle. Today’s interactive marketing initiatives, such as viral campaigns, make it possible for anyone to clearly understand what is possible with technology – regardless of whether they actually use it or not. The iPhone is a great example. Ask any kid of any race or socioeconomic status in the U.S. about the iPhone, and there is a high probability that he doesn’t own it but he knows all about it. This is exactly what shapes this demographic’s technological worldview.

Next, let’s take a look at some successful approaches for reaching this demographic as well as some examples of products and solutions that catch Millennials’ attention.

Making the Products They Crave

I’ll address this issue first from a hardware/ software standpoint and then talk about marketing and branding.

To reach particularly the younger consumer, the design of your product and solution has to stand out. I conducted a focus group with teens to gauge their feelings about laptop brand design and was amused when several of them declared, “I wouldn’t be seen in public with that computer.” When I heard this, it emphasized something we already knew: Technology is involved in establishing social status and is regarded as a form of self-expression among young people. If the look and feel of a product does not fit their style or the image they want to portray, they won’t embrace it. Moreover, they want things personalized and customized to their unique tastes. Members of the youth demographic feel they are each individual trendsetters, and they seek to promote their perceived uniqueness. That’s one of the needs that MySpace and Facebook answer for them.

So innovation in hardware design is essential when approaching younger consumers. They must be able to say, “I want people to see me using this.” Apple does a great job at a lot of things, but it has been singularly responsible for making product design a high priority in the technology industry. Our research found a large number of kids at colleges around the country who did not own Apple computers wished they did (if they could afford one). Apple makes products that consumers are proud to carry around and be seen with. This needs to be the goal of any consumer-facing product.

The emphasis on design doesn’t end with hardware. It also includes the software and the marketing. If sites like MySpace and Facebook don’t continue to innovate and improve the online experience, the Millennials will quickly leave and go to the next place that fits their digital lifestyle. Features and functions need to not only work well, but look and feel cool as well.

The same can be said for marketing campaigns; they need to be fresh and artsy but also relevant. You need to speak to these kids about things they care about and do it in the language they want to hear. It’s tough to glean this information about Millennials, but it’s critical to anticipate their needs before they even know they have them.

Marketing to Kids Who Hate Marketing

I am continually asked by marketing folks in all different industries about how to reach a demographic that is so incredibly media and tech-savvy and, in general, resistant to commercial messages.

When it comes to media and marketing, this demographic truly has a nose for B.S. They can tell when a company is trying to sell them a line, and they do not respond well to it. At the same time, however, we have found in our work that the youth of today actually do want to interact with brands, especially the ones they like. They want to be heard and use their voices to help influence that brand to create better products for them. And, perhaps more important, they have the technology at their disposal – whether Email, blogs or discussion boards – to act on these desires and let the brands know how they feel.

Virgin Mobile, for example, has a service called Sugar Mama that embraces this fact. Virgin researched the market first and tested the idea among teens, who reported they liked the ability to join brand dialogues, but wanted to be compensated for their time. So Virgin Mobile structured the service such that users can interact with ads or brand contests in exchange for free minutes.

Marketers must also promote the experience or value of their products clearly. Too often, consumers are left asking, “What does that product or solution really do for me?” Again, Apple serves as our textbook example of how to do things right. Ads for the iPhone show its features and usefulness in practical, relevant ways. Also referred to as “scenario marketing,” these ads featured people explaining how the iPhone helped them in a real-world situation to which viewers can relate. So not only do viewers learn that the iPhone is a cool and revolutionary new piece of technology, they see that it’s also a device that can be useful in consumers’ everyday lives.

Communicating a product’s practical applications to customers’ lives should be every marketer’s goal – as well as reinforcing that message at every touch point.

It’s All About Lifestyle

Lastly, marketers need to recognize the importance of being either a lifestyle brand or fitting into a lifestyle. Millennials are very particular in their desires to have products that were designed with them in mind, so brands need to complement young consumers’ lifestyles, even if it means enabling or complementing an experience from another brand. A great example of this is Nike+, a service Nike provides as an overall health and wellness program. You can buy a simple kit that tracks your workouts, calories burned, etc., and gives you progress reports and tips for staying fit. What is notable is that you can use the service with any shoe; it doesn’t work exclusively with Nike shoes (although Nike, of course, hopes to sell more sneakers as a result too). By letting customers enjoy this service with whatever shoes they buy or own, Nike is adding value to a consumer lifestyle in an authentic way. It sets Nike apart from others in its space.

Closing Thoughts

Younger consumers want lifestyle experiences, and they want the brands they buy to share their values. Be intentional in marketing the experience of your products in ways consumers can tangibly relate to and show clearly how those products enhance and add value to people’s lives. Finally, to reach the youth demographic, strive to be an authentic lifestyle brand that’s not just selling a product but encouraging a responsible lifestyle. You will be rewarded with the loyalty of customers who want to tell others how much they like your brand.