Marketers strike a balance between skeptical teens and their cautious parents

As the teen segment continues to grow, marketers are getting more creative in how they reach out to these plugged-in skeptical consumers. Marketers are finding success by making their message about more than just the product, showcasing the broader values of their brand through targeted marketing and online communities.

According to the Experian Simmons’ National Teen Study, released last fall, 59% of 1,847 teens surveyed agree that the Internet has changed the way they spend their free time. 

“Social media is just kind of second nature for this audience,” says Allison Marsh, VP of consumer insights at AMP Agency, which specializes in teen marketing and is part of the Alloy Media & Marketing company. “They think of this as just an extension of their everyday conversations.” 

Marsh adds that because of this, marketers trying to promote their brands through social networks need to be about more than just selling.

One of the clearest examples of the value of “Big Picture” messages is the popularity of cause marketing campaigns among teens. Staples had great results with its “Give Back Join a Pack” campaign last fall. Working in collaboration with Do Something, the company asked teens to make a donation to go toward the purchase of school supplies for kids in need. Staples incorporated musician and actor Drake Bell, and singer/songwriter Kellie Pickler and invited their fans to “join their pack” by donating.

Web series engages teens

Kmart’s marketing team wanted teens to think of its exclusive clothing lines when it came time for back-to-school shopping. Click to read the case study.

“This campaign had so many elements: The website, the Facebook page, the microsite. If you didn’t want to take action in the real world, you could take action in the online space,” says Amy Shanler, director of community relations for Staples. 

More than 5,000 pounds of supplies were eventually donated — five times what the campaign had generated three years prior.

Besides causes, teens are receptive to marketing that gives them a platform to express themselves and their concerns. Procter & Gamble’s is an online community built around its Always and Tampax brands, encouraging teens to create a profile and contribute. 

“It’s a safe place where they can go for information about changes they are experiencing but are too embarrassed to discuss,” says Velvet Gogol Bennett, North America feminine care external relations manager for Procter & Gamble

Visitors to the site can also enter their names to receive monthly newsletters sponsored by its Always and Tampax brands, offering quizzes, music and free samples to those who join.

When promoting brands to teens marketers must walk a fine line to catch teen interest without embarrassing or annoying them. Jim Joseph, president of ad agency Lippe Taylor and author of The Experience Effect, has years of experience working on teen marketing campaigns, particularly in the personal care realm, and has found an interesting difference in how guys and girls respond to brand messages.

“Girls at almost any age are willing to share anything and everything with their girlfriends — the boys not so much. They won’t talk about pimples, personal hygiene, or body issues,” he says, adding that the other big difference between the two groups is the role that mom plays in purchase decisions. “Though mom is kind of on equal footing with girls’ girlfriends, with boys, she is a bigger part, because most of the time it’s mom who decides what products are being bought.”

Varsity Brands, Inc., a national cheerleading association, has made community central to the way it promotes its cheerleading and dance uniforms and events to teens. The company created an online community, but it has also partnered with brands like Gatorade and Herbal Essences to offer samples. 

“You have to think of them as more than someone who is going to purchase a product. They are also very much concerned about social issues and we feel our message to teens is about the big picture,” says Nicole Lauchaire, VP of corporate marketing for Varsity Brands, Inc.

Whatever the differences between the sexes, there may be more differences in the marketing responses of teens overall and the rest of the consumer population. According to a survey from marketing research company Keller Fay Group, teens engage in far more word-of-mouth marketing than the general public. The survey, which drew on the responses of 13- to 17-year-old consumers, found that 78% of teens take part in word-of-mouth about media and entertainment brands, compared to 57% of the population overall, while 67% discuss technology products, compared with just 39% of the total public.

Marketers trying to get their message across to teens have to keep another audience in mind: their parents. Effective campaigns balance being cool enough for young consumers, while emphasizing responsibility to parents. 

The recent debacle surrounding the Kardashian Prepaid MasterCard illustrates what not to do. The credit card targeted teen shoppers, and was endorsed by reality show star Kim Kardashian and her sisters. However, a marketing campaign centered on big spending and a product loaded with hidden fees, and the “Kard” caused a public outcry and was pulled from the market. 

The Kardashians could have learned a marketing lesson from American Express. To promote PASS, its prepaid card aimed at teens, American Express has focused mostly on getting parents interested in the card, including a partnership with the website iVillage. The initiative, called The Talk, includes an online video series, social media effort and live events around the importance of parents discussing financial responsibility with their sons and daughters.

Speaking teens’ language often means marketers must also speak their parents’ too.

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