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Targeting Teens: Art, not Science

New York — Marketing to teens is much like trying to hit a target that is not only moving, but moving in five directions at once, according to speakers at last week's American Apparel and Footwear Association seminar devoted to the subject.

The gathering, titled “Those Transient Teens: Deconstructing the Teen Consumer,” examined the spending habits of teens, what they like and dislike when it comes to advertising, and how companies can bring those two elements together successfully.

“Teen marketing has been the most perplexing to me in my career,” said Amie Turrill Owens, vice president of marketing and brand management with Kangaroos.

One of the nuances she has learned over the years is that while marketing to teens is necessary to get products into the public eye, too much or the wrong type of marketing can easily turn teens off — and once they are turned off, it's tough to turn them back on.

Teens sometimes favor products with a limited amount of exposure, said Owens. “If it's hard to find that's not necessarily a bad thing,” she added.

By the time a marketer finds and defines a teen profile to target, however, that group has often graduated to their next phase in life.

“Targeting teens is a revolving door industry,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst with The NPD Group. “You have to realize that they are changing on a daily basis.”

Keeping up with the frenetic pace of change means one collection or offering for each season is far from adequate, according to Kelly Payfer, licensing and marketing director with Mudd, a line of apparel best known for its jeans.

She said that Mudd puts out 10 collections per year as retailers and their teen consumers want the old out and the new in more rapidly than ever.

Payfer added that Mudd wants girls to use those collections as a means to express themselves. To that end, the company does not use spokesmodels or celebrities to pitch its clothes, “because we don't want to give some picture of what a Mudd girl is supposed to look like,” she said.

Many companies, however, do use celebrity endorsements to reach the teen market, while others take Ron Pompei's suggestion and craft a story around their products to foster a stronger connection with consumers.

Pompei, CEO and creative director of Pompei A.D., said, “The context is just as important as the product, as it provides a lens that the product is seen through.”

With the marketing trend over the last decade changing from selling products to selling experiences, he said companies “must have a story or a culture wrapped around the product. If you aren't creating a culture, you are going to be irrelevant.”

Jorge Ramon, fashion director with Teen People, suggested that companies can stay relevant to teens by becoming involved with social causes that teens take to heart. “Give the kids a reason to buy the product,” he said.

In addition, Ramon gave marketers tips on producing ads that won't turn teens off, which include: using some humor, finding authentic endorsements, keeping the copy to a minimum and being clear with the message.

Cohen said companies must be clear about the fact that teens are not one block but rather two distinct groups that demand targeted marketing — 13-15 year olds and 17-19 year olds, with 16 year olds on either side.

Though indirect buyers as they often don't actually pay the bills, teens have more purchasing power than most realize, according to Cohen.

“The teen is ingrained in the family's purchase-decision process,” he said, noting that children especially influence the selection of high-tech gadgets — like digital cameras — when mom and dad lack product familiarity.

Pompei added that the familiarity teens have with media in all its forms — magazines (the most influential), television, newspapers, radio, the Internet, cell phones, pagers, etc. — means they are sophisticated enough to quickly ignore advertisements that don't grab their interest.

“The fact that they have the ability to manipulate the media means they are not as susceptible to the messages,” he explained.

To better craft the message, Pompei suggests going straight to the source. “Bring the people in who you are marketing to, and make them your strategic partners,” said Pompei, who did just that while working with Levis.

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