Youth marketing: What's under the hood?

Getting into the minds of urban youth is a major challenge for marketers from a different world, writes James Curtis.

Urban youth is one of the most important, but perhaps least understood, segments of society. And not just for marketers. Society has a big problem with young people who live in an urban sub-culture that, from the outside, seems threatening and impenetrable. Slapped with ASBOs and labelled as 'hoodies', this is a much-maligned and marginalised group.

Marketers are also often bewildered about how to connect with this leading edge of youth culture. Yet they realise it is essential to do so. It is in the inner cities, skate parks, streets and clubs that trends, fashions and crazes are born. The brands that have street credibility are not those born in the mainstream - they come from the catalyst of teenage rebellion.

Sam Conniff, co-founding partner of youth marketing agency Livity, says confusion about how to connect with urban youth markets is compounded by a lack of clarity about the term itself. 'People use "urban" to mean different things,' he says. 'Very often it is a politically correct way of saying black, in which case it becomes very misrepresentative and misunderstood. Sometimes it is purely geographic, and other times it means cutting-edge. Perhaps that's why marketing people love it - because it is such a loose definition. But you have to be careful - there's nothing worse than middle-class marketers trying to get down with the kids.'

According to one senior marketer of a popular youth brand, the intricacies of marketing to urban youth are manifold. He agrees with Conniff that the first and most common mistake is to think this is a clearly-defined group. 'People go wrong when they decide to target urban youth and think they have to use hip-hop or skateboarding,' he warns. 'It is too superficial. This is a diverse group - there are people living in cities, there are people into different genres of music, others into particular sports and more who enjoy different lifestyles. The marketers who get it right are those who target a distinct audience. The ones who get it wrong try to borrow interest from an exclusive insider culture and market it to a broader culture. They end up not being any good at either.'

The difficulty of connecting with urban audiences was demonstrated earlier this year in a campaign from Sony PlayStation, normally a consistent performer in this sphere. To help launch its PlayStation Portable, Sony hired street artists to spray-paint buildings with graffiti-style images of kids playing with the handset. The campaign attracted derision, with critics accusing Sony of trying to commercialise the credibility of street art. Many of the executions, which ran in cities across the US, were defaced with angry messages such as 'Stop hawking corporate products and big business on our neighbourhood walls' and 'Corporate vandals not welcome'.

For a brand such as PlayStation to get it so wrong is all the more notable, as many admire its ability to connect with youth audiences without patronising them. As Conniff advises, brands need to be wary about adopting even the most obvious elements of street culture. 'Using graffiti doesn't mean you understand young people, or that they understand you.'

Adidas' use of graffiti art in the launch of its adicolor trainer range had quite a different outcome - and the reason is how it was used. The classic white adicolor line comes with a set of colouring pens, allowing people to customise the design of their trainers. The concept was first devised in 1983 but returned in 2006, supported by ad activity that harnessed the creativity of graffiti. Blank white posters, branded with the Adidas logo, provided a canvas for street artists. Days later, fresh posters were placed over the graffiti, this time with the shape of the adicolor shoe cut out to reveal the graffiti underneath. This allowed the street art to be incorporated, creating a customised shoe on the poster that demonstrated the idea behind the product.

James Layfield, managing director of youth agency The Lounge Group, says: 'Unlike Sony, which forced the message, this was saying "here's the product, you customise it and you make it cool". That is the whole point of the product. I'm not surprised the shoes have been embraced by this audience.'

Opinions are more divided on whether Coca-Cola got it right when it tried to reposition its Sprite brand in the mid-90s. Although a mass brand - Sprite is among the five bestselling soft drinks in the world - Coke decided to base its positioning around urban youth. It attached the Sprite name to the Urban Games, an annual event in London incorporating skateboarding, BMX and urban music, and connected the brand to a host of street-music initiatives. It also launched limited-edition 'graffiti' packs, running competitions first among artists, and then the public, calling for designs to be used on cans.

On the face of it, this initiative appears to be pick-pocketing a fringe culture in order to sell it to the masses. With graffiti designs plastered over 45m cans, this was clearly aimed beyond the urban sub-cultures it borrows from. But by getting real street artists involved in the can designs, and by backing its skater-boy image through support for grass-roots urban sports, Sprite does seem to be giving something back.

According to Glen O'Connell, sports and lifestyle marketing manager for video-game company Electronic Arts (EA), this kind of two-way interaction is essential. 'We very much see this audience as one that wishes to interact with the product and brand, and experience it the way they see fit,' he says. 'But they will only do this if the mindset is right. The approach should not be "I know what you like best", but rather "Tell me what you like and I'll tell you how my product can excite you".'

O'Connell adds that EA sees such value in the trend-setting power of urban youth audiences that it almost treats it as a loss-leader. 'The urban youth audience is a powerful and vocal one that other areas follow, so we are creating a range of bespoke programmes, activities and experiences designed to attract this audience to our products, irrespective of whether or not they are also commercial hits with a mainstream audience.'

EA worked with The Lounge Group on one such bespoke project, devising Big in the Game, a nationwide search for talented young hip-hop MCs. It offered the winner the chance to have their track featured in a forthcoming game.

O'Connell advises any brand considering working with this audience to be patient. 'This is an ever-changing market, so those who are not prepared to adapt on the fly, or do not understand that not everything will work first time, will crash back down to earth - an experience that is often accompanied by a ton of wasted money.'

One corner of marketing with a perhaps surprisingly good track record of connecting with urban audiences is the government, with campaigns designed to redress social problems within the demographic. The £3m 'Frank' anti-drugs campaign, devised by Mother for the Department of Health, resulted in the number of phone calls to the government's drug advice line doubling in the week after its launch in May 2003.

Conniff agrees that the public sector has a better understanding of youth culture because of the concerns it deals with. 'Real-life issues such as pregnancy and drugs are things kids care about, so it is easier to understand the motivators,' he says.

However good government campaigns are at understanding this audience, Conniff argues that they are often let down by poor executions. Conversely, private-sector work often suffers the reverse problem. 'The understanding is often basic but they don't care because they are much better at the execution.'

Harnessing youth culture also comes with a responsibility. Inner city often means underprivileged, so marketing expensive trainers and mobile phones to people who can't always afford them, or may steal to get them, carries a moral imperative and can expose brands to stiff criticism. Nor can this area of marketing be carefully planned; the results are often unpredictable and the chances of a damaging backlash ever present. Ultimately, however tempting the rewards may be, doing it cynically, superficially or exploitatively is a recipe for trouble.


Classic mistakes

1. Getting down with the kids is not simply a case of putting a group of them in a focus group. Effective communications are built on meaningful dialogue.

2. Slapping a 'z' at the end of a word or using text language will not engage kids. Urban slang is a code that will be changed as soon as outsiders think they have cracked it.

3. Middle-class, middle-aged marketers cannot even begin to understand how an 18-year-old kid from Brixton thinks. It is vital to talk to people who do.

4. Avoid tokenistic activity. If communications borrow elements of youth culture to sell a brand, they must put something back in. Understand the aspirations of the audience and build a relationship with them from which they also benefit.

5. Young people are fiercely tribal. Tastes and pastimes vary, and each group must be targeted accordingly.


New Era

Just wearing a New Era cap isn't 'street' enough - it must have the price tag hanging off it as part of the 'bling' trend to display affluence. New Era official Major League Baseball caps are now available in limited-edition and customised versions.


Founded by designer Marc Ecko in 1993, Ecko has become a global fashion and lifestyle company. The Ecko Unlimited clothing line's red rhino logo routinely features in rap videos and has become a mainstay of hip-hop culture. Ecko Unlimited also owns skateboard brand Zoo York and makes rap star 50 Cent's G-Unit clothing line.

Red Bull

If urban youth culture is aligned around music, sport and fashion, then Red Bull has successfully claimed two of those territories as its own; it is the clubber's drink of choice and it sponsors extreme sports from base-jumping to kite-surfing. The brand also supports a wide range of niche events in the urban environment with consistency and credibility.


As the most popular handset among the urban set, the brand invests in its audience by supporting events such as the Nokia Urban Music Festival and the Nokia Snowboard FIS World Cup.


Adidas has a long history of urban appeal, cemented in the early 80s when rappers Run DMC name-checked its trainers in their lyrics. It has lost none of its urban edge - this year it targeted graffiti artists by putting up blank white posters to be used as canvases.


Nike has built credibility through product placement and endorsement. From basketball to skateboarding and snowboarding, it has every influencer base covered. Even though millions wear their shoes, Nike reaches out to many distinct groups, styles and passions.


This Marketing conference takes place on 31 October at The Congress Centre, London. The latest in a series of Youth Perspective Conferences, this year the event will focus on how to engage young people through digital channels.


Simon Lloyd, head of marketing, Nokia; Michael Smith, deputy director of digital media, COI; Fiona Bosman, touch point marketing manager, Red Bull; Jamie Kantrowitz, senior vice-president marketing Europe, Myspace; Michelle James, director of marketing, Youth Music; Tom Hall, editorial marketing manager, Lonely Planet; Richard Teversham, EMEA director of marketing & platform, Xbox; Sally Scott, director of marketing, Selfridges; Rufus Radcliffe, head of marketing, Channel 4; Mark Mullen, director of marketing communications, HSBC.

- For more information, contact Sam Strauss in Haymarket Conferences on 020 8267 4318, or email


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