Take A Cue From Teens

Your coveted teen demographic doesn’t really need you anymore, so unless you’re planning on hiring these highly skilled and savvy kids to do your marketing, you’re probably better off ignoring them.

The new teens and early twenty-somethings have emerged in the last 10 years as a very functional lot. Growing up with unprecedented access to information—from porn to make-your-own-bomb sites to political blogs—has bred the do-it-yourself generation, aka Y, Echo Boomers, blah-de-blah. (At 27, I missed this by a few years and am relegated to some generationless black hole.) They build their own Web sites, post their own movies and create their own celebrities. According to 60 Minutes, they mostly “take their cues from each other” (via e-mail, instant message, MySpace, texts, etc.). And, while all of this multitasking has made them quick, it also means they’re easily distracted and even harder to impress.

Many of the buzz brands that have emerged over the past few years—MySpace, YouTube and even American Apparel—were at the forefront of this DIY movement. While the first two are actual forums for sharing information, jokes, music, tricks, art and everything else, American Apparel brought everything in-house, hired people from its demographic (we boast very few over-25 in the art department), bought a bunch of digital cameras and, lo and behold, the kids pulled something off. It’s important to note that we never sit around and strategize about what teens want; we simply ask each other: do you like this photo, this model, this text? Then we argue, maybe consult people in different departments, ask friends, listen to some customer feedback and occasionally learn from our mistakes.

A recurring feeling with successful sites, such as Flickr or Cobrasnake (the sweet chronicles of underage hipster bar-hopping), is an element of voyeurism. On one hand, the awareness that you’re seeing something that maybe you’re not supposed to ensures the authenticity of the experience; on the other, it satisfies something truly teen: wanting to know what everyone else is up to at all times. At American Apparel we have always shot real people, often friends or employees, and the images (like them or not) betray a certain intimacy. A lot of the earlier Marc Jacobs ads, despite being geared toward a more sophisticated (read money) crowd, consistently tapped into something real and private (and often funny), and the kids loved it. Willa, my 17-year-old informant, who also shoots for my company, told me she knows people who used to go so far as to cut those campaigns out of magazines and paste them on their walls.

Image alone, though, doesn’t carry a brand with this crowd. In fact, a strong product may be better off with little to no marketing, and a really great one can overcome its own weak advertising. Take the iPod; the launch campaign felt like some overly commercial throwback to blaxploitation, but everyone loved it because of the product, which existed in its own bubble without any competitors. Jeans seem to have incredible word-of-mouth mobility; Jbrands, for instance, were on every hipster and celebrity with nary an ad in sight. Part of the fun for this generation of consumers is discovering new items in that very tiny window of time before someone tells them it’s cool.

Then there’s HBO. Though not quite what MTV was to Gen X (that would be the Internet), it has redefined the entire TV experience, and its popularity is another clear case of content over marketing. (What does an HBO ad look like? Who cares.) While my friends and I plan dinner parties around the Sunday night lineup, my 20-year-old cousins in Toronto are downloading every episode of Entourage as they become available.

So why is it that when Gap features Jeremy Piven—the favorite potty-mouthed agent, Ari, from Entourage—in a recent campaign does everyone under 30 collectively gag? Because choosing Piven, who even proved himself a real-life badass at the Emmys this year when he humiliated Billy Bush on the red carpet, reeks of coolhunting. (I’m actually among those who believe that the company could make a strong comeback, but not with moves like that; it will have to stop trying so hard.)

Similarly, companies attempting to co-opt the YouTubes and MySpaces out there will likely be crucified for it. Just ask Willa: “[MySpace] is not a way of life. It is not a cult. It is really not that big of a deal. Adults are thinking that it is and turning it into this advertising forum, making movies have MySpace accounts, putting encoded advertisements in videos. Nobody’s gonna look at that stuff.”

In fact any brand that is actively targeting a youth market is likely making a mistake. Think of teens in the same way you did your first big crush in high school, and talk to anyone but.