Q&A: Teen Marketer Connor Blakley Schools Brands on Gen Z Authenticity

18-year-old has worked with the NHL, Sprint and Johnson & Johnson

Connor Blakley started his first company when he was 14.

Connor Blakley is 18 and already knows more about marketing than most marketers twice his age.

He started his first company when he was 14, helping small and mid-sized companies navigate social media, and over the last four years, as he has built his marketing company, Youth Logic, he has worked with folks like Mark Cuban and brands like the NHL, Sprint, NPD Group, and Johnson & Johnson, advising them on how to message to the youth.

“A lot of brands understand they don’t know what they don’t know, and they’re willing to learn from someone who is as entrenched and is as good at it as me,” he said.

Adweek: So what kind of work do you do?
Connor Blakley: We help big companies better ingrain themselves in youth culture. That can mean everything from just top-line, high-level marketing branding strategy to influencer marketing to micro-social media tactics to analyzing and interpreting data on behalf of these brands. Companies come to us with so many different things because there’s a problem to solve and we solve problems.

What problems are you seeing in the marketplace in how brands are trying to talk to your generation?
There’s a lack of understanding of relevancy, and when I say that I mean they’re talking about things that they think are relevant to achieve authenticity. At the end of the day, they’re trying to achieve both of those things to become cool and they just don’t understand relevancy at all. So they end up looking inauthentic.

What’s the typical brand approach to marketing to your peers, your age group? What do they do where you’re like, ‘you know what, you’ve got to stop this.’
They take the data face value and then when they analyze the data and implement that into their campaigns, it gets misconstrued and misunderstood.

What brands are marketing to Gen Z well?
Wendy’s is killing it.

They put out a Spotify playlist of songs. It’s called “We Beefin’.” The names of the songs, “Twitter Fingers,” “Holding It Down,” “Rest in Grease.” Like all songs that culturally make sense; the names are funny. Look at what the influencers are using, and the lingo at which they use them, it’s freaking phenomenal.

What’s your take on the term ‘influencers’?
I view influence in three separate categories. One being ‘celebrity’; so Angelina Jolie, Leonardo DiCaprio.

The second category being ‘influencer’; so people [like] Jake Paul.

And the third category being ‘cultural shapers’: Rihanna, Kanye, Ariana Grande. People like that.

For influencers specifically, I think it’s great giving influencers the keys to create content on behalf of these brands because they know how to do it better than you. I like to figure out how brands can align with cultural shapers in a way that integrates with the brand, because that’s how you achieve relevancy.

A good example of that: Puma hiring Rihanna. I like Ariana Grande getting hired by Reebok, things like that.

Does this actually work?
Yes, and it’s pretty case-specific.

So what is success? How do you know if using ‘influencers’ is working?
I can measure the real ROI. So instead of a return on investment, I look to return on interaction. We changed the KPIs, so if you like engagement, and if you religiously implement these tactics and not just do one-offs, you’ll start to see sales rise.

Which companies are bad at marketing to Gen Z?
Under Armour is screwed. They don’t understand anything about culture and how to integrate it into their marketing strategy; they think they understand influencers and they think they understand content—creating content around the influencers—when they don’t. Under Armour is now the least cool company. Under Armour is losing teenage customers at a rapid pace, which is actually the main reason for their decline in overall sales.

There’s lots of research out there that says Gen Z gets passionate about, or is loyal to a brand that stands for something, particularly “social good.” Is that true?
In a 10- to 15-year window, the only brands that will survive are the ones that stand for something; that doesn’t necessarily have to be social good. But I think it helps. Patagonia is a brand that really does a great job of authentically integrating social good into their brand. But in most cases I think it’s a crock of shit because a lot of brands heard that millennials love social good and all of them implemented that super fast that in ways make absolutely no sense.

Like what?
The car brand that did something really stupid during the Super Bowl. A car company spent $3 million on a Super Bowl ad bragging that it donated $250,000 on a social cause no one cared about, and didn’t integrate with their brand. I think it was Hyundai.

What about TV? Do you guys watch TV?
No. Netflix, Hulu or YouTube.

What about the idea that convenience trumps social goodness for a brand to market to your generation? Is there any truth in that?
Yeah, for sure. Convenience trumps social good any day. I think our generation—we talk a lot of shit when it comes to: we’re not going to do this; we’re gonna march. When it comes down to it, no one wants to give up the convenience for something that doesn’t actually matter to them.

Like everyone saying they’re going to get rid of Facebook because of the Cambridge Analytica stuff. I mean, none of us go on Facebook anyway.

You guys are not on Facebook?
Oh no, not at all. The only reason we’re talking on Facebook is for college stuff, to help us figure out what frat we want to rush or what our family is up to.

Where should brands be?
YouTube and Instagram.

Because that’s where we are.

So to that end: you get to choose one platform and only one platform to use. Which is it?
Instagram. It’s where I get the most engagement. Instagram is the place to create a more perfect version of yourself, which is basically the goal of social media for young people.

This story first appeared in the April 16, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@joshsternberg Josh Sternberg is the former media and tech editor at Adweek.