Archive for the 'Generations' Category



“I wish that I could be like the cool kids”

In today’s digital environment, marketers are often seeking a viral way to spread news about their product or to stoke a trend. Traditional thinking was that trends spread predictably. Trends were seen to launch on the west coast (usually from urban environments), spread to the east coast, and eventually make their way to middle America and a mass market. This is why so many “cool seeker” or “trend seeker” researcher panels were established. By connecting to the cool kids in the right environments, marketers could get an early sense of what was going to happen next and get on board for the ride. They could seed ideas with the right audience and let nature take its course.

The Internet has largely blown up this paradigm. It has become a great “leveler” of youth trends. Now, a trend can start anywhere, become viral seemingly randomly, and spin out of control quickly. A geographic center of trends is hard to pinpoint if it exists at all. In research, “trend seeker” panels have become more of an oddity in market research – and have been supplanted largely by online communities of teens from across the country.

How can a communications and “connecting” technology (the Internet) have such a profound impact on how innovations and trends take hold?

Innovation diffusion to the mainstream has been the subject of academic study for some time.  Perhaps the most seminal work in the field came in 1962 when Everett Rogers published The Diffusion of Innovations. This book has been required reading at MBA marketing programs for more than 50 years.

In this book, Rogers outlines a classic theory. Innovators (2-3% of the population) start using a product. Early adopters (10%-15%) see what the innovators are doing and jump on board quickly. Next, the early majority (30%-35%) jumps on board as the hype around the product peaks. The late majority (30%-34%) gets on board. Finally, eventually the laggards (10%-15%) join in.

For decades, this thinking caused marketers to focus a disproportionate effort on the innovators – the 2%-3% of the population that supposedly spark new trends. This concept is the underpinning of why marketing dollars flow towards young people, urban consumers, minorities, etc. as marketers hope to start a chain reaction through the Rogers segments. Why have we had such a focus on youth marketing? It isn’t because they have a lot of money to spend, as compared to other age segments they don’t.  It is because marketers feel they are influential.

New media and viral marketing has made this thinking even more prevalent. If we can just reach the influencers, we’ll let loose a viral effect and sell a lot of product. Unfortunately, this thinking is a good example of applying an old paradigm to a new world.

Even in the pre-Internet past, this thinking tended to work more on a “fad” than a “trend” level. To illustrate this, in presentations I often ask the audience to write down what they think the most successful marketing brands and products have been in the past 10 years that are youth-oriented. I pause, and then list them out on a whiteboard. Typical responses are as follows:

  • The iPhone
  • Harry Potter franchise
  • American Idol
  • Barbie
  • National Football League
  • Various Boy Bands

I then point out that franchises like these, which have hit it incredibly big with youth, all have one thing in common. They didn’t diffuse to the mainstream in the Rogers fashion. They didn’t start by being popular with cool kids. Rather, they found a way to go directly to the mainstream. Oftentimes, they got there by being shunned by the cool kids.

I believe the rise of the Internet will eventually (once they catch on) cause marketers to stop thinking in the traditional way about how new trends diffuse to the mainstream. The introverted kid in the Midwest who has a popular blog is fast becoming more influential than the hipster on the street in Los Angeles. Marketers will find more direct tributaries to the mainstream, and the cool hunter research panels that still exist in the market research industry will disappear.

Millennials as Entrepreneurs?

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A few years back, I followed a symposium speaker who described how today’s youth generation (Millennials) were likely to be highly entrepreneurial. Her reasoning seemed to be that big ideas and companies tend to be launched by young trendy people willing to take risks, that experiences such as the founding of Facebook show how far technology can take a young person with big ideas, and that there are so many Millennials that big things were about to happen.

I disagree. Here is a prognostication to file and look at in about 20 years: when all is said and done, history will judge Millennials as one of the LEAST entrepreneurial of the recent generations.

Why? There are some key characteristics of Millennials that lead strongly to this conclusion.

  1. Millennials are risk-averse. If you look at long term trends on almost any risk behavior, you will see that Millennials are on the good side of history.  Drug, alcohol, and tobacco use has plummeted, crimes committed by young people have declined, teen pregnancy rates are at their lowest in decades, and college attendance is at an all-time high.
  2. Millennials have grown up in a world of structure and protection. This is a “comfortable” generation that largely hasn’t felt a need to act out or to fend for themselves as children.  Just a generation ago Gen Xers were known as lightly-parented, latch-key kids, who as a consequence had to learn to find their own creative solutions to problems they encountered.  Millennials have not had to develop these types of skills. In fact, many Millennials expect to move back in with their parents for a time post-college, and much of this boomerang mentality is from a desire to return to their parents, not just out of economic necessity.
  3. As Millennials have come of age, the education system has evolved in a narrow way, with an almost exclusive focus and reward structure around STEM fields. Many would say that creativity has become collateral damage along the way. This develops college graduates with incredible technical skills, but boxes them in creatively.
  4. Today’s employers are focusing more than ever on the care and feeding of their Millennial employees. They no longer hire gobs of college graduates and let them fight their way to the top.  Rather, they have instituted career advancement and mentorship programs and seem much more willing to invest in the development of their young employees.
  5. Finally, Millennials seek structure and security in employment. Each year Universum conducts a college student survey which asks pending college graduates whom their ideal employer is. Just as the Millennial generation started graduating college, larger organizations, former startups that had become huge companies, and even governmental agencies started taking over the top 10. Would you believe that the #3 most desirable employer among humanities graduates is currently the US Department of State? Or that #4 is the United Nations? Or that #6 is the FBI? Incredibly, even the NSA makes the top 10.

Millennials seem perfectly formed for larger organizations that take the time truly understand them. They will desire the structure and caring these organizations can provide as it parallels the structure and caring that has surrounded them their whole lives.  They will of course want to be able to express their ideas and find creative solutions to problems.  What we are now seeing in large organizations is a willingness to allow them to do so.

This is not to say that in 20 years we won’t look back and see some incredible firms that were started by Millennials, as we certainly will. But, compared to their Gen X predecessors, I’ll be very surprised if this generation is characterized as entrepreneurial in a historical sense.

Just ask them: 9 out of 10 high school students are above average

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We often have a need to ask a question that relates to academic performance in studies – so we can analyze results across a range of academic achievement. We necessarily have to rely on self-reports, and kids and teens tend to paint a fairly optimistic performance of their academic performance.

I used to think that this sort of optimism associated with your grades tended to result from faulty memory more than anything intentional. I know that my high school GPA and my college track times have miraculously improved as I have aged. But our results suggest that this isn’t the case – that students will greatly overstate their academic performance while they are still in high school.

The question we ask is straightforward: Which best describes your academic performance so far?

What we find is the following …

  • 7% of students will say they are in the top 1% of the class
  • 17% will say they are in the top 5%
  • 38% will say they are in the top 15%
  • 61% will say they are in the top 25%
  • 90% will say they are in the top 50%

So, 90% of high school students feel they are above average academically.

Is this a problem? I tend to think not – having confidence and a healthy sense of self-worth can be a good thing as children move out on their own. However, when this inflated sense of performance moves towards narcissism or unrealistic expectations it can be setting our children up for failure.

It can be challenging to ascribe a cause to this. Most commentators agree that the Millennial generation is characterized as being over-protected and having adults in their lives who continually reinforce how special they are. Grade inflation in schools and colleges can engender this feeling. Youth sports have moved to encouraging and reinforcing participation at least as much as rewarding successful competition. I suppose this all yields a generation with a healthy ego, but not necessarily one that has learned to deal with failure.

When searching for causes, we need to look towards parents as well, as they set the context for their children. In a parallel study, we have shown that parents are even more likely to feel their children are above average than the children themselves are. Among parents …

  • 11% will say their child is in the top 1% of the class
  • 40% will say their child is in the top 5%
  • 63% will say their child is in the top 15%
  • 84% will say their child is in the top 25%
  • 93% will say their child is in the top 50%

Again, while there may be positives in parents being optimistic regarding the abilities of their children, it can also be a cause of complacency. Why does the US lag other countries in test performance? Perhaps when this many parents overstate their children’s academic achievement it is difficult to create any urgency behind the issue. It is quite common on surveys to see parents state that the nation’s schools are doing a poor job, but their local district is outstanding.

“Well, that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” –Garrison Keillor

The Evolution of Youth Marketing

Youth marketing is sometimes described as an “industry.” It has its own consultants, specialized agencies, and researchers. In my own lifetime I’ve seen marketing to kids move from something to be feared to something that is expected.

It can be somewhat disturbing to attend youth marketing conferences and hear militaristic terms used to describe children. Youth have become “targets,” a segment to be “captured,” and a demographic to be “penetrated.” I’ll never forget being at a youth conference where a presenter came dressed in full camouflaged military regalia and carried a fake shotgun. His theme was that if you want to capture the youth market, it is necessary to “hunt” them in their native habitat. More disturbing than the talk was the 200 or so youth marketers in the audience that didn’t seem disturbed by his characterization of children.

It is interesting to think about how we have gotten to this point as marketers. Viewing youth marketing through a historical and generational lens can yield some insight. So, let’s travel in time together and look at the evolution of youth marketing.

If we go way back, to when the Silent Generation (born 1925–1942) were children, we see that these were the offspring of some very difficult times. They were children of the Depression and war years, and were characterized as desiring conformity and security. At this time the marketing world itself was just getting established, and marketers were struggling to promote their wares at a time of economic uncertainty and war rationing. There was no “mass” way to reach consumers, as movies/news reels, local newspapers, and magazines were the key media of the day. Youth marketing at this time simply didn’t exist. Marketers were treading careful waters with adults.

The Boomer Generation (born 1943–1960) brought forth a huge increase in the number of children in the US, as well as America’s prominence in the world economy. These were Dr. Spock babies – raised by permissive parents, who became quite rebellious and self-centered later. This marked the advent of the TV age, and with limited channels and programming, marketers could reach a mass of consumers at the same time. For youth marketers, we typically call this the “children are to be seen and not heard” era. This time period witnessed the birth of the brand management system. Many marketing techniques in use today were created and refined at this time. But, there was such unfettered growth in adult markets that children were largely an afterthought for marketers.

This changed as Xers (birth years 1961–1981) came of age. Xers were born at tough time to be a kid. Divorce rates skyrocketed, parents focused on their own achievements, and the term “latch-key child” took hold.  Xers have been fiercely independent ever since, as they had to learn to do many things on their own. Just as marketers had a new way to reach kids directly (Saturday morning TV, and later kid cable channels), many brands began to mature, and marketers started hunting for growth.  One place they found was children. But, at this time, we remained in a parent-centric world, so marketing to children was really done by proxy – by marketing to Mom. Marketers discovered the youth market at this time, but addressed this market largely via their mothers.

Then came the Millennials (birth years 1982–2004). This is a sizeable generation (the Echo Boom) that has been watched and studied since they were born. They are characterized by over-protective parents, being reared largely in boom economic times, and as being risk-averse, team oriented, and in constant need of affirmation. Far from the “children are to be seen and not heard” era, this period marked a transition where youth became a central focus of society. Digital media came on the scene, allowing more targeted marketing approaches. So, how did marketers address them? Marketers quickly saw opportunity in youth markets and started applying sophisticated marketing techniques to them. For most of this era, marketers made what we consider to be a monumental mistake:  they concentrated on youth largely to the exclusion of parents. There was a sense among marketers at this time that if you try to market to both parents and kids at the same time you will fail at both. Marketers (who often hailed from Gen X themselves) often felt children were as independent as they were, and despite the sophisticated tools at their disposal, had a difficult time understanding the partnerships that were developing between children and their parents.

Which brings us to today’s kid generation, the Homeland Generation (birth years 2005 onward). These are kids growing up not just in an era of protectiveness via their parents, but also via society and the government. Political leaders often couch their policies in how well they will keep our children safe. Our culture is concerned that our children truly might not be better off than we were. Homelanders are also very much a “home centered” generation, as they don’t need to leave home (because of technology) to be entertained or to socialize, and they don’t wander much towards unstructured activities.  So, what are marketers learning now?  Largely, they are learning that youth marketing isn’t a matter of applying previous techniques to kids. Decision making processes are much more complex. For instance, think about the decision to buy a new video gaming system for the household.  Who makes that decision?  Mom?  Dad?  The Child?  Who pays for it? Who makes the actual transaction?  Who uses it once it is bought?

The decision process isn’t so clear cut because what you are really marketing to these days is a collaborative decision making unit and not an individual.  There is a marketing firm in our industry who says that youth marketers need to realize that their consumer has two heads, four arms, and four legs. We have seen many marketers who desperately want to be “kid-centric” stumble because they don’t truly understand the role of parents and just how collaborative households have become.

Historians typically resist writing about anything that has happened in the past 20 years because it is truly hard to understand larger trends without the benefit of a long-term perspective. The same is true about youth marketing today. Someday we’ll be able to look back and document what happened, but for now our best path is to look to broader, generational trends, and realize there is something happening here and we don’t know what it is.

The Best Graph Ever

Marketers tend to be obsessed with graphs. A challenge for many research projects is determining how to best distill statistics gathered from hundreds of respondents into a simple picture that makes a convincing point. A good graph balances a need for simplicity with an appreciation for the underlying complexity of the data.

Recently, as part of a year-end series, the Washington Post has been unveiling its “Graphs of the Year.” The Post has been inviting its contributing “wonks” to choose one graph that best encapsulates 2013 for them. I found myself spending way too much time looking through them. Some of the graphs are truly outstanding summaries of a key issue – and their conclusions are striking. Others show the political biases of the wonks themselves, and show how data can indeed be manipulated to make a point. If I were to teach a class in market research, an entire lesson would be devoted to these graphs.

I judge graphs by a simple criterion:  If you were carrying a deck of graphs down the hallway and one fell onto the floor, would someone who picked it up be able to understand its main point, without any other context? We try our best to draw graphs that meet this threshold.

In the end, the good graphs from the Post are those that spur thought and are ideologically independent. In particular, I like Bill Gates’ graph which shows the causes of death in the world as well as how each is increasing or decreasing. This isn’t a simple graph, but it clearly shows the progress the world is making and priorities for the future.

Some graphs didn’t do it for me. Senator Wydens’ graph reminded me of a David Ogilvy quotation: “They use [research] as a drunkard uses a lamp post —  for support, rather than for illumination.” Wyden’s graph came off as a platform to make a political point. It confused me and I didn’t see how the conclusions he suggests flow from the graph at all.

Senator Patty Murray’s graph may very well make a valid point about what drives the federal deficit, but it shows a shocking example of correlation and causation not being the same thing. Just because two lines are displayed next to each other does not mean one leads to another, or in this case, does not mean they are not correlated. Her explanation of the graph is political and as far as I can tell the graph not only doesn’t illuminate her point. The graph doesn’t seem to make any point at all.

Perhaps the most misleading graph comes from Peter Thiel. His graph indicates that as student loan debt has increased, the median income of households with a bachelor’s degree has declined. The problem? The two lines on the graph are on different scales! The median income line is shown per household. The student debt load line is across the entire population. They aren’t comparable.

To make sense, the student debt load should instead be shown on a per household basis. College enrollments have increased steadily over the time frame of the graph, so of course debt load in total will be increasing. And, as a wider base of students pursue degrees, it would be expected that median income might be impacted downward. This is not to say that student debt is not an important issue – as it clearly is. But, this graph seems to take the focus off student debt and indicate that college education does not pay off.

So, what would I have picked as my graph of the year? Actually, I can do it one better. I have a graph that I consider to be the best graph of all time.  It comes from Gallup and is shown in the graph below. (It is best to go to Gallup’s site and click on “historical trend” to view this graph, which shows up-to-date tracking through Obama.)

approvalratingspast

This graph shows the Presidential approval rating tracked since modern polling began. It begins with Harry Truman and on Gallup’s site it runs right up to Obama’s current numbers.

I like it because it is a clear and consistent measure over a long period of time. To me, it is fascinating to look at with a mind towards what was going on historically as the polls were taken. It shows how memories can change as events move to the past. For instance, G.W. Bush’s approval rating was nearly the highest ever measured early in his Presidency (just after 9/11) and moved to one of the lowest ever measured by the time he left office. Clinton is the only President whose approval rating displays a positive trend throughout his term in office. Kennedy’s approval rating was moderate by historical standards near the end of his time in office.

To me, it is fascinating to think of a historical event and then look at the chart to see what happened to approval ratings.Watergate preceded a large drop in Nixon’s ratings, and Ford’s pardon of Nixon did the same. Once WWII was over and the US became mired in Korea Truman’s popularity took a huge hit. Eisenhower’s ratings were very stable compared to others.

All Presidents start office with their approval ratings at their highest. It seems that the first day on the job is the best day. Which may be why the first 100 days is always considered key to any Presidential agenda.

Although graphs may be best judged by their ability to convey one thought, I find that I can stare at this one for hours.

Marketing in Schools – A Necessary Evil?

kidsforsale

The youth marketing industry’s practices are coming under increased scrutiny by the media, academics, and government. Issues such as increased commercialism directed towards children, online privacy, marketing in schools, the content of children’s media and advertising, and childhood obesity have become part of a national discourse.

This post is going to stress the topic of marketing in schools.

There has been a lot of information and misinformation placed into the public debate regarding commercialism in schools. At Crux, we feel we are in a unique position to comment. We have worked with and for school districts for many years and have close relationships with many school administrators. At the same time, we work with some of the most respected brands in youth marketing. So, the topic of marketing in schools is one we contend with often.

Commercial presence in schools is not something new. Local corporations have a genuine interest in the quality of their school districts. Not only are companies significant taxpayers that want to be sure their taxes are being spent wisely, but the quality of the workforce they can attract, local housing values, and quality of life for their employees depends greatly on the schools.

In terms of brands in schools, there has been marketing in schools for a long time, but it has really been the last 20 years or so that commercial interests really started to see schools as an untapped resource. I don’t think too many people would deny that the level of marketing activity in schools has been on the rise. You can notice this in your own travels in schools. You just “see” brands in school environments much more than you used to.

I thought I would share some of my own anecdotal conversations I’ve had with school Superintendents.

First, when I myself first starting “selling” our research to school leaders, I learned right away that the “pitch” had to be couched in a certain way. I had to show them how the research would lead to greater staff productivity or greater parental involvement in the schools. And, it was the moment that I had information that showed that our studies directly lead to greater student achievement that our services got easy to promote.

Which leads me to an important point: the motivations of school leaders are very pure – in a way you don’t see often in the corporate world. They are all about the kids. If you have a program and want to win over a school administrator’s heart, show them how it benefits the kids. Financial issues are very real to them – but are not what makes them tick.

Second, if you think you have pressures in your job, consider theirs. I’ve been to dozens of school board meetings. These are people that are at the center of many controversies. They are negotiating with the union. A parent has a concern. They have a crazy school board member to appease. The governor has given them some more unfunded mandates. They are adapting to new Common Core Standards. In short, they have a lot of battles to fight. Don’t assume that yours is going to make their priority list. So I learned that early on – if you are doing something that creates controversy, they will shy away.

Budgeting and school law are a big part of their job. But, it is also a part of their job they hate.

Finally, and probably the salient point for those who want to market their brands in schools, is when you speak to Superintendents about marketing in schools, the ONLY thing they will play back are the financial benefits. I have never met a school official that thought allowing marketers into schools is a good idea. But I have met plenty that feel it is a better option than making further cuts to the school music program.

And that is a perception that needs to change.

So, why do we see corporate involvement in schools? First and foremost, school budget issues are very real and acute. But, there is also a sense that society has become so commercial with advertising clutter everywhere, that allowing it into schools isn’t such a big deal.

And, the youth market is seen as a growth area – more and more marketers are developing plans for the youth demographic. The youth market has become increasingly lucrative. At the same time, schools have become relatively poor and more focused on their finances.

This makes a point that I think many people in the corporate world don’t realize. Typically, somewhere between 80% and 90% of the annual school budget is not under the discretion of school leaders. Between the union contract and state mandates, there really is little discretionary spending. The budget situation became dire in the recent recession and has yet to pick up.

So, what we see are schools taking some desperate measures to stay afloat fiscally. Some of these measures would be quite comical if they weren’t true. We have found cases where schools have hired marketing firms to sell naming rights to their buildings and facilities, have held fundraising telethons, etc.  We have even found a case where parents held a blood plasma drive in order to make enough money to save a teacher’s job.

Now certainly all schools aren’t this desperate, but they are certainly not flush with cash either.

So, let’s think about it a little more rationally. Why would educators want corporate involvement in schools?

Certainly, financial considerations are important. But there is also a big trend towards narrowing the curriculum to core subjects. Schools are being held accountable for test scores in math and reading.  So their resources are flowing to core subjects. This is putting non-core subjects (music, languages, arts) all at greater risk.

And, since the economy hasn’t been great recently, taxpayers have not been supporting tax increases like they once would.

At the same time, corporations want to be in schools like never before. Young people spend about a fifth of their lives in schools, and schools are about the most uncluttered advertising environment available.  Also, to some extent the medium is the message – an advertising message delivered in schools carries an implied endorsement.

Finally, traditional advertising venues are not working – at least not as well as they used to. Media has fragmented and the way young people use media has fundamentally changed. It is a bit of a mess.

So, companies do a variety of things. They place ads in the schools, on buses, on scoreboards, and on book covers. They distribute product samples in schools and place yearbook ads. They work with textbook publishers to get their products mentioned in books. They sponsor programs like the High School Heisman, Odyssey of the Mind, National Science Bowl, and National Spelling Bee.

And, in what might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, they establish vending machine contracts and pouring rights for soft drink companies. This created such controversy that sugary drinks have been disappearing rapidly from school hallways.

It is easy for the youth marketing industry to look like a villain, but there are some strong arguments that can be made in support of advertising in schools:

  • Companies provide materials and financial support that would not be available otherwise.
  • Commercial materials present an opportunity for teachers to discuss media literacy in their lessons.
  • Teachers are capable of evaluating materials for commercial bias and using materials appropriately.
  • Businesses have unique information and resources that improve education – often better resources on some topics than educator’s have.
  • Problems with marketing in schools have been exaggerated. Commercialism is everywhere today and our kids can handle it, perhaps better than adults.

Of course, there are strong arguments against having a commercial presence in schools:

  • We are ceding control of education to people outside of education, and education is supposed to be locally controlled. Education isn’t and shouldn’t be a business.
  • School marketing efforts can compromise the integrity of education.
  • Ads in schools imply an endorsement from the school, which isn’t accurate.
  • There is a blurring of the line between education and advertising and kids don’t understand the difference, particularly younger kids.
  • Teachers are not appropriate gatekeepers as they have no training in this area.
  • We are promoting materialism.

So, how can youth marketers get on the right side of these issues?

Well, some ways of reaching young people in schools are seen as more appropriate than others. Sponsoring sports competitions, providing loyalty programs that reward schools for gathering product labels, purchasing sports equipment with brand names on them, school book fairs, and advertising in school newspapers tend to all be seen as appropriate tactics to reach children in schools.

Advertising on school buses, advertising on school book covers, and integrating brands into instructional support material and lessons tend to be seen as inappropriate.

So, below is our 6 step guide for organizations who seek to further their brands in a school environment.

  1. First, realize that to date opposition to in-school marketing has effectively positioned youth marketers as the “bad guys.” It doesn’t have to be that way, but the industry is starting from a negative position.
  2. Improve PR:  It is not inconceivable that marketers can be positioned as a “savior” and not a “villain.”  Done right, school marketing provides more than financial support – it can provide educational support as well.
  3. Stop doing the “really dumb” things. Your involvement has to be more than just advertising. It has to further an educational mission at the same time.
  4. Clearly delineate commercial messages – don’t “veil” them in curriculum, place them in contexts that are obvious advertising vehicles.
  5. Show that your involvement makes a difference to an educational need, and not just a financial one. I think most school leaders would agree that this is the essential approach.
  6. Leave curriculum and instruction to the educators, but if your organization has an expertise that is relevant to the curriculum, offer it!

Remember, school leaders have to choose their battles. Your in-school marketing can be something they trumpet, not something they have to defend.

The Arbiters of Cool

Why has the consumer culture in the US become so youth-obsessed?

Why has the word “coveted” become inextricably attached to the words “18-34 year olds” among media planners and buyers? After all, it doesn’t take much more than a quick Google search to discover that older demographic segments spend much, much more.

We’ve grappled with these questions for quite some time. As a firm that conducts a lot of research among youth and on youth topics, we’ve certainly benefited from the nation’s obsession with youth.

Young people do have a lot of money to spend. Depending on whose projections you want to trust, teens spend somewhere between $150 and $200 Billion a year. That might sound like a lot, but when you look under the hood a bit you will find that the bulk of that spending power is concentrated at the upper end of that age range. Today’s teens certainly have more money to spend than their counterparts did a generation or two ago, but that spending level seems minor in comparison to what older age segments are spending.

The real answer as to why the media and marketing world is so centered on youth is INFLUENCE. Young people’s influence on the spending of adults is somewhere between 5 and 10 times their direct spending. Parents feel good when they are spending money on their children (and this type of spending is more immune to the business cycle than other types). Older people feel good when they buy products that have passed a “youth cool test.” Young consumers have become the arbiters of what is cool, and adults want to jump on board.

Most children’s first words are ‘Mama’ or ‘Daddy.’ My kid’s first words were: ‘Do I have to use my own money?’ — Erma Bombeck

Another reason you see so many ads targeted to teens and college kids is that adults “aspire backwards.” Below is a chart that runs from age 8 to 75. The question asked respondents, “regardless of your current age, if you could be any age at all, what age would you want to be?”

agegraph

The chart shows that up until about age 20, most people aspire to be older than they currently are. That is well known in youth marketing – so to attract say, a 12 year old, you put teenagers in the ads. It appears that in your 20’s and 30’s you are roughly happy with the age you are, but the moment you hit 40 you start to wish you were younger. Mid-life crisis anyone?

Finally, just as kittens become cats and puppies become dogs, young consumers become adults. Brand preferences can begin quite young, and a lifetime payoff can be substantial. By way of example, most US adults have a brand preference for Coke over Pepsi or Pepsi over Coke. Most will also drink the other brand if their preferred brand is not available. But, when faced with a choice of both, adults tend to show a brand preference that does not change over their lifetime. When is that brand preference formed? Early – likely by middle school. The lifetime value of establishing this preference early is huge, which explains why both brands continually race each other for the youth market.

So, youth are a substantial market, have an influence many times their size, and eventually become adult consumers. All the ingredients for a youth obsessed culture are in place.

I was recently reading an article that discussed how in China, the population reveres it older members. Evidently it is the law in China that you have to look after your parents in their old age, and there have been cases of elderly parents successfully suing their children for lack of support. Revering the old is not just cultural, it is mandated by the government. Our youth-obsession is a western-dominated concept, and one you don’t see in less consumer oriented areas of the word.

Time is Money; Money is Time

The most interesting call I ever received as a result of a poll we conducted was from a college student. We had released a data point demonstrating that college students have an enormous amount of uncommitted, free time — 8.5 hours a day on average to be precise. We defined discretionary time as time students are not sleeping, going to class, studying, working out, commuting, or working at a paid job. What is left is time that is up to the student how to use.

The college student called to tell me how this data point must be wrong, because all the college students she knew were incredibly busy. After mentioning that she must be hanging with a different crowd of people than I hung with in college, I told her to call me back in 10 years when she had a career, a spouse, a couple of kids, and a house to maintain. I suggested it is likely a matter of perspective and how you view your discretionary time, and that perhaps time that she considers “obligations” our researcher’s eyes classify as discretionary.

In the context of many decisions we make, we trade off the concepts of “time” and “money.” In the short-run, both are fixed commodities. In the long run, our financial situation may change for better or worse and our concept of time may change even though each day remains at 24 hours.

Our discretionary income follows a well-known path in our lifetime. It starts at zero when we are born, grows to a modest level as teenagers, tends to level off through the college years, grows considerably in our working years, and then falls off in retirement.

Discretionary time follows a different pattern. It starts out very high, moderates in the school years, grows considerably in the college years, and then pretty much falls off a cliff as individuals are raising their own families and building their careers. Discretionary time then moves upwards during the empty-nester time frame, and then is maximized in retirement. Note that we define discretionary time as “uncommitted” time – time that you get to choose how to spend.

The graph below illustrates how time and money progress over our lifetimes.

Time and Money

The interesting part of this for marketers is that “time” and “money” are often used to “buy” each other. We can buy more discretionary time by outsourcing aspects of our lives. I don’t change my own oil, plow my own driveway, or iron my own shirts. In all these cases, I value the time saved by not having to do these things more than the money it cost to outsource them.

This relationship goes the other way as well. We can use “time” to save “money.” I’ll sometimes spend hours on the Internet to find the best price for a flight or a hotel room. I’ll drive an extra 15 minutes to a grocery store because something I like is on sale there and not at the store closer to my home.

Look again at the graph above. The most interesting life stages are the ones where there is a big gap between the time and money lines. An obvious place where this happens is the college years. This is a time frame when consumers have relatively little discretionary income, but relatively high discretionary time. This concept is why for years we have been saying that college students are pretty much the most savvy consumer group out there. They are smart (hey – they are in college!), highly connected with each other, necessarily frugal with their funds, and have enormous amounts of time to research products and prices. But, they are more than cheap customers who have a lot of time to find the best price. They emerge as adult consumers, and lifelong associations with brands often start in the college years.

Another interesting point on the graph is at mid-career (30’s-40’s). This is the point where there is the largest gap between discretionary income and discretionary time. So, this is the life stage where we most see consumers trading money for time. Price sensitivity tends to be at its lowest during this time frame.

Money is time. With money I buy for cheerful use the hours which otherwise would not in any sense be mine. — George Gissing


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