The Ripple Effect Reaches Gen Y

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"Marketers should think of the youth market like the fashion industry," says Jonathan Cropper, vice president of iCast, the entertainment media arm of CMGI, a leading Internet investment company. "The fashion industry has to reinvent itself nearly every six months to keep up with the latest trends. Youth marketers need to embrace that type of fast change."

Marketers who do so will tap a huge market. Now 70 million strong and ranging from 5-to-22-years-old, Gen Y is the first generation raised in the brand era and has become a critical consumer group: According to Teenage Research Unlimited, teens alone spent $94 billion of their own money last year, $10 billion more than in 1997.

How can companies reach these mercurial consumers? Connecting with trendsetters like athletes and entertainment celebrities should be a priority for marketers because they have the power to influence others, Cropper told the crowd at "The Echo Boom Comes of Age" session during American Demographics' Consumer 2000 conference in Chicago in September. "If you can get those people talking about your product, there's going to be a ripple effect," he said.

Journalists are a second ring of influencers: "Positive editorial coverage is more relevant than important advertising copy," he advised. The third group is early adopters - consumers, often living in urban areas, who are ahead of the trends. In general, trend-setting consumers want to feel like they are decoding something that nobody else knows about. "Blatant and obvious means nothing to them," Cropper said.

Developing a sense of intrigue was the marketing strategy behind Minus Man, a movie released nationally in September from The Shooting Gallery, an independent film company best known for producing the award-winning Sling Blade. "We didn't have $30 million to tell people our story," said Paul Speaker, president of The Shooting Gallery and another conference panelist. "We needed to brand the film."

Given that its target market - 17-to-22-year-olds - is difficult to reach, the company developed a teaser advertising campaign with agency Cliff Freeman & Partners to spread the word about the film. And the more mysterious, the better. With the tagline, "The Minus Man. Conversation usually follows," posters, print, and Web ads urged prospective moviegoers to bring someone else along: "Don't see it alone. Unless you like talking to yourself." Early posters didn't include typical promo copy like "Coming to theaters soon."

Tracking research indicated the strategy was working. Four weeks before the movie opened, Minus Man commanded a 65 percent recognition rate, Speaker said.

The trailer for the movie was handled in a similar fashion: It set up a scenario with an unclear ending, which in turn invited even more possible scenarios. The company used infrared cameras in one theater to capture people's reactions to the spot. "Seventy-five percent of the crowd understood what they saw and were busy explaining it to the other 25 percent," Speaker said. Nine out of ten moviegoers leaving the theater that night remembered the title of the film, he adds. But word of mouth can be a double-edged sword. Despite the strong marketing push, Minus Man garnered mixed reviews when it opened in 28 theaters at the end of September. At press time, gross box office receipts topped just $164,000.

Still, Cropper says, whether they're selling a movie or a pair of jeans, youth marketers must remember to stick to their brand's core identity. "Getting your product into the mall isn't necessarily bad, as long as it's still credible on the street," he concludes. "Without core values, you're lost."

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