MARKET RESEARCH: Cracking the youth market - To succeed in targeting the young, marketers need to research them in their own environments and on their own terms

Researchers of the youth market have long been shackled by the perception that it is a particularly tough sector to crack. Now, however, there are some with the view that 16- to 24-year-olds are no more difficult to research than their parents, and that the excuses of rapidly changing trends and a mistrust of brands are generated through a reluctance to get under the skin of young people and the way they live.

"Marketing's traditional angle is that young people are hard to talk to and can see through advertising strategies, but they are much more accepting of brands than has otherwise been shown,

claims Toby Newall, associate director of research company RDSi's ongoing youth project Youth2.

Simon Scholl, planning and development director at design agency Siebert Head, which researches the youth market for clients, agrees that young people are not the problematic sector they are made out to be. "Modern companies are not set up to understand them. Yes, they're acutely aware of peer opinion, but so are 30-year-old men with sports cars,

he says.

But the fact that young people are interested in trends and brands is undeniable. Youth2's latest research, published last September following 200 telephone interviews and friendship groups, reveals 17- to 25-year-olds' taste in brands. Their spontaneous choices were Nike, Adidas, Reebok, Sony and Top Shop for the most popular names, but when prompted, these came out as Nokia, Levi's, Nike, Calvin Klein and McDonald's.

The research also showed that 88% said they like to try out new brands, 79% are interested in what is trendy and 72% say they try out new places rather than go where everybody goes all the time. Seventy-five per cent of the age group want to work in a job they really enjoy, 73% never want to be unemployed, 70% want to go out and really have fun, while only 38% said they want to help improve society.

The key to understanding how best to target this trend-conscious group is in understanding how their lifestyles have changed, and how they communicate among their peers.

Realistic environments

The boundaries between generations have blurred. "There has been a shift from a youth culture that's opposed to everything, to having one with values embraced by everyone,

says Ian Pierporant, head of research agency Vegas.

And in homes, the way families interact has altered over the past ten years. "Now that most children have a TV, video and games console in their bedrooms, families are living together separately. Marketers have to understand that youths now lead much more isolated lives,

says Scholl.

"Young people are not a generation of protesters, as frequently portrayed by the media,

says Newall. "But they are a generation of shoppers - and they're shopping harder than ever."

And, as their purchase power increases, their awareness of their relationship with brands is heightened. "Young people understand they're in control, and appreciate that brands exist to meet their needs. As a result, they find it hilarious when they're asked to sit in groups with a marketer hiding behind a mirror. They respond much better to being treated as brand experts,

says Pierporant.

Paul McGowan, global managing partner of brand consultancy Added Value, argues that the secret to researching the market is in picking the right young people to talk to. "We've spent a lot of time and money finding art, photography, media and product design students from some of the most challenging schools and colleges in key European cities. Since gaining access to them we've learned so much more,

he says.

Another way of tapping into the market is to conduct research amongst peer groups in a realistic environment, rather than putting them in a sterile room with strangers. Added Value goes to clubs, bars, art studios and skate parks to talk to its subjects.

Pierporant adds: "Young people prefer to be talked to with groups of friends in a pub or at home. And if clients become part of the process by sitting with them and asking questions, they can then become spokespeople for that generation - but only when they've had a reality check from talking face to face with 16-year-olds."

That's not to say that group work can't be effective. Opinion Leader Research recently carried out a study on nine- to 19-year-old girls' attitudes to citizenship. The research was conducted over the course of a day, and comprised discussions with 100 girls in one location.

Senior research executive Caroline Davey says it was still crucial to talk to the girls in their own language in order to make them feel comfortable enough to give honest results.

"Talking to 100 girls at once was a real challenge. We structured the day around different exercises, but always approached them on their terms by attacking a topic from a level they could relate to,

she says.

"We didn't want it to sound like we were talking about complex issues, even though we were.

The research dealt with issues including school, exams, peer pressure, racism and families, and will be presented at the Market Research Society's Research 2002 conference (see box).

Loyalty reward

While some of the traditional methods still work well, another way of tapping into the youth market has been created by Spaceandpeople, a research agency that gathers consumer information from shopping centres. "We decided that a shopping centre on a Saturday afternoon was a tremendous resource of information, especially of teenagers,

says joint managing director Matthew Bending. "Agencies need to get an idea of consumers that's based in reality, and the best way of doing that is talking to young people when they want to be spoken to."

Once marketers understand how to target the youth market, it is then crucial for them to understand how often they need to speak to young people in order to keep up with their tastes. "You have to think of creating an ongoing dialogue with them,

says Newall. "This can easily be done by reading youth press and watching TV."

Pierporant claims Vegas keeps up to date with the youth market by employing young people who are able to pick up youth trends, as well as running an ongoing research programme called Project Edge.

When the youth market is accessed in the right way, the reward for a brand can be great in terms of loyalty. But, as Damian Mould, chief executive of youth marketing agency Slice says: "Marketers have to become a part of the market, rather than be seen as an awkward body trying to glean what tastes, looks or sounds good to them."

MARKET RESEARCH SOCIETY

When: March 20 to 22

Where: The Hilton Brighton Metropole

Contact: 020 7490 4911 or visit: www.mrs.org.uk or e-mail: conference@mrs.org.uk.

Theme: Insight to Action. The event will focus on providing greater value for research spend. As a result, the market research industry needs to provide consumer insight with clear implications for marketing activity.

Conference Programme: Over the three days, the event will cover sectors including 21st Century Woman, Consumer Consciousness, Youth, Re-inventing the Market and Professional Development. The keynote addresses will be made by Lord Hollick, chief executive of United Business Media on day one, by Peter Kenyon, Manchester Utd chief executive on day two and MT Rainey, of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R on day three.

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