Why are Brands Obsessed with Youth (and why should we all be)?

What is youth? Why does it matter to marketers? The following article addresses both of these questions, and in doing so, will provide an introduction to some of the strategic brand thinking we do at Tangible Worldwide. This discussion is not about marketing to young people. Quite the contrary, we are exploring why so many brands targeted at adults consistently draw upon elements of youth to present their brands.

So let us begin by considering what makes youth so appealing to adults. Why does youth have such a tremendous emotional appeal to all human beings? We are naturally drawn to babies or toddlers and even adolescents. We obviously love the real thing, but we are also drawn to images of youth, and are fundamentally moved by what we perceive youth represents. I believe there are five fundamental reasons why we are attracted to the image and reality of youth. These are:
  1. The innocence of youth – also known as naiveté; the lack of sin; the curiosity and inquisitiveness of the young
  2. Vitality and health – there is a virility and strength that comes with youth; there is also the natural competitiveness in play and sport and the classroom
  3. Relevance – popular culture is generated by youth, and youth amplifies trends.
  4. Rebelliousness – this generally takes the form of “stick it to the man” and there is also the bad boy element
  5. The desire to protect the young and everything for which it stands.
Yes, it is true, there are also painful memories and associations from growing up – being teased or bullied is never pleasant; being rejected by the first person you found attractive; or going through that awkward stage where you felt like you never fit in. But it is because we hope for the better outcome that we look past those negatives and focus on the positives; or at least marketers do.
Great brands, and the very best agencies working to build brands, love to focus upon youth BECAUSE THESE FIVE ELEMENTS POWERFULLY EVOKE EMOTION. They are the basis for great story-telling. These key elements are found in every cultures myths, histories and religions. As we shall see, focusing upon youth is a major reason behind what make brands powerful and what make work great.

Innocence and Youth
One of the most interesting parts of being young, and the feature most adults find endearing in youth is naiveté. Youth exhibits an honesty and innocence which touches most people. We expect for the young to be sheltered from life’s uglier truths – primarily sin, and mortality in particular. We find the association of innocence and youth in Hinduism, Buddhism and Judeo-Christian stories. For example, when we read the list of seven deadly sins – Gluttony, Sloth, Lust, Greed, Wraith, Coveting, and Vanity – we do not associate them with youth. But neither do we associate youth with the pretentiousness of the Cardinal Virtues. With a general lack of awareness of the “evil that men do,” comes an aura which once observed , makes us reflect on the very best a human being can be. When a child asks a question like, “will Fido go to dog heaven?” or they say “let me kiss that boo boo to make it better,” we all know that it is from a natural and pure love born of naiveté.

We also enjoy the curiosity of youth because it is both playful and naïve. There is honesty in the questioning of children, even to adolescence. As adults, we admire the courage of asking a question. While children are oftentimes called “clean slates,” it is not that they do not know an answer; it is that they have the trust and the courage to ask questions without the taint of age and experience. They do not know what it is like to be embarrassed.
It is the innocence of youth which forms the foundation of some great communications platforms. On the one hand, there are those moments that elicit from the viewer “aaahhhh” with a deep sigh. We see a child gently kiss another child on the cheek after the first receives a candy from the 2nd and we all get that feeling. But it does not have to be a communications platform which shows children. When Prudential shows people doing a “good turn” and inspiring other to do the same, Prudential moves us in a similar way.

The Vitality and Health of Youth
Another key element of youth is health. We expect that younger people are more fit, have more stamina, and desire to compete to distinguish themselves among their peers. This vitality and virility is again one of the mainstays of many advertising and communications programs. As Bob Hill, creator of Fox Sports once said, “Every man views himself in the mirror as being 21. Those under 21 want to be that age so they can drink and get girls and every man over 21 wish to return to that age to be free and get girls.” Some of our fascination with youth is that young people play. As we grow older, we don’t go to the playground and swing nor climb on the jungle gym. And to be honest, we miss that vitality; that plain and simple joy. We see the faces of young people when they chase a dog or a kite, and we remember how that felt. We see a toddler laugh as she pops bubbles blown by a parent, and we long for that discovery. We see two teenagers holding hands for the first time and we remember how it felt when we were that age. We also remember when we had the energy to take up a cause and to fight for what we thought was right rather than just go along for the ride.

Marketers use youthful images to convey this energy, this joy, this power and this spirit in many campaign ideas. It is in the use of color and light. It is in the use of movement, including dance. Most carbonated beverages, whether Coke, Pepsi, Sprite or Mountain Dew, all play upon the joy and vitality of youth in their marketing campaigns. Even Nike’s emphasis on “just do it” is about effort. Indeed, it is a competition against laziness, and it is a competition to do one’s best, not necessarily beat others.

The auto category is especially fond of youthful vitality. Mazda’s Zoom Zoom campaign launched with the image and voice of a young boy for this reason. When Toyota noticed that its average owner age was increasing by more than 1 year each year, it knew it needed to appeal to younger people. It launched the Scion with a campaign focused upon hip hop music, street dance and raves. While Scion’s demographic is younger than Toyota’s, in the end, they still have an average over 35. It seems that middle age people want to be perceived as young too.

Being Relevant to Popular Culture is Defined by Youth
As a quick precursor, I define popular culture as a blend of music, entertainment, technology, sports and fashion. In each of these areas, youth play a critical role.
  1. Music – when we think of music, we think of youth. The charts are defined by the sales of music to young people. Hip Hop, Rap, Electronica, Dance, Alternative and Emo are all modern genres from the youth of the last 20th and early 21st century. Having been to Sasquatch and Bumbershoot for the past few years, trust me, the mosh pit is not populated by 50 somethings. Just as video killed the radio star; YouTube killed the video star, sings MGMT. Adults are not trolling YouTube for the latest music video, young people are. And they discuss it, and define what is in and what is out. Adults look to the young to decide whether today’s music is even possibly relevant. The good news is that most of us grew up with rock and roll, and therefore we can hear the Ramones in Green Day, and the Talking Heads in Modest Mouse, and David Bowie in Arcade Fire. This is also a reason by music is so prevalent in all marketing campaigns. It not only sets a tone, it demonstrates relevance.
  2. Entertainment – this is less clear, because it is true that youth does not make Crazy Heart an Oscar winner nor a blockbuster, but Disney and DreamWorks make their living on the very young. More towards adolescence, Reality television shows like the Hills, Jersey Shore or Nickelodeon bring shows which both reflect and guide (much to the horror of parents) the norms for behavior for young people.
  3. Technology – young people don’t wear watches because they use their cellular phones to tell time. Young people do not have CDs because all of their music in on iPods and their PC. Young people use Wikipedia for homework, and the web broadly for all research. Young people used texts and tweets first. Young people adopt touch screens without the baggage of past experiences. Young people are the beta test users of nearly everything new.
  4. Sports – people love the games they play, and when they cannot play them anymore, they watch them. So goes the development of soccer, football, baseball, basketball, and hockey; collectively known as the “Big 5.” Yes, women and men can play golf and can ski more or less their entire lives, but only with Tiger Woods (who doesn’t seem that youthful anymore) has golf become cool, and it is Shaun White, a snowboarder not a skier that has made the winter sport hip. We love to see new stars emerge. We love their stories because they are fresh and because a “new star” means that there is a process of renewal that fulfills our need for faith in immortality. When we see a young star like LeBron or Reggie Bush or Tiger or Shaun White, we begin to dress and act like them. Moreover, they tend to become spokespeople for all kinds of products and services.
  5. Fashion – Granted, young people don’t define the garb on the cat walk, but they are the reason why tattoos and body piercing has moved from bikers to the mainstream. Young people mix and match, and quite frankly quickly scale what is “in and out.”
Not only does each of these major categories of popular culture rely upon youth and youthful images, but they are parlayed into the marketing of other products and services. Young people “get it.” They are in touch with what is in and what is out. Because they are going through socialization as teenagers, they guide the greater society into understanding what makes someone acceptable and unacceptable.

It is Apple more than any other brand today, which stands as the definition of what is relevant in popular society. They are not only the way in which cool people should access music and entertainment (and information and communication), but they do it with a design which sets the standard for fashion, and they deliver everything with an elegant interface which sets the bar for technology advancement.

The Rebelliousness of Youth
Perhaps starting with Rebel with a Cause we have consistently accepted that young people need to resist the norms and beliefs of their elders. Age represents society’s Institutions. The reality is that no matter how good we think we have it today, we also see real issues of poverty, crime, inequality and injustice. That means the present state, created and run by adults, needs to be improved. Young people are the catalyst for that change. As the writer Jorge Ortega y Gassett pointed out, young people go through a generation where they explore ideas in order to develop their generation’s beliefs. In turn, those beliefs dominate society until the next generation arises.
In modern marketing and communications campaigns, we see this motif frequently. The underdog fighting against the market leader (most famously portrayed in Apple’s 1984 advertisement) is perhaps the most common use of this youthful image.

This idea of fighting for justice against either a flawed or corrupt system is very powerful. Combined with innocence, and a competitive spirit, we quickly arrive at virtue and heroism. We readily accept young heroes and heroines who overcome older villains. Yes we do have older heroes, but they are nearly always redeeming themselves for past sins. And let’s face it; we all either consciously or unconsciously hope that things will get better. We want someone to make things better, and while we wish to “respect our elders,” we also know that they have had their chance.
We hope that youthful heroines and heroes will save us. This hope for salvation is a metaphor no less powerful that of resurrection or reincarnation. If adults are sinful and sin is death, and youth is sinless, then youth may deliver us from evil and even mortality.

Perhaps the brand most associated with the rebel is Harley Davidson. It is very focused upon youth, even though its average customer’s age is over 45. Many sports brands, especially in the action sports arena, work to have rebelliousness as a centerpiece to their DNA. We see it in brands like Oakley and Billa Bong. In one of the most classic images of the late 20th century, BASF showed a young man in a comfortable chair getting blasted by stereo speakers. This represented both the rebelliousness and vitality of youth.

Protecting our Youth
As the above review suggests, adults hold powerful if not romantic views of youth. The innocence, the vitality, the relevance and even the rebellion (so long as it is just) are all things we wish to protect.
Many brands assume the role of protector or use this story arch as the basis for their brand. Michelin is a protector of families, with a special focus upon mothers and children in their ads. The same can be said of the Coca-Cola “re-visioning” of the Grand Theft Auto story where in a world with Coke, the protagonist does only good deeds. Staying with videogames, in our work for Gears of War, we specifically set up that the war being waged was to protect all that was innocent and good

In Financial Services, we have two interesting examples of using youth to market. ETrade uses talking babies to convey that their system is easy to use. Fidelity, on the other hand, wants to show adults (with a green path) the way to financial security, and references protecting assets for both the children’s and grandchildren’s future. But perhaps the best example we have of protecting what is right is the quirky reverse psychology of the Ally Bank campaign. In it, an adult male mistreats and deceives children (stealing their Easter eggs, denying them ice cream, keeping them from playing with toys). The slogan, “Even kids know when something is wrong” is a literal application of this underlying concept of protecting the young.

Brand and Communications Strategy: Why Youth Matters

As we have seen, there are five basic reasons why people are powerfully moved by the images of youth – our attraction to its innocence, our desire for its vitality and energy, our belief that the young define popular culture, our respect for youth’s rebelliousness, and our need to try and protect all of these things from being lost. Each of these elements powerfully evokes emotions when marketers use them in creating great brands and telling stories about those brands. The creative execution can be consistently excellent when given this archetype and definition.

As a wise man once told me, "great brand marketing is telling the same story over and over, and never telling it the same way twice." This is especially true in the realm of youth marketing.


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