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A new brand order driven by youth

Last year, futurist Faith Popcorn introduced the idea of ‘Liquid Brands': brands that respond to increasingly capricious consumers.
A new brand order driven by youth“These brands constantly reinvent themselves because modern consumers demand it. The power and the pace have both changed, and it's a radically different construct in brand management, replacing elements like ‘constancy,' ‘reliability,' and ‘dependability'” she says.

Internationally, marketers have already sited this trend. “Generation Y doesn't wait for permission to morph a brand,” states Dave Knox of Procter & Gamble. “The youth market are constantly seeking ways to have their voices heard and put their stamp of self-expression on products.”

But are we seeing the trend emerging in the South African market? Well, in pockets, it seems we are. And like many trends, kids are doing it first.

One of the organisations seeing the change is HDI Youth Marketeers - a specialist youth marketing company working with young South Africans aged from eight to 23.

“Youth the world over are less and less influenced by advertising. They see its entertainment value, but only on their terms and at their chosen times. So when it comes to bombarding them with more ad material, conventional strategies just don't work like they used to. And this is not only because of tech filters like PVR, but because of young peoples' own built in filtering systems” says HDI Youth Marketeers MD, Jason Levin.

A trend towards ‘narrowcast' dialogue rather than broadcast monologue is echoed in a Forrester research report published in February this year identifying a shift in approach from what is referred to as “outmoded linear media planning” to one that is nonlinear and understands the networked nature of modern communication.

Studies like the annual Generation Next Survey show us just how connected South African urban youth are. And those connections extend well beyond their peers in the playground. They're constantly plugged in: through their cellphones, interactive satellite options, MXit networks, internet connections, Podcasts and their almost rabid use of social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. All of which reduce the time and attention they have and want to dedicate to old-school advertising.

The end of the TV ad?
“The sexiness and entertainment value delivered by brands and brand communication remain compelling, but it's not necessarily achieved by a 30-second TV commercial anymore,” says Levin.
So, where does this leave the marketer? In categories, like FMCG, the window is closing not only through consumer behaviour, but by the iron fist of regulation.

October 2007 saw our Minister of Health join an international effort to curb rising levels of child obesity, by gazetting draft legislation dictating the labelling of food products, and severely restricting advertising of foodstuffs intended for children. This puts the likes of fast food chains and confectioners in a tight spot. On the one hand their market is less sensitized to their advertising and on the other, government is clamping down on their ability to do so at all.
It seems a change in the power dynamic between the lawmakers, brands and their consumers is imminent. And if advertising is being both muzzled and sidestepped, how are brands going to engage consumers?

“Increasingly marketing will be about plugging loved and trusted brands into self-created communities by consent or invitation,” predicts Levin. “We're already seeing it with branded utility offerings like Blyk: the UK's free mobile network for 16-24 year olds funded by their chosen advertisers”.

This implies a fundamental shift in control from brands to their historic audiences as the latter become active marketing ‘hosts' rather than passive recipients. “It may be a while off as far as the market overall is concerned, but youth are ahead of the curve, and they're all for self-generated content and brand-participation-by-request-only,” says Levin.

Marketers: subversive or submissive?
So are marketers such a subversive bunch that they deserve such a drubbing? “Sure, there's ill-intentioned marketing, but,” suggests Levin, “good marketing normally comes from a good place. And either through the mechanisms available to their competitors; through industry and consumer bodies; or through the selection mechanisms of even pre-teen children, marketers trying to dupe youth are pretty transparent.”

In Brandweek, MTV executive Rahda Subramanyam concurs: “This generation is highly aware not just of brands but of marketing strategies. Overt marketing strategies are not going to work.”
And it seems there are also some marketing companies that make it possible to give brands an edge without plundering anyone, most especially children, to do so.

“Companies like ours have built a reputation with marketers and credibility with children by acting with integrity towards both,” says HDI Youth Marketeers' CEO, Liesl Loubser. “I started this business 12 years ago because I love children. And although the youth landscape has changed almost beyond recognition since then, that never has. Doing right by the youth has been the secret to Hotdogz Inc.'s and now HDI Youth Marketeers' extended success.”

In order to understand the fast-changing dynamics of youth culture and the kind of consumer behaviour trends discussed here though, one needs to keep up to speed with what's happening on the ground. And apart from two large, annual preference and perception studies, HDI Youth Marketeers does this through platforms like its Junior Board of Directors (JBoD): three hand-picked groups of outspoken, opinion-leading, trend-setting kids, teens and young adults chosen as counsel on HDI corporate matters. They also provide insight to HDI Youth Marketeers' clients to help them develop products and communication that deliver to demand.

“And other platforms like Star-in-U, Pick ‘n Pay School Club, Youth Consumer Board, are all programmes designed to allow brands to interact with youth only by agreement of those constituencies they serve and for the mutual benefit of both,” says Levin.

And it so seems we are seeing the beginnings of a new brand order. With young South Africans leading the consumer power parade.

22 Apr 2008 15:11