Keeping track of youth style was never easy, but now researchers are tackling it with new precision.
How do you give your product youth appeal?
Not so long ago, many marketers seemed to believe that the way to win over the group once known as 'Generation X' was an ad campaign that simply surfed the crest of the latest pop culture wave.
Book some slots coinciding with the latest trendy music show, surround your soft drink/shampoo/snack food with kids wearing the latest surf-meets-clubland accessories, wrap it up with groovy graphics and colours, add a frantic dance groove with a streetwise sounding voice-over and sit back to wait for the sales boom.
Campaigns such as last year's screaming techno revamp of Wall's Cornetto show that the approach still has its devotees. But Justin Gibbons, a researcher at Verve, the youth consultancy arm of The Research Business, believes that such glibness won't cut much ice with the kids. "They hate advertisers who jump on the fashionable bandwagon," claims Gibbons. "It's a constant complaint in our ad testing groups. In Cornetto's case it's too obvious and it undermines the integrity of the brand."
Gibbons's Verve colleague, Julia Lloyd-Jones, agrees. "Bandwagoning", she believes, is the product of an ingrained conservatism that is out of tune with the Zeitgeist. "Marketers want the security that comes from putting youth in a box so that you can target 85% of them in one go," she maintains. "But there aren't any straightforward answers any more."
In fact, says Lloyd-Jones, Verve's own studies suggest that the most striking trend of today's youth culture is its fragmentation. In the early 1990s, Radio 1, long the trendsetter in music and popular culture for Britain's young people, saw its dominance overturned by a revolution sparked by the emergence of underground rave culture.
Since then, the cosy certainties of the 70s and 80s, when you could count on British youth buying into everything from glare rock to new romanticism, have given way to a 'supermarket of style' in which kids pick and mix from an infinitely diverse cultural shopping list.
"Today's youth are doing their own thing," claims Lloyd-Jones. "They write their own rules, to listen to Bach one day and Jungle the next, to dress flower power at one party and Calvin Klein at another."
The break-up of the old consensus has made youth research and marketing an infinitely trickier business than it once seemed. Verve's quest to find young opinion-formers and to turn up clues about their tastes and values has led them away from quantitative research models toward a more anecdotal approach.
Verve argues that more subtlety is required than that provided by reams of figures which imply that today's youth is one homogeneous mass. "It's not about coming up with fads and trying to fit people into them," says Lloyd-Jones.
Her view is shared by Daniel Dumoulin, managing director of the qualitative department at Research International, which has completed its own global study of youth as part of its Rio series.
Dumoulin is also adding a more 'anthropological' string to his research bow. Like the Verve researchers, he believes 'accompanied' clubbing and shopping trips in the company of young people provide deeper insights into their real attitudes and motivations. "Researchers can't take a position as a sort of scientist anymore," he admits. "You have to be more involved and prepared to add new techniques."
Not that the reassuring statistics of quantitative youth research are ever likely be consigned to the dustbin, as Scan Kelleher, new business development manager at Channel 4, emphasises.
Kelleher is Channel 4's man in a consortium of seven media companies, including The Guardian, Emap and Kiss FM, which commissioned Roar, an in-depth study of the lifestyles of over 1000 15- to 24-year-olds that began in 1995 "to provide marketers with the best of both qualitative and quantitative worlds", he says. …