Rethinking youth marketing

Reading Time: 2 minutes

I was speaking with a former colleague who now works for a major marketing combine. We were talking about future trends and how organisations are coping with them when he came out with “I have been told that we can’t do strategy anymore we need to get gen-y to do it“.


Some things struck me about this:

  • Yes its good to try and better understand young consumers, especially if you are chasing the lifetime spend. Insights are great and there are number of great people out there who can help you get that understanding
  • Generation-y in many ways aren’t that different to generation-x at that age, its just that until the great recession they haven’t really known hardship. Who doesn’t want work-life balance, authenticity etc? Look at Bill Hewlett and David Packard’s HP Way which they had coalesced by the 1950s yet spells out the tenets of being a great gen-y employer
  • Whilst generation-y have grown up with digital, that doesn’t mean that they get digital in a more meaningful way compared to migrants. From my experience there seems to be a normal distribution of skills, expertise and smarts
  • Is generation-y, generation-y? Would the young people who fit into the category of gen-y? Probably not, like their predecessors in generation-x they probably identify with a number of tribes and have a fluid identity within and between these tribes
  • Has strategy changed? I still rely on tenets and prinicples laid out by Sun Tzu almost 3,000 years ago. The implication that strategy has fundamentally changed reminded me of the spiel I used to hear from clients circa 1999 – 2000. This is probably what I find most disturbing about the above statement

The fetishisation of generation-y reminds me of the way many companies have become paralysed without the intervention and thinking of management consultancies. It is not like these companies don’t know the answers – it is either an inability of the management to think coherently or a fear of their decisions. Contrast this with the attitude of the successful companies: do you think that Steve Jobs needed generation-y consultants?

A favourite story of mine comes from Andy Grove of Intel managing to break the ‘crack cocaine’ over dependency on consultants. When they were faced with a challenging market environment and intense Japanese competition Grove asked the board, what did they think that high-priced consultants would advise them to do?

Intel got out of the hard-fought memory business, focused on micro-processors, went on to be spectacularly successful, in the process annoying the hell out of everyone with their pioneering use of audio branding.

We need to think also about what youth now means. Since it is a state-of-mind rather than an age-bound demographic:

  • Skateboarding and surfing hipsters (Tony Hawk, Shawn Stüssy)
  • Middle-aged music fans going to up and coming music concerts
  • Veteran cyclists (like Rapha aficionados)

Marketers need to challenge thinking, run a meritocracy (a la David Packard & Bill Hewlett circa 1960) to utilise the best ideas that anybody including younger colleagues can bring to the table and leave their preconceptions at the door. But that doesn’t mean that strategy is left up to the intern.