Tribes, youth marketing and Japan

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I thought I would flag up a couple of articles on youth culture and spending power. First up is the FT’s article on Japan, my initial thoughts on this was that it is deemed ok for men to be collectors of watches, model trains sets, art, records etc in the west, with the weekend edition of the FT having details about the markets for different collectibles. But with Japanese young people it is alluded to early on in the article as a fetish.

The targeting of Japan’s young tribes

By Mariko Sanchanta Published: October 14 2004 03:00 Last updated: October 14 2004 03:00

Yayoi, a 24-year-old who works in an office at a Japanese company, is obsessed with stars. In a homemade video, she shows off her star candles, a star barrette and even an ear cleaner adorned with a star charm. “Stars make me feel happy, because I feel as though their radiance is somehow transferred to me,” she says earnestly to the camera. And then: “When it comes to stars, money is no object.” Some might say Yayoi’s star fetish borders on monomania, but in Japan there is a name for such a product fanatic: otaku. Increasingly, these individuals are regarded as a normal – if not necessary – component of Japan’s cultural fabric.

Advertisers and marketers are waking up to the swathes of young people in Japan who belong to “tribes” or subcultures and have a great deal of money to spend on items they feel help define their lifestyle. “Fourteen years ago when I started giving presentations about otaku, it was written up at that time in the Japanese press as possibly the greatest threat to society ever known,” says David McCaughan, director of strategic planning at McCann-Erickson in Tokyo. “These were weird, obsessed kids who spent hours each day researching one subject on their computers. Well, we now call that normal.”

McCann-Erickson, the global advertising giant, has launched a specialist communications service called Tag Tokyo. The Tag format was first established by McCann in New York last year, and targets the youth market of 18-28-year-olds. “It’s not easy to understand today’s complex youth only through regular group interviews,” says Yutaka Tsuda, a twenty-something Tag Tokyo strategic planner with coiffed hair and baggy clothes, part of the 10-strong Tokyo Tag team.”Tsuda-san used to look just like me before he joined Tag,” says the suit-wearing Mr McCaughan.

Tag Tokyo gathers market data on young people using innovative tools that are unusual in Japan. Yayoi, the star-infatuated young woman, was videoed via a Tag tool called “Everybody is Ken Burns”, after the documentary film-maker. They hand video cameras to “targets”, who then make an uncensored video of his or her life.

Other tools include “Snap n Send”, where data is collected by sending questions via a mobile phone equipped with a camera, and collecting the answers – often as a hybrid of text and photos.

Japan has become a hotbed for youth trends that influence pop culture and young people throughout the world. In addition, there have been important structural shifts in the youth market, says McCann-Erickson.

“We recognised that youth culture in Japan had come to a point where it had changed so much. The market has become more fractionalised,” says Mr McCaughan. A recession in Japan lasting more than a decade has been the catalyst for much of the change and segmentation in the youth market, say industry observers. The bursting of Japan’s asset bubble and subsequent breakdown of the lifetime employment system has given rise to a category of young adults dubbed freeters in the media.

Freeters may or may not have attended college but they do hold down a number of part-time jobs while pursuing their dreams – whether as a guitarist in a punk band or studying to be a beautician. “Niche consumption patterns have emerged in the Japanese market,” says Futaba Tanaka, a chief researcher at Hakuhodo, a leading Japanese advertising agency, and author of the book Live Marketing.

“A decade ago, young people coveted the same things. But now, the Japanese have more sophisticated patterns of collecting information, such as PCs and mobile phones. This provides the basic infrastructure by which one can gather information and pinpoint what they want.” Indeed, many observers say the young Japanese may be the most sophisticated in the world when it comes to quickly cataloguing their items of desire, whether it be by researching on a computer or by flicking through the myriad magazines at their local convenience store.

“The editing capability of Japanese youth is phenomenal,” says Junko Yuasa, an expert on youth marketing in the cosmetics product development unit at Shiseido, Japan’s leading cosmetics company. “Japanese women are not particularly creative, but they’re excellent at editing, or creating a look from seemingly disparate pieces or styles.” Shiseido last year launched a new cosmetics line, Majolica Majorca, which caters to women in the 19-24 age bracket.

Most advertisers are focusing less on teenagers and more on those in their early 20s: young, single people who are working. According to the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living, the research arm of the advertising agency, in 2002 men aged 15-19 had Y15,940 (£81) to spend freely, while those in their 20s had an average of Y51,370. In comparison, women aged 15-19 had Y16,600 in disposable income, and those in their 20s had Y38,300. “It’s our intention to capture those who are making money,” says Ms Yuasa.

Another change that has slowly gained momentum in Japan is a declining fixation on US-branded products, and the west in general.

“From the post-war era to the end of the bubble, Japanese youth have long been transfixed on overseas goods,” says Ms Tanaka from Hakuhodo. “But with the rise of J-pop [Japanese pop music] and Japanese street fashion, people are waking up to the quality and coolness of domestic goods.”

With the country’s population growth falling (the average number of children a woman will have dropped to a record low of 1.29 in 2003), many agencies are strengthening their market research on the “silver market”.

Dentsu, Japan’s leading adverting agency, established a “50+ project” in 2001, which gathered marketing, media planning and media buying experts to study the senior consumer segment. The project developed into a separate department of more than 40 staff. In contrast, Dentsu researches the youth market, but does not have a dedicated department.

But some observers say the greying of Japan could increase the purchasing power of the young. “Most people think that from 2007, when the population begins to shrink, it will become a difficult time for anyone selling stuff to young people,” says Mr McCaughan.

“But I say it’s boom time for selling stuff to young people. A shrinking population means there will be more adults per young person. So there will be more pockets for that young person’s hands to get into.”

The second article is Richard Edelman (CEO of Edelman) on teen culture. Warning: things like the feedback feature and much of the Edelman site in general does not work well with browsers other than MS Internet Explorer. This blog entry has some interesting insights but also misses some crucial elements:

  • It was interesting reading the comments by inference about the baby boomers, my take was the the more existential viewpoint of the boomers brought about amazing entrepreneurship and a huge wealth of culture that marketers like you and I have benefited from for the past 20 years or more. Are we making too many ‘company men’ for the more dynamic future that lies ahead?

  • There was less of a reflection of tribes in the article. Teenagers are not one mass like in the 50’s but part of a number of disparate cultures, some more heavily entrenched than others. Beyond the rich culture of hip-hop, there is also skaters, the underground punk scene with its straight-edged lifestyle (no caffiene, no drugs, no alcohol) to name but two

  • The use of chat rooms to seed marketing reminded me of the old Bill Hicks skit ‘Marketers kill yourselves’ where the point he was making was that marketers were putting a price tag on everything, yet seldom understood its value. We need to know where to draw the line and show restraint. If we push too hard into word of mouth will we devalue it as a ‘media channel’ like has happened with editorial?

  • Finally over managed and over achieving kids, there is no right or wrong answer because children are different. Some may thrive in the hot house, others may come apart (think of young sports stars or film actors). There should enough support to allow them to be everything they can be and are comfortable with. A message that any parent can relate to


Thanks for your comments. A couple of the thoughts raised were actually part of two interesting meetings this week.

I heard Andre Harrell and Damon Dash (of Rocawear) speak about Hip Hop Marketing. I also had a breakfast with Steve Knox of Tremor, CEO of a word-of-mouth marketing consultancy. Put this together with a Sunday night broadcast on 60 Minutes focused on Echo Boomers and you have three quite interesting and different views of today’s teen market.

Hip Hop has followed Rock and Roll as a lifestyle choice, beyond the music into fashion and movies. Hip Hop, according to Damon Dash, reflects the reality of life in the ghetto, with kids raised by a single parent, running with gangs, confronting the daily risk of guns and drugs, struggling to survive. It is answering teens’ demand for individual expression and recognizes the limited economic opportunity of this generation. Hip Hop is in every teen’s head–if you see a picture of JZ or Snoop Dog, you know about his music, his lifestyle, and his problems. Hip Hop has moved beyond the negative images of a decade ago, of violence and misogyny, to be cool and smart, from hot to sexy. To communicate to this demographic, companies must be truthful and genuine. “It is not enough to put African American people in an ad with rap music to market fast food–it is not how we live–just too formalistic– avoid exploitation and artificial scenes, which are offensive, and be natural about it,” Dash said.

Word-of-Mouth advocacy by teens depends on finding the right consumers and feeding them information in advance that can be passed along to peers. They are passionate communicators, trend spreaders, not trend setters or early adopters. They will talk about products or ideas in their social networks if the concept is simple to communicate and worth his/her advocacy. They have 15-17 people on their email buddy lists, compared to 8-9 for the average teen. Tremor has recruited 280,000 teens in the US to be in a personal relationship based on hearing cool new ideas before others and promising that their voices will be heard at corporations to improve the product or service. The key point again is credibility, because the teen connector feels his/her social currency is on the line.

The 60 Minutes segment took an entirely different view of teens, as a generation aiming to please, with rules replacing rebellion, convention over individualism, and acceptance of traditional values. Mel Levine, a professor at the University of North Carolina, described a heavily programmed upbringing, with soccer on Monday, kung fu on Tuesday, religious school on Wednesday and clarinet lessons on Thursday–a whole life of structure. Levine is concerned that the overmanaged, overachieving teens protected by parents and with inflated egos will quickly be disappointed by the reality of the workplace. Another expert, Neil Howe, painted a more optimistic scenario, contrasting this generation of teens quite favorably with their self-absorbed, egocentric Baby Boomer parents. He described current teens as good team players, collectively special, more like their grandparents, the World War II generation.

How to harmonize these rather disparate views of teens? I have three of them at home. Some part of all of this is consistent with my experience. A discussion this summer with my 17 year-old daughter, about our firm’s plans to find catalyts within chat rooms to provide them information on new products, reflected significant suspicion about business’ motives and a strong desire to protect individual privacy (“Dad, what the hell are you doing checking on my conversations”). Whatever we do to reach these teens must be based on permission, complete transparency on identity and motive, and having a relationship with both sides listening. Hope this is useful.