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Courting Gen-Y: Forget the Hype, Find Street Cred

MARKETING: Designer brands are spending millions on ad campaigns aimed at the Millennials, yet most of youth culture remains unmoved by the efforts.

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Not surprisingly, Millennials’ antipathy toward judging others — a sensibility informed by their optimism and idealism — also is reflected in the marketing voice they prefer: unpretentious and authentic. This poses a paradoxical challenge, as marketing, by definition, is about selling something. The solution, marketing observers advised, is simply to be up front about it. Failure to do so is perhaps the biggest mistake one could make in appealing to the 25-and-under set.

Youth-savvy alternatives lie in both the approach to marketing campaigns aimed at Millennials and their actual content, observers counseled. "You can’t market to teens without acknowledging it is an effort to sell something," Smith said. "The solution is to collaborate with teens, rather than trying to outthink them," he advised, in reference to the development of marketing campaigns. "A participatory experience feels more authentic."

Some brands have already tried this: Gap, which recently asked users of its Web site to volunteer to model for an upcoming ad campaign (digital photos were submitted for an online vote); Pop Tarts, which asked youths to invent new versions of the food; Apple Jacks, which enabled teens to become the brand’s managers for the cereal’s relaunch in Canada, and Icehouse beer, which held a marketing contest in which it told consumers: "You make the billboards, we’ll make the beer." Others have turned to grassroots marketing: Coca-Cola is narrowly distributing Coke in Club Cans, only in places where teens hang out, while Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein are taking it to the beach, aiming at college students during spring break.

Implicit in such an interactive approach is a respect for the intelligence of young consumers — and a willingness to experience and learn from their culture firsthand — a regard that is missing in much of today’s marketing targeting the group. That disconnect is something Millennials find alienating, or even offensive, about many such campaigns, observers said.

"Today’s high school kids feel as though they’re part of a very smart, active, engaged, competitive, stressed-out group of people," related generation expert William Strauss. "So, when you [try to] appeal to them, like many advertisers do — by showing people in their 20s as stupid, or sitting around angsting about failed relationships — it just doesn’t speak to them."
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