Kathleen Gasperini is the co-founder and senior vice president of Label Networks. We met in May, 2006 at the Surfing Industry Manufacturers Association conference in Cabo San Lucas. Her company helps leading brands such as Apple Computer, Verizon Wireless, Pepsi, Vans, Levi Straus, and Burton Snowboards understand the global youth culture.
She is also the co-founder of a non-profit, youth-focused foundation called Boarding for Breast Cancer. Previously, Kathleen was the senior editor of Powder and Snowboarder and the editor of Women’s Sports & Fitness. She was the technical writer for the IMAX movie “Extreme.” Her work and that of Label Networks has appeared in the New York Times, BrandWeek, Advertising Age, Yahoo!, Financial News, Sports Illustrated, Elle, Vogue, Spin, and Vibe. Kathleen is a graduate of St. Lawrence University and the University of Nairobi with a B.A. in Economics and Third World Studies.
- Question: What is your methodology for studying teenage trends?Answer: Our target market measures 13-25-year-olds so we expand beyond teens. For the sake of young people who may read this, we prefer to refer to “teens” as “young people.” No one these days likes to be referenced as a “teen.”
Our methodology is unique in that we are mobile and go into their environments, i.e. shopping locations, cafes, malls, streets, sporting areas, and music festivals, we and talk with young people in face-to-face interviews. We created proprietary wireless research tools and methodologies that allow us to be mobile and go into such locations.
Because we are out there with them—in the heat, dust, and rain—we also gain their trust and young people often tell us why they responded the way that they did. We capture this using images and in some cases video. Also, our field research teams come from these markets and understand the vernacular, music, fashion, and general vibe of the target demographic.
In youth culture markets, a guy with khaki slacks and a blue button-down shirt and a clipboard simply scares off young people. Our field research teams are just as likely to have a tattoo as the person they’re talking to, but they tend to be older than the target market and many have journalistic capabilities. We also use a traditional statistical analysis program for primary analysis of the data, but also add our own analysis based on the results, historic data, and our knowledge and intuition of youth markets.
Our representative sampling formula is based on a typical representative sampling model as well as a country’s census data as our control group. We figured out how to capture data remotely in a multiple of languages and have the data come back in English.
- Question: Why does MySpace and FaceBook appeal so much to “young people?”Answer: The appeal is that they allow for creativity, communication, and discovery. Check out the Youtube.com video “MySpace: The Movie.” it’s brilliant because it deals with the drama of being young and having to deal with updating your profile and “friends.”
The popularity of these services has important marketing consequences. For example, MySpace is a great way to find out about new music which is a major contributor to why young people are checking it out. It also is the epitome of grassroots. Consumer-generated content means that someone did it “just because.” You can’t get much more authentic and credible than that.
Brands that try to be this way don’t always pull it off. Although, the video of the Sony Bravia commercial with colorful bouncing balls down the streets of San Francisco did a good job because they make you forget what the “commercial” is really for. Similar to the impact of the early iPod commercials with the dancing dark figures.
For the small guys who use MySpace to promote their wares, CDs, T-shirts, stickers, it’s got “cred” because it takes some effort to keep updating your profile and getting “friends.” Look at what it did for Fall Out Boy from the Midwest and Arctic Monkeys in the UK: these bands came out of nowhere and are making it relatively big. Bands like My Chemical Romance and Black-Eyed Peas are breaking new videos on MySpace rather than MTV. And it’s going global.
- Question: Typically, how long does a “young-people” fad last?Answer: It depends on the country and age group, but generally young people do not think something is a fad. It’s just what’s happening right then. A 15-year-old’s sense of history is about three years, which explains, for example, why they think they’re creating punk rock, even though their parents may have listened to the Sex Pistols.
If something becomes “classic” than it’s more long term and most likely has become a part of several aspects of youth lifestyle. Such as Converse sneaks—most young people have no idea they were intended as basketball shoes. They represent quintessential punk. Timberlands have crossed over yet maintained their cred. Once used for utilitarian purposes, they are now the footwear of choice in various urban markets, particularly among the krumping scene in South-Central LA where it’s a part of the tribal street dance style, even if you’re wearing a pleated Brazilian-capoiera-inspired skirt with “American Apparel” type tube socks and arm sock-sleeves.
A Japanese trend that’s crossed over is BAPE—Bathing Ape—bringing colorful patent leather sneaks, characters, urban vinyl dolls, and entire collection of cool, inspired by manga to the States. I realize I just talked about a bunch of footwear examples, but hopefully it shows concepts of fads, trends, and quintessential classics.
We asked the question across all our global studies about information overload: “Do you feel there’s too much information coming at you to absorb?” The young people in the United States, Canada, and Japan said No. If anything, young people want more…they’re hungry. You can see this in our China Study too.
But the European results are much different. In the UK, they feel overloaded, saturated, can’t handle it; and in Germany there’s a similar feeling. It’s like they don’t want change as much. Whereas Spain, they’re far more into information in general and don’t feel that overwhelmed. Italy’s like Spain in that sense. Here’s a generalization: China and Japan are futuristic and optimistic; Western Europe is stuck in their history; and America has no past and no future—we’re Now.
- Question: How different is a “young person” in Shanghai from one in Palo Alto, Los Angeles, London, Munich, Addis Ababa, or Seoul?Answer: First, a 15-year-old today in North America, for example, is much different than a 15-year-old was five years ago. It used to be “I Want My MTV” but those people are now the parents of the 15-year-old who wants their “MP3.” And it’s not just about having an MP3 or cell phone, but personalizing it with mash-up ringtones (which they download for free from 3Gforfree.com) and a personal, friends-only-know texting language, for example. They don’t just expect control of their entertainment, they create it themselves. Very DIY culture. Not so much in Japan and China where it’s still more of an “I’m an individual but as a group” thinking.
The Shanghai girl is far more imaginative than guy whose life is still very structured by parents because of the draconian one-child rule. She is incredibly happy about living in the time of now and seeing the changes all around. She embraces things and feels lucky. She is part of the growing Pan-Asian-ism taking place. She is proud of China.
The Los Angeles kid is the most entrepreneurial, culturally diverse, and creates her world from utilitarian means—that which inspires and surrounds him. One thing about this generation of 13-25-year-olds is that it’s more “genderless.” There’s more assimilation across boundaries, across sports, music, fashion, technology, genders. For example, one of the top sports girls want to learn—other than skateboarding—is football; and guys are really getting into dance—mostly street and martial-arts-inspired.
The London kid right now isn’t as hopeful but thinks he’s trendsetting in his own head. The Munich kid is more philosophical, but socially “younger” than the 15-year-old in LA or Palo Alto, mainly because he’s not online as much and this isn’t encouraged by parents. For the Addis Ababa kid it depends on their socioeconomic level, but like the others, this kid is heavily influenced by music. Music is the common thread because it’s emotional and personal and taps into that mammalian cortex.
The Addis Ababa kid is probably the “oldest” of all. Not necessarily in terms of social skills, but knowing life because they’ve seen extremes. Child soldiers that can see things the LA kid cannot. There is a great desire to learn—they are more hopeful than you may believe. There is fortune at the bottom of the pyramid as C.K. Prahalad said in his book about the subject.
- Question: Are companies deluding themselves if they think they can create trends for “young people” from the top down?Answer: Yes, it’s rather laughable. Or sad. Millions of dollars are wasted only to result in brand backlash which takes millions more to re-create. Many large brands or agencies can’t see beyond the 30-second TV pitch. “But how do I reach them?” they ask. There are so many ways. You can walk right past a big idea if you have your cultural blinders on.
These top-down companies are running with blinders on into a future that has a huge cliff. Grassroots and bottom-up is the most authentic way to go, and you can do this much faster than in the past given the speed of communication and viral marketing. But you can’t try to be cool and grassroots if it’s not true and real. Grassroots takes being out in the marketplace—being there, in their lives, and relevant.
Young people don’t care about sweating and being hot, say, at an outdoor festival. Older people do. Success can truly smell! And young people can smell anything that smacks of insincerity a mile away. To them, some companies just stink. They are so removed from their reality. The reason so many companies try to do top-down trending is because they don’t know how to do bottom-up marketing or are afraid of change. Or of getting sweaty.
- Question: Generally speaking, how does a company build “cred” with “young people?”Answer: There’s no silver bullet solution because each market has specific threads of influence. Generally, it’s very important to be a part of the lifestyle of young people and be more than one thing for one aspect of their lives—this also gives a company greater longevity. If you follow the threads of influence, then you can build cred more easily. I’ll give you two ideas: first, get associated with music and artists; sponsor up-and-coming bands; and know what’s going on in various new music subcultures.
Second, there’s a unique opportunity to actually do some good and build cred at the same time. The North American youth culture marketplace of 13-25-year-olds is among the most philanthropic and environmentally conscious demographic in the world. Young people tend to support brands that give back, and they have far greater respect for celebrity-activists. What this means is that there’s a great opportunity for reaching young people in an authentic and grassroots level by appealing to their sense of “good causes.”
- Question: What are the lessons from Motorola becoming the hot phone for “young people?”Answer: They did a decent job of targeting young people (after Nokia earlier) by integrating themselves as part of the lifestyle of youth culture and giving back by such as sponsoring events, heroes, and music artists. There were complaints about the antennae popping off and things breaking in earlier models, but they figured out the shape, size, and durability factors, and then created things like the RAZR. They targeted the lifestyle, not just as a communication device, but as a key accessory of cool, must-have information source and connector.
There are young people who are eBay addicts and/or claim that a phone brand is their “favorite site” because they are obsessed with getting the latest model. It’s like sneaker culture. But Motorola needs to watch their backs…other brands may overtake the engineering car on this train, and I’m not necessarily talking about cell phone manufacturers either.
- Question: How will “young people” shop during the next two years?Answer: Online more so because there are limitations to getting to stores that carry what young people want. They are also very cost-conscious and will look for the best deals, which is easier to do online. EBay is the new thrift store/vintage “find.”
But smaller cool brands, i.e. T-shirt upstarts and things like that are not only going to be places to shop, but the destinations to hang-out, virtually. Discount is moving into the direction of being “OK.” Shopping at Target is OK because they offer decent styles and have great ads.
Disposable fashion trends are moving in, especially with the launches of H&M in North America, which are already all over New York and LA and an epic one in San Francisco. This trend is coming from Europe, which originally came from Japan. Disposable means being able to buy stylish looks at inexpensive prices that make the piece almost “disposable.”
The flip-side of disposable is that there will be special “investment” shopping trends for that coveted piece of glamour: Look to footwear, denim, special T-shirts, and accessories being key shopping pieces/experiences. I’d also say that ”pop-up“ retail is in the future and will change shopping patterns—where it’s more like an event than a retail experience, and you have to find out where the store is before it moves on and goes away. But Pop-up retail is more like five years out. You already have this in various places like Tokyo and New York, but it’s going to happen in other areas too.
- Question: What is your analysis of the following segments for “young people?”Cell phone: Trends are moving towards pushing multiple platforms into one unit. It’s a mobile generation. The brand that can create a high-end cell phone that also has hybrid capabilities of texting, images, video, internet access, games, and MP3 type device is the way things are headed. The hype is on Apple to do this. If so, then not only are they in the industry of computers and music technology, but also competing with the phone marketplace. And it will change that industry dramatically.
Music: This is a progressively moving niche. There’s a blending of styles that young people completely identify with, like Indie rock right now and punk-indie. Look for recontextualized grunge on the radar. I’m not talking full-on Nirvana or Pearl Jam, but a mash-up of this with indie. Hip-hop has plateaued but there will be a re-invention, but it will be different like what’s going on in with the hyphy scene coming out San Francisco. Also, the South—music such as with Reggaeton and Dancehall—cities such as Miami, Houston, and Atlanta as indicators.
Fashion: Fashion follows music and street culture—from the bottom-up rather than couture which is very much more “top-down.”
Sports: The sport of the world is soccer, but Americans obviously don’t embrace this sport that well. There’s a lot of turmoil right now in sports and therefore the influence of sports is affected. There are “hooligans” from the UK not being able to go to matches; basketball players getting into various trouble; and baseball players and doping issues.
Action sports such as surfing, skateboarding, snowboarding were the hottest thing for youth culture, but this has plateaued. Just two years ago, everyone was looking like a skater. A shining star is snowboarder Shaun White. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with him and snowboarding because of the incredible coverage the sport received from the Olympics in February and the high percentages of young people who watched snowboarding on TV and online. He could be the next Tony Hawk or Michael Jordan in the future. So brands associated with White such as Burton, and those associated with the lifestyle surrounding the sport may be new drivers of trends.
- Question: Knowing all that you know, what kind of company would you start in the “young people” market?Answer: There’s opportunity for true lifestyle brands that cross over into every aspect of a young person’s life such as a T-shirt company. People may laugh, but look at Volcom. 57.3% of young people in America buy ten to fifteen T-shirts per year, making T-shirts one of the highest grossing markets within the youth fashion industry. This “T-shirt” company would be online, but only the pinnacle of much more underneath.
I would also get it into special boutiques in Japan first. Even as a U.S.-based company, I would do pop-up retail. This “T-shirt” brand can sponsor up-and-coming artists, perhaps spin-off a record label and an online entertainment division (which works on getting sponsored artists and athletes into video games), then quickly move into the $13 billion denim market by getting the tightly woven high-end denim from Japan, with Italian stitching and dyes and selling clothes in the USA.
From there, the “T-shirt” brand would do footwear. All along keep the accessories coming—not just jewelry, but cell phone and iPod cases. The “T-shirt” brand would also have graffiti and street artists involved in many aspects, including exhibitions and various elements of design, which of course will get picked up by the Dews, Motorola’s, and Toyotas. This “T-shirt” brand from the start will also have a unique non-profit collaboration from which a percentage of profits are delivered.
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