SBJ/August 12 - 18, 2002/Opinion

Gen Y a gold mine for marketers who dig it

They have been called Millennials, Gen Y, Echo-boomers and various other sociological/marketing terms. Whatever title is given to the generation of Americans born after 1982, one thing is certain, they are consumer heavyweights. Millennials ages 4-12 spend $24 billion per year and influence another $200 billion. The older segment of this generation, 13- to 19-year-olds, spends $94 billion a year.

This is virtually a gold mine for today's sports marketer. In the past month, 39 percent of teens visited a sporting goods store, 51 percent purchased athletic shoes and 43 percent bought athletic wear. Just like every other generation of kids, Millennials love sports.

Mountain Dew blends action sports, grassroots marketing to young consumers with this year's new nationwide Free Flow Tour.

Yet this is where the similarities end between Millennials and other generations. Far from possessing the stereotypical "I don't care" attitude of Generation X, Millennials embrace traditional values; they are optimistic, goal-oriented and globally aware.

Consider these quick facts: Millennials have never known a world free of cell phones, personal computers and cable television. Millennials possess a level of media sophistication unparalleled in history. Millennials are masters of multitasking. More to the point, Millennials are multifocused. Their interests aren't limited to a few central activities.

This presents both an opportunity and a problem for the sports marketer. Athletics has become a part of more kids' lives, but its role as a central element has drastically decreased. Sports marketers now have the opportunity to target more kids, but their efforts are no longer in competition solely with rival sports and athletic products. Rather, sports marketing efforts now are in competition with the multifocused Millennial lifestyle as a whole.

"Today's sports marketers are facing the coming of age of Millennials," says Rick Burton, executive director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "Millennials are speaking, but speaking much differently than their Generation X and Baby Boomer predecessors. Marketers must adapt their efforts to reflect these differences."

Burton cites specific sports and athletic products that have benefited from being able to reflect Millennial values in marketing and promotional efforts. Soccer participation, for one, has exploded among youth, primarily due to "Millennial friendly" promotions on a grassroots level. ESPN has demonstrated groundbreaking work in creating and branding the X Games. Burton also credits some non-athletic brands, such as Mountain Dew, for jumping on elements of sport that appeal to a Millennial audience.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey, founder of Captain Crikey, a trend forecasting consultancy in London, traces sports marketing miscues to a disconnect with the audience.

"On a pure advertising level, brand owners are going to need marketers or marketing agencies that understand how 'real' American kids live their lives, in order to promote relevant and credible messages. 'Real' American kids aren't necessarily who sports marketers think they are, which can result in irrelevant marketing executions."

So what does it take to create credible and relevant youth-oriented marketing executions? If a marketer runs an ad featuring a skateboarder, is it automatically relevant to skaters? No. Today's sports marketer shouldn't be concerned with relating to a particular group of kids, per se. Rather, sports marketers should attempt to make their particular product or sport reflect the overall Millennial mind-set.

Tactically speaking, this can be accomplished in several ways. One personal favorite is through utilizing multi-messaging in advertising. In a situation where seven out of 10 kids in a focus group "like" a certain advertising message, don't discard what the other three kids have to say. They represent 30 percent of your market. By using multiple, nonconflicting messages under a single brand, advertising will resonate with a wider range of psychographics, thus exposing the brand to potentially untapped markets. This approach is especially recommended for products or activities seeking to gain market share at the expense of larger, more established brands.

Another avenue is to actively involve youth in marketing communication efforts. Today's youth expect interactivity within their various interests. Passive entertainment is rapidly being replaced by active participation across virtually all types of media. For this reason, it is advisable for youth-oriented brands, especially those dealing with sports or sports products, to give kids the opportunity to interact with the brands on various levels. In the 1990s, Sprite reversed a downward spiral through a mix of mass media and grassroots, including hosting MTV-style parties and "planting" cool kids in Internet chat rooms. This is similar to the U.S. Tennis Association's efforts to boost youth participation by producing traveling "tennis carnivals" and through its involvement with Cartoon Network.

Packaged goods products are a step ahead of sports marketers in this aspect. Sports marketers could learn from the methods packaged goods companies use to involve youth with their brands. Recently, a nationally distributed acne medication launched a campaign that allowed kids to participate in their advertising process by actually voting for the "next" ad online. This campaign succeeded both in exposing kids to a succession of ads without actually buying additional media and in giving kids a kind of ownership in the brand. Consequently, sales increased 25 percent over the first quarter in which the ads ran.

Ultimately, producing relevant and credible marketing executions depends on sports marketers developing an understanding of the Millennial mind-set. Don't look for a popular icon to be a spokesperson. Rather, seek to understand what characteristics have made that person popular. Allow groups of Millennials the chance to "audit" particular brands or activities. Discover where it stands in their minds in reference to other sports brands, as well as other general lifestyle brands. Listen to both the majority and minority of kids; gold nuggets of knowledge can be found in what each has to say.

The next three to five years will witness the coming-of-age of 50 million Millennial youth. For sports marketers, it's crunch time. Those who adapt their strategies to reflect underlying Millennial values will enjoy success in the form of increased profits, while those who do not will find their brands "on the bench." Sound marketing strategy will ultimately separate the winners from the losers.

Tim Mask (tmask@mwb.com) is an account planner/youth marketing specialist at Maris, West & Baker Advertising Communications in Jackson, Miss.

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