How brands can really be of value to young people

Brands try en masse to win the sympathy of young people and to bind them to them. Only if lovebrand after all, you seem really future-proof of young people. Who has the youth, has the future. Investing in young target groups is absolutely valuable for any organization, but is it also a realistic ambition for everyone to become a real youth brand?

No, many organizations are and will never become a vital part of the daily life of young people. The services and goals of, for example, insurers, telecom companies and many NGOs are simply too far removed from what concerns young people. That’s why it’s time for a reality check:

What is feasible for your organization among young target groups?

How luxury brands affect young people

‘Luxury brands are doing well, also (or especially) with young people’, was the headline Faithful as early as 2019. Haute couture brands are increasingly being carried out by young people. They use their hard-earned money to buy a pair of Balenciaga sneakers or a Gucci belt. And this trend continues even in times of crisis, according to marketing website CustomertalkIn the first half of 2020 – during the first months of the corona crisis – young people spent no less than 35 percent more on luxury sneakers than during the same months in the previous year.

The largest increase is measured in sneakers above 500 euros. The luxury brands also occupy a prominent place within the lexicon of contemporary youth culture. The music site Genius.com mapped out which brands are most common in the hip-hop songs released in 2018:

Bron: L’Officiel Singapore

The high fashion brand Fendi was number one, high flyer Balenciaga number two and established Gucci number three. Rappers are ‘oh so expensive about haute couture’ and their young fans apparently like to participate. The luxury brands know how to touch young people at an identity level: young people use the brands to define themselves and actively propagate the brands. This makes them successful youth brands.

Interestingly enough, they themselves don’t strive particularly hard to be a youth brand. Although they do use young models, their positioning and marketing strategies are not comparable to the more ‘classic’ youth brands such as deodorant brand Ax or telecom brand Hi (which was pulled in 2015). The luxury brands don’t – like Ax and Hi – smash huge marketing budgets on glitzy youth campaigns.

What then explains their success with young people? And what can other organizations that try to attract young people learn from this?

Brands as guidance

Brands play an important role in the identity development of young people. You can tell a story about yourself with the help of brands. Young people are still fully exploring their individuality, they want to distinguish themselves and be unique. At the same time they look for common ground with other (groups of) young people, shared values ​​and interests in which they can connect with others and with which they can categorize themselves socially.

Brands – whether consciously or unconsciously – stand for specific values ​​and beliefs – help them with both sides of identity development. The young ‘consumers’ defines themselves (partly) by what they buy and by what they do not buy.

Brands and group identity

In the workshops and lectures at Youngworks we dive much deeper into this interaction between young people and brands, but now it is especially relevant to realize that brands fulfill an important social function for young people: they provide guidance in their need for groupbelonging. This is the timeless need to be part of a group, a safe foundation while growing up in a complex world that you do not (yet) have full control over.

Brands can serve as building blocks for a group identity. Many movements within youth culture (partly) define themselves by means of the brands that connect its young members. The brand logos and their consumption choices are part of the ‘cultural capital’ that connects the group.

Connected by labels

A far-reaching but illustrative example of the role of brands within group bonding are the so-called Tagboys: young guys who only feel connected by brand labels.

In NRC Handelsblad the cultural capital of this movement was described as follows:

Label or not: these guys all play according to more or less the same rules, which are quite incomprehensible to outsiders. Main themes are exclusivity and originality. A Ralph Lauren polo from the shelves of the Bijenkorf is not hard. But then again a vintage Ralph Lauren polo. Regular Adidas pants from the sports shop are mainstream and therefore problematic. But an old Adidas pants that is now out of the market? Sick. Niche brands like Patta, The New Originals and Smib – all Amsterdam streetwear – are dope anyway. Just like the American skate brand Supreme and the Japanese Bape.

Youth brand Adidas pants

The capriciousness of the formative years

Although brands play a major role in group formation and the development of young people’s identity, the relationship between young people and specific brands is extremely erratic in practice. What you identify with is between your 10e in 25e – during the so-called formative years – namely enormously changeable. During this period, young people experiment with different values, ideas and beliefs.

Therefore, what you identify with at the age of 16 does not necessarily have to be the same as what you identify with at the age of 21. For example, when I was 16, I was a basketball and hip-hop fan. I walked around in wide jeans from the American brands Fubu and Karl-Kani. When I was 19, I didn’t touch a ball anymore and I only wanted to surf, listen to guitar music and my cool wide jeans disappeared into the attic. This is important to realize: in the formative years, young people shape their self-image in extremes.

In this period, experimentation leads to great volatility: in how they dress, what is important to them and who they want to associate with. What you want to belong to at one moment, you want to repel the next. What you find beautiful or interesting at one moment brings shame on your jaw six months later. This obviously has consequences for brands:

Now a young person may love you, but you may soon be banished to oblivion.

Their timeless urge to experiment naturally makes young people one difficult to bind target group.

Youth brands in an identity crisis?

What does this mean? Is it possible for brands to target young people and bind them to them for a longer period of time at an identity level? I doubt it…

The above dive into the process of identity development mainly shows us the fundamental elusiveness of young people as a target group. This is not an encouraging insight for marketers who want their brand ‘rejuvenate‘. It’s also confusing. In practice seems it is possible as an organization to be part of the identity of a group of young people. After all, all those haute couture brands succeed.

The ‘secret’ of youth brands

And take the successful clothing brand, for example Patta: They have been a vital part of the metropolitan hip-hop scene for years and have a huge following of young fans. So they will succeed. If we zoom in, however, we see – just like with Fendi, Balenciaga, Gucci, etc. – that Patta does not try hard and purposefully to connect with the identity of young people.

What they do as a brand is simply part of a youth movement. Their products and stories have been shaping the Dutch metropolitan hip-hop scene from the very beginning. The young people within that scene therefore embrace them as a pillar of identity: as an anchor to define who they are themselves and to connect with other young people who are equal.

Successful ‘youth brands’ do not therefore aim to be (or become) a youth brand, they often form the heart of a youth movement based on their vision and activities and therefore simply ‘are’ a youth brand. This often makes them relatively small-scale and niche. A position that other – large – organizations actually do not pursue at all.

Youth brand Balenciaga sneakers

The power of pragmatic brands

The chance that you – the reader of this piece – will work for a fashion or lifestyle brand that is the beating heart of a contemporary youth movement is small. The situation is quite different when you work for a bank, an insurance company, an educational institution or, for example, the Brain Foundation. That which drives your organization rarely directly affects the values, beliefs and activities with which young people actively define themselves. Especially not in a dominant way, in multiple contexts and over a longer period of time.

That is why I think that it is not feasible for many brands to structurally connect with young people at an identity level. The products, services and goals of many organizations are simply too far removed from the stories that young people want and can actively identify with. This gap cannot be completely bridged with a slick campaign or repositioning.

Opportunities for your brand

But… this does not mean that you as a brand are redundant for young people. Or that it is pointless to invest in young people as a target group. As said, young people love brands. To be precise, they love the hold that brands can temporarily offer them in the laborious process of identity development.

Young people will always be a volatile and changeable target group. But they do form a specific group, with a number of shared characteristics. They all go through the same timeless biological and psychological development processes, the same life events and must all relate to the same complex world around them. The challenges that many young people encounter therein offer opportunities for every organization. Not directly at the level of identity, but at a more concrete, supportive and life phase-related level. As a brand you can be of tangible value on that.

Providing guidance

As a bank, for example, you can provide valuable support to young people at various times in tackling specific financial matters that are completely new and exciting to them. They will thank you for that. And with that you can make yourself visible and relevant within your domain, in an age when structural brand loyalty is an enormous challenge.

And educational institutions, for example, have all the resources in-house to help young people in their struggle with a study choice. Many seeking young people will also grasp that support with love.

Does that make you part of their identity? Will they shout from the (digital) rooftops that their school is the best school ever? No, probably not. But they will soon look back with a more positive feeling on the time within your school desk.

From youth brand to brand for young people

It is time for many organizations to pursue their unrealistic ambition to become a lovebrand to become for young people, to let go and to concentrate more on what they can really mean for young target groups based on their own mission and goals. By being practical and thus concretely of added value for young people within your own domain, you also make yourself a stronger brand for young people.

You may not be the flashy youth brand that you initially had in mind, but once you let go of that goal, this is an enormous liberation: now you can again unhindered think about young people as a group that you – from your vision and mission – can help, instead of the other way around. Not as a youth brand, but as a real brand for young people.


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