October 31, 2006

By Devangshu Dutta (Column from The Economic Times – 31 October 2006)

Normal human tendency is to label what one doesn’t understand. And so we call the younger members of society by various names – youth, teens etc. By putting them into categories of age, we claim complete understanding of what they are, what moves them, and what they want, in effect adopting convenient disguise for the fact that we actually don’t have a clue.

My personal favourite term is “tweens”. In my dictionary, tweens are that magical, difficult, weird age somewhere in the region of 10-16 years, give or take a couple of years, when one is not quite an adult to be allowed an opinion, and not quite young enough to be indulged one. I believe that is why rebellion is the hallmark of the tweens and the teens.

Let’s look at the broad segment of the young (under 20) population – about 450 million individuals in India are estimated to be below 20 years of age. 105 million individuals are in the age group of 15-19 years, already in their early years of discretionary consumption. About 112 million individuals are in the 10-14 years segment – within 5 years many of these will be making career choices, and in another 5 years most would have already begun earning and spending. Imagine the power of the tweens and the teens.

However, this is not one homogenous mass of youngsters who think in the same way. Some, of course, will be a typical marketer’s delight – gulping heavily-advertised colas and wolfing down pizzas and burgers at a birthday party with their pals, while demolishing each other on the latest game console. Others may only be aspiring to acquiring a fraction of such a lifestyle in their later years. Many – too many – will not only not have these things, but may not even be able to dream of a lifestyle that looks much different from their parents.

Some are motivated by firang lifestyles, and may look at the earliest opportunity to apply for a student visa in the west. Others are surprisingly loyal to the idea of staying within the country, and actually contributing to progressing it. An increasing number find their “Indian skin” very comfortable to wear, even while moving in rhythm with a semi-westernized lifestyle.

They’ve got a whole bunch of different ideas about relationships. To many, career options are always wide open and whoever works for life in one job may have no other options. Yet, when it comes to personal friends, the buddies from pre-school may still be the ones they hang around with.

Clearly age, then, is not the key differentiating or grouping factor. Neither, it would seem, is income or education. SEC segmentation more or less breaks down when dealing with the youth. There are many, possibly hundreds of segments for a marketer to deal with.

“What’s hot” may change every week – if it’s really hot, it may stay around 3-4 months. RDB ( Rang De Basanti ) was a protest against the society the young are inheriting, and its candle-light march was emulated for many a cause. But Munnabhai is cool today, and Gandhigiri is now the road to follow. On the other hand – are these really two sides of the same coin?

Some very global trends catch on very fast, while others are uniquely Indian.

So how does one make sense of this kaleidoscope? How is a marketer to predict what will appeal to the most consumers? How can we lead the consumers into our store, to our brand counter, to the product that we want to promote?

If I were to pick one learning for the youth market that made – and still makes – youth markers successful, it is the fact that they do not predict fashion and trend. They do not attempt to lead the consumer but follow diligently. They identify the opinion leaders, identify with them, and understand what’s hot with them. Then they place their bets – a lot of them, well-spread out. Sure, not all of them are right, but it’s a whole lot better than trying to predict fashion 8-12 months in advance.

An equally critical step is to let go of the trend even as it is being picked up by others. After all, if you’re really with it, by now you ought to have identified the next hot trend rather than flogging the same horse that everyone else is on.

Here a newsflash, the youth are bright, for all the appearance of vacuity; extremely opinionated, despite the apparent boredom they display; fully-charged up with the current domestic social concerns and a clear view – well-informed or not – of what’s happening around the world.

We’ve seen some successes in the Indian market, with a few companies being at the forefront of trying to understand and cater to the youth with offerings that are innovative and promotions that talk to them in their language. And yet, most companies are still working at them in the same mould as they were a decade ago, while others are simply trying to transplant strategies that worked in another country.

The largest market opportunity in decades is going a-begging. What’s going to be your platform to make the connection? What’s the relevance of your message? Unless you’re listening to the youth, they’re unlikely to be listening to you.

The author is CEO of Third Eyesight (More articles on )