Redefining Empowerment-A Case Study About Effectively Marketing To Teens Without Turning Them Off

Can we inspire teens to choose to do something with the same methodology that convinces them not to do something? For example, does the same decision-making process lead to teens buying $15 Starbury One basketball shoes and to not buying the designer $130 Nike Zoom Kobe I sneakers? Is there a common denominator in how teens choose to start smoking cigarettes and how they choose not to? Can we as marketers reach them at the pivotal decision-making moment to inspire desired behavior? Denver-based Cactus Marketing Communications thinks they have uncovered the simple truth about effectively altering teen behaviors by redefining empowerment as a marketing strategy.

I. Background

Youth empowerment has been defined as an attitudinal, structural and cultural process whereby young people gain the ability, authority and agency to make decisions and implement change in their own lives and the lives of other people, including youth and adults.

Over the past decade, the word empowerment has become a buzzword in business and youth development, but the word has different meanings for different people. According to the Journal of Extension, “empowering teens” refers to a process through which adults begin to share responsibility and power with young people… It is the same idea as teaching young people the rules of the game…Youth development professionals are helping young people develop non-academic competencies that will help them to participate in the game of life.

Traditionally, most campaigns that employ youth empowerment as a strategy actually encourage social movements through advocacy and activism. They encourage teens to speak out for causes and to rally other teens to join them in activism. This notion has been particularly popular with youth development campaigns such as 4-H and public health campaigns such as tobacco control. Another popular example that demonstrates this notion is Rock the Vote, which encourages young adults to serve as brand ambassadors and activists to encourage other young adults to vote.

II. Redefining Empowerment

In the fall of 2006, Denver-based Cactus Marketing Communications launched a campaign called Own Your C that is redefining empowerment as we know it. Rather than encouraging a public advocacy or activism in their communities, Own Your C aspires to encourage teens to make positive choices to implement change in their own lives.

Commissioned by the Colorado State Tobacco Education & Prevention Partnership (STEPP), Own Your C is a tobacco prevention and cessation educational campaign targeting Colorado youth ages 12 to 18. Over the past year, Cactus and STEPP have worked hand in hand to produce an integrated marketing campaign with the goal of reducing tobacco use among teens. The following is a summary on the insights gained into the complex world of teens and how those insights led Cactus to redefine empowerment as a marketing strategy with the Own Your C educational campaign.

A. Problem:

1. National tobacco trends:

- According to the Centers for Disease Control, a survey released in July 2006 claimed that a decade-long decline in youth smoking has halted among high school students.
- Ninety percent of adult smokers started smoking by the age of 18.
- Camel’s No.9, a new offering that The New York Times called “dressed to the nines,” employs fashionable marketing techniques that appeal to young women – from ad placements in fashion bibles like Vogue and Glamour and its name’s haunting coincidence to the perfume, Chanel No. 21, and the song, “Love Potion No. 9″. Flavored cigarettes, including Kauai Kolada, Twista Lime and Mandarin Mint, also appeal to teens.
2. Colorado is on center stage in the nation’s battle against tobacco:

- Decreases in tobacco use rates among Colorado youth have become stagnant in recent years.
- The tobacco industry spent $217 million on marketing to youth in 2005, this is more than 200 percent of the funding the state has to combat their efforts.
- Tobacco companies spend $4 million marketing to Coloradoans every week.
- Colorado is often selected to test market new tobacco products.

B. Insight:

A variety of research methods were employed in order to understand the complex and ever-changing world of teens, both tobacco and non-tobacco related. The goal was to find a message is universally relevant and important among teens of all ages, ethnicities, genders, income levels and geographic locations.

1) Anti-tobacco campaign effectiveness

Through secondary research, Cactus and their research arm, Market Perceptions, Inc., set out to discover whether or not other public education campaigns to-date have been successful in reducing teen smoking levels. What they discovered is that there is a precedent for success with advertising in regards to reducing teen smoking levels.

One study published in 2005 measured students in 75 major media markets with varying levels of state-sponsored anti-tobacco TV ads and found that students from markets with higher advertising levels were significantly less likely to have smoked in the past 30 days, more likely to perceive great harm from smoking and more likely to report they would not be smoking in five years’ time. Additionally, a study measuring the effectiveness of the national “truth” campaign reported that 22 percent of the nation’s overall youth smoking decline between 1999 and 2002 could directly be attributed to the campaign.

While the counter-industry theme (anti-Big Tobacco) has been proven successful in the past and once tested positively in the late 1990′s and early 2000′s, more recent studies have shown that due to the proliferation of it as a strategy (nearly two-thirds of all state campaigns use counter-industry), it’s yielding diminishing returns. A study published in 2006 by the American Journal of Public Health reported that counter-industry ads did not significantly enhance anti-industry motivation or lower smoking intent.

Studies have found that ads graphically portraying the effects of living or suffering from the afflictions of tobacco use (as opposed to dying from) rank high in getting youth to “stop and think” about tobacco use. Researchers caution against using messages that inflict fear, which have several limitations, and trigger disgust, which some believe to be the single most effective strategy in reducing teen smoking. Ads that employ fear tactics are more likely to be rebelled against, don’t break through teens’ invincibility barrier, and potentially only enhance the idea of tobacco as the “forbidden fruit,” whereas disgust motivates action and corresponds with a lower intent to smoke.

2) Communicating with teens

When conducting a marketing campaign aimed at teens, it’s not only important to communicate the right messages to them, but to communicate in the right ways with them. Teens are leading the technology-driven, new media movement, spending more time with computers, the Internet, hand held devices, MP3 players, cell phones, etc.

While talking on the phone is still the preferred communication method of choice (when not hanging out in person), teens’ communication patterns go hand in hand with their increased use of new media, with online forums (Instant Message, social networks, etc.) growing in popularity and changing the dynamics of relationships.

After the phone, teens report Instant Message (IM) as their second choice for communicating with friends. IM breaks down traditional communication barriers, lowering inhibitions and allowing them to say things they wouldn’t say in person. The same is true of social networks, where a majority of teens build detailed and in-depth profiles for the entire world to see. Their profiles allow them to project an image of how they want to be seen, rather than their true identity. Their profiles also allow them to build a large network of friends, seeking out like-minded teens with similar interests, regardless of geographic locations. Teens more than any other generation, are widely connected to each other through this virtual community.

In addition to identifying and prioritizing the proper communication vehicles, Cactus and Market Perceptions sought to better understand what brands are effectively communicating their messages to teens. Through the mass clutter of brands today, they wanted to understand not necessarily which brands are “in” versus “out”, as that is constantly evolving with this fickle audience, but what makes a brand relevant, albeit just briefly, in the minds of teens today.

Overwhelmingly, brand theorists point out that a brand is no longer a badge of quality or insurance of a safe choice as it is with older generations, however, it is a means to define themselves, to express who they feel they are or want to be outwardly to their peers, family, strangers, etc. It is an interesting juxtaposition of self-expression while at the same time enhancing connectedness to other like-minded teens.

A recent global brand study showed that several U.S. brands are losing favor with teens to more innovative, international brands. Experts argue that the brands losing on teen relevance are those that try to impose images on teens, rather than reflecting teens’ perceptions of themselves. One particularly successful campaign that resonated with youth is the Adidas “Impossible is Nothing” campaign, which spoke to teens optimism and connectedness.

Overall, teens are aware of marketing and “hip to the hype” and they need to feel in control and that they are discovering brands on their own. Teens need to feel as if they are a part of the brand story.

3) Teen decision-making

While secondary research provided an understanding of tobacco usage among teens, Cactus still needed to understand the decision-making dynamic surrounding teen tobacco use, especially when the decision is not to smoke. There was need to understand teenagers in terms of how they see tobacco within the context of their experience of being a teenager.