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Teen Tribes: Affiliation and Attitudes Drive Teen Shopping Patterns

By Nancy Pekala, Marketing Matters Newsletter

In an interview with Marketing Matters, Philip Airey, Director with Bridge Strategy Group, discusses emerging teen tribe trends and how they are affecting today's retail environment.

As droves of teens head to the malls to do their shopping, understanding what drives their brand choices and shopping patterns is more critical than ever for today's marketers. New qualitative research from Chicago-based management consulting firm Bridge Strategy Group LLC examines teen affiliation with various subcultures of "tribes" and reveals insights into the attitudes and behaviors driving shopping patterns of today's teenagers. The research includes an in-depth analysis of how today's teens shop including a look at how the skate culture became a mainstream sport and retail success story

MM: Teen tribe trends are focused on teens achieving four emotional and somewhat conflicting goals — acceptance, belonging, confidence and individuality. To reach these teen tribes, how should marketers approach their branding and marketing campaigns?

Philip Airey: First, teens usually display a dominant emotional goal, which is shaped by each individual's personality, is highly influenced by the social environment and evolves as the teen matures. Second, the emotional states alone do not define tribe association. Rather, they are a simplified construct that help explain sources of preference and drivers of behavior. Hence, marketers can use these four emotional states to understand the influence models, which affect their brands, and to enhance brand positioning.

Marketers interested in targeting specific teen tribes — such as Skate, Emo or Scene — should build in-depth knowledge of their teen affiliates and parents. The goal is to gain enough insight to establish a credible dialogue with the target group. Ethnographic research techniques are particularly valuable in this sense. The development of Nike SB is a classic example. After several failed attempts to penetrate the skateboarding market, Nike successfully reissued its Dunk shoes, a 1985 basketball shoe that ethnographic research revealed had been co-opted by skateboarders. Observational and other more invasive market research techniques allowed Nike to develop an in-depth understanding of the skateboarding culture and to position itself as an insider.

MM: Purchasing preferences of today's teens seem to center around a handful of brands such as Abercrombie & Fitch, Forever 21, Delias, Old Navy, American Eagle and Urban Outfitters. What advice do you have for marketers trying to expand teen tribes' preferences beyond these brands?

Airey: Marketers should focus on learning more about teenagers, not only from demographic and behavioral perspectives, but specifically about the drivers of their attitudes. That level of insight will allow marketers to understand unmet needs and develop brands and store concepts that appeal to teen consumers. Hollister (owned by Abercrombie & Fitch) and Zumiez have been able to carve out a strong position in the teen apparel market by leveraging their insights into the Californian beach and skateboarding cultures.

MM: Teen male and female shopping behaviors differ significantly. What will drive male teenagers buying habits in the near future?

Airey: In many ways, male and female teens behave alike. Both genders shop in packs, spend a significant amount of their time browsing malls and are influenced by friends, family and celebrities. However, empirical evidence shows some general differences.

Male teen shoppers are believed to buy brands, while female teens tend to buy styles. Store layouts used by apparel retailers often reflect that distinction. Teen boys rely on stores and their brands to pre-edit their style choices. For boys, overt displays of clothing brands are the norm. Teen girls, on the other hand, are more comfortable mixing and matching different pieces and styles to create a desired look, which they may have seen in school, on TV or in a magazine. Shopping behavior is also different in terms of frequency and duration of the shopping trip. Females also tend to buy more on impulse and are more susceptible to the appeal of in-store promotional activities. Males are usually more task-driven, list-based shoppers.

We have no reason to believe that these characteristics will change significantly in the near future.  What may change, however, is the role that technology plays in the shopping process.

For example, shoppers can:

  • Browse assortment, verify availability and check prices online prior to hitting the  mall;
  • Use social networking communities to define their preferences;
  • Use mobile technology for access to promotions during the shopping trip

MM: Today's teens are exposed to various media targeting their market segment. What role are TV programs such as Gossip Girl, the OC, The Hills and movies such as High School Musical having on teen tribes and their purchasing patterns?

Airey: TV shows create aspirational reference points that teens use to help shape their behaviors, preferences and attitudes. The OC, for example, was instrumental in bringing the Californian beach culture into mainstream America and helped propel retailers such as Hollister. Other key influencers may include an older family member, school friend, neighborhood acquaintance, pro athlete, pop artist, TV personality or movie star.

MM: At the start of this school year, much attention has been paid to male preference for wearing baggy jeans well below their waist.  How does the concept of teen tribes drive this kind of teen trend?

Airey: Baggy jeans worn below the waist is more directly associated with the “Ghetto” tribe, which is rooted in urban U.S. African-American culture. It was born in New York's poorest areas, such as the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens. It is highly influenced nowadays by the rap and hip hop scene. The look usually includes large hoodies, bandanas, baseball caps (which rise above the head and are twisted to the side), boots or basketball shoes and golden necklaces.

Ghetto is a predominantly urban, working-class phenomenon. Despite its origins in African-American communities, the dressing style has transcended to other ethnic groups, including Latino communities and impoverished areas.

Made fashionable and re-interpreted by successful hip hop artists, the Ghetto dressing style inspired a new trend called Ghetto Chic, which has penetrated other segments of American society.

MM: In the recent past, Michael Jordan and other athletes have served as sources of influence for teen shopping behaviors. Who are teens influenced by today?

Airey: It is important for marketers to develop an in-depth understanding of their target groups in order to learn more about different influence models. Celebrity endorsements are not always the best answer. In fact, celebrities relevant for a specific target group may entirely alienate others.

But in some situations celebrities can be an important element of a target group's influence model. For example, teens more actively involved in a particular activity or more avidly pursuing certain interests tend to draw inspiration from notable, but not mainstream, individuals in the field. Consider up-and-coming athletes or promising underground rock bands. Their ability to recognize these virtuosi before they become known by the mainstream helps authenticate their expertise in specific activities or interests and lends them enormous credibility with their peers. These trend-setters, on the other hand, will inspire others who share affinity for the same activity or area of interest. These influencers can be another family member, neighbor, school friend or simply a popular acquaintance.

Action sports apparel for skateboarders, surfers, snowboarders and BMX riders illustrates this influence model. Avid skaters or surfers primarily seek inspiration from young professional athletes who may have once shared a smoke in the local skate park or surfed at a nearby beach, and are gaining recognition. These emerging icons inspire younger riders to achieve the same level of skill, fame and fortune in the future. This helps form a tight-knit community.

MM: Your research indicates some key emerging tribes are those known as Emo, Scene, Skate and Ghetto. How are each of these tribes defined or characterized and what new tribes do you anticipate emerging on the horizon?

Airey: Although some of these depictions may sound stereotypical, they are helpful to provide a better understanding of key traits of each tribe. Again, these are generic representations/examples, not specific characteristics that can be generalized to all individuals who are associated with these tribes.

  • Emo, short for emotional, is rooted in the hardcore punk scene from the 1980s and the indie scene from the 1990s. The dressing style and attitude often reflect a melancholic state. The look includes black skinny jeans, tight theme or vintage-looking t-shirts, studded belt, canvas sneakers or skate shoes, long bangs brushed aside or worn over eyes and black straight hair. They listen to My Chemical Romance, Fallout Boys, Panic! at the Disco, Linkin Park, and Green Day. Self-portraits are shot at odd angles. They frequent networking sites such as MySpace. Brands are kept under the radar and they keep a diary or journal, where feelings are expressed in prose or in poetic form.
  • Scene teens are rooted in the music scene. They have an artsy style that borrows inspiration from various music genres. Tribe affiliates are white, affluent and suburban. Their look includes tight, vintage classic band shirts (e.g. Ramones); graphic and cartoon character t-shirts (Pokemon, Hello Kitty and Gloomy Bear); tight, skinny, pencil jeans or straight leg jeans (not flares, vintage or dark wash); beat-up Vans, Nike, Adidas or Converse shoes. Females wear ballet flats and other low heeled shoes, huge sunglasses, long voluminous or choppy hair, over-sized pearl necklaces, septum piercings, and bright eye makeup. Scene teens closely follow new and upcoming bands, befriend them and then brag about these relationships. They listen to hardcore, metal, indie, retro, 80's new wave and classic rock music. Sidekick cell phones are used for text messaging and sharing photos.
  • Skate emerged from the surf culture in the West Coast, and later spread across the U.S. The rebellious image from the 1990s faded in recent years as skate became more mainstream. Its growth beyond suburbs attracted a larger influence of urban culture, creating a new trend called skurban. The look includes loose-fit jeans, straight-fit shorts, logo t-shirts, caps, hoodies and wristbands. Skaters hang out around parks, parking lots and other skate-able areas. They listen to classic rock, punk rock and hip hop. Favorite bands include CKY, Bones Brigade, The Offspring and NoFx. Skate shoes are made by DC, Vans, Circa, Nike SB, Nike 6.0, Emerica and Fallen. Clothing brands include Adio, etnies, Element, Lakai, Hurley and Volcom. They keep camcorders handy to record tricks and post images online.
  • Ghetto is rooted in urban U.S. African-American culture. It is highly influenced nowadays by rap and hip hop scenes. Favorite artists are 50 Cent, Jay-Z, Missy Eliot, Lupe Fiasco, Three 6 Mafia, Eve, Usher, Nelly etc. They wear Baby Phat, Sean John, Ecko, Apple Bottoms, Timberland, Enyce and Rocawear.

MM: What's your best advice for today's brand marketers in reaching today's teen market?

Airey: Study them. Learn about them from the inside-out. Understand their attitudes. Do not limit yourself to the understanding of the who, what, when, where and how.

Be authentic. Create a credible dialogue. Teens can smell posers from miles away. Do not try to be something you are not. Leverage your heritage if appropriate.

Know that teens are not all the same. They are the most metamorphic of all consumer groups. This poses a challenge for incumbents and opportunities for challengers and new entrants.

Think carefully about how to leverage technology to reach and develop meaningful relationships with these consumers.