Listen to them

Updated: Jan 8 2013, 06:48am hrs
Todays teens are showing signs of maturity beyond their age. Marketers, however, seem oblivious to the changed reality of this crucial target group

Jitender Dabas

The 21st century has entered its thirteenth year. So demographically defined this millennium is now a teenager. Children born at the turn of the 21st century will be teenagers now. As per 2011 census data, there are 243 million people in India in the 10-19 years age group making almost 20% of Indias population and the worlds largest teen demographics. So it is no wonder that everyone today wants to befriend them. Every marketer from telcos to cola companies to Hamdards Rooh Afza as well as SBIis wanting to connect with them. The defining image of the teens in 2012 was that of young girls and boys holding placards, shouting slogans and fighting tear gas and water canons in bitter cold in and around India Gate in Delhi after the rape of a 23 years old student. Likewise, in 2011, we saw teenagers donning caps that said I am Anna at Ramleela Maidan. In the neighbourhood, Pakistani teenager Malala Yousufzaibecame the most visible new symbol of resilience against the Taliban and fundamentalist forces at 15 years of age.

But if one looks at the commercial messages broadcast by marketers one would assume that todays teens spend all their time hanging out at malls, inside fast-food joints, on social networking sites or chatting away on their Blackberry messenger. A recent flurry of ads on TV with teenagers in focus is, at least, suggests that. Airtels Jo Tera Hai Vo Mera Hai; Vodafones Bhai, Ye Ladkian Kitni Baat Kartee Hain; Cafe Coffee Days sit down, Pepsis Change the Game, or the recent Fast Track campaign are a few cases in point.

The contrast in the two images is quite sharp. So while we see the teens out there fighting the system on the roads, for marketers, they are a happy-go-lucky, hedonistic generation. The projection is no different on content platforms such as MTV, Channel V or Bindaas.

Clearly, there is something missing in the script. Are the marketers getting it wrong in their understanding of this TG Is what we see on news channels is something short-term and isolated Is there a tectonic shift that is going unnoticed by marketers

What seems clear is that todays teens are more sensitized and expressive. They are more inclined to stand up than sit down and are far more collectively conscious than being merrily hedonistic. But is there a behavioural change taking place or what we saw at India Gate and Ramleela Maidan and facebook pages were merely a teen fad For it to be more than a typical teen reaction we need to understand what has changed in the past few years. Marketers need to watch it.

For one, youth empowerment is not new news but teen empowerment is. Previously a sense of empowerment used to happen when one moved out of schools to college or university through affiliation - the power that came from belonging to a larger group which had a collective influence. But today, thanks to social media, this affiliation has started happening at a much younger age. The Facebook groups and petitions allow even the school going kids and young teens to be part of much bigger groups now and more importantly, to affiliate themselves with bigger causes and bigger groups. Hence todays teens are experiencing this collective power to be able to change things for the first time. And this empowerment is happening much before they moved to college or university. Thirteen is the new eighteen.

Whats also evident is that this generation of teens is more sensitized. They are the generation that stopped burning crackers on Diwali to fight pollution. They show a lower power distance than their previous generations, hence, lesser allegiance to hierarchical structures and lesser fear of the traditional authority.

So where does this leave the marketers and advertisers Pretty much useful for any parent of a teenager here are are some quick tips for the marketers on how to connect with their teens:

1. Take them seriously: Most marketers want to keep the messaging to teens light & frothy because they think teens dont take life too seriously . The reality, however, is different.

2. Empower them: Right now, brands are trying to engage them to co-create content. But this needs to go beyond uploading videos and becoming famous. The emotional motivations need to be much bigger & meaningful.

3. Be a good audience: To connect to teens you need to be a good audience. Give them a platform & cause and theyll express. Perhaps brands will have to just create & own the platforms and let them do the talking.

The author is Executive Vice President and Head of Planning,McCann Erickson