I distrust two types of marketing people: those who claim to be experts and those who talk about millennials ad nauseam.
As a young person living in Hong Kong and working at a digital agency that has delivered youth campaigns for the likes of Nike, VS Sassoon, Tic Tac, and ASUS, people will often ask me what my perspective is on youth marketing. But when I respond to these questions, I’m drawing upon a set of unique experiences not often seen in marketing. Most weekends, you’ll find me tutoring young people in Hong Kong with dreams of attending university in the US or the UK. In other words, I’m holding an ongoing dialogue with that millennial target audience that we all so desperately want to reach.
So what’s the secret to connecting with Hong Kong’s youth? Interacting with them on a personal level.
The foundation of engaging with youths
We’re all guilty of it: We develop a marketing persona we fall in love with. Tell me if this guy sounds familiar:
Steven: He’s 16 to 30 years old. He likes being active. He has a girlfriend. He’s at school or interested in learning. Steven spends his weekend hanging out with friends, going to the movies, listening to music, shopping, watching or playing sports and trying new foods. Oh, and he loves social; he’s so connected. You might describe him as ‘aspirational’.
The good news is Steven is easy to work with. The bad news is that Steven is a lie.
The real Steven, the human one, cares about what new character will be released on League of Legends next week. He follows the Lakers. He’s agonising what to write to his crush via WhatsApp. He wonders if his arms will ever get bigger from all the protein powder he’s eating. He’s flummoxed by calculus.
At the end of the day, we have to unify our “Stevens” and sell something to our audience. But in perusing that objective, we make mistakes:
- We over-estimate the role the brand has in the life of Hong Kong youths. Neither of the Stevens cares for your brand much.
- We take our personas too seriously. Just because a Steven used social media, that doesn’t say something about him. Social media is a conduit, it’s not a ‘passion point’.
- We forget what it’s like to be young. Talking to my tutoring students reminds me how young people have the same problems that I did 10 years ago. The social-media networks might be different, but the human truths remain the same.
Delivering an effective message
Most of all we must remember that our customers owe us nothing. It’s our job to be relevant. The key to success is in finding something powerful about life as a young person. Finding that truth is difficult, but when you find it, it’s almost magical.
Magic starts with an insight, but it has to follow certain rules too.
- Be relevant to the customer. This means finding an emotional truth first, then finding a way of packaging that truth in a way that’s interesting to the audience.
- Be true to the brand. Just because something is relevant doesn’t mean you should talk about it. If what you’re saying lacks credibility coming from the brand, then you should re-evaluate your approach.
- Be distinct. Your brand will never be Red Bull. Why? Because Red Bull didn’t get to where it is today by chasing another brand. It chased human insights and left the rest of the market behind.
- Be seen. No young person reads your corporate blog; it’s not authentic. The things you do on social, the content you create, it needs to be validated by your audience. Ask them—are you reading this? If the answer is no, take the hit and move on to a new tactic.
- Measure success. Engagement for its own sake is a waste of resources. You need to know why you want to engage with youth. What are you trying to accomplish? Do you want them to be more aware of your brand, consider your product, change their behaviour or donate to your cause?
- Re-evaluate strategy. Celebrate your wins, but remember to incorporate a regular sense check into your planning process. Is our tactic still relevant to our audience?
The process of engaging youths
Engaging youth is a simple process, with challenging stages.
Step 1: Define and contextualise the business problem
Before you can begin to create a solution, you must clearly define your business problem. Is the challenge that youth don’t know about your product? They don’t understand it? They find it irrelevant? Or they simply can’t find it at retail? Make sure the KPIs you set match the business problem you face. Otherwise your activities will end up deviating from reality.
Here’s an example (from my agency) that had a clearly defined problem and an effective and cost-efficient solution:
Step 2: Identify a need and become relevant to your target audience
Brands chasing social trends are like dogs chasing tails: They’ll never catch up. You don’t need to chase social trends. Instead, find an uncomfortable fact about your target audience and use that to send an emotionally relevant message. Human insight is critical to engaging with young people. You can then create a calendar of activities to ensure your message is hitting in the right times.
This Nike 'Own the night' campaign was so relevant to Hong Kong youths they came out in droves to play sport:
Step 3: Find the right path
Connecting with youths on the right channel will make or break the success of your communication. Don’t limit yourself to one property on social. Consider the entire customer journey. You can do this by regularly talking with your target customer.
This campaign delivered a functional message via branded content and influencer engagement:
Step 4: Re-invent yourself
This is one of the most common briefs we come across: creating relevance for heritage brands. The answer lies in innovation. How would the founder of the brand use modern tools and technology? The answer to that question can be very interesting for marketers talking to an audience that typically doesn’t care about brand heritage or loyalty.
VS Sassoon did this well last year with a style mashup using 3D-printed hair accessories:
Youth marketing is relevance marketing; it’s a hard pill to swallow for many marketers because it requires humility and a lot of listening. But like with any marketing campaign, you’re solving two problems: the business problem and the customer problem. Effective and engaging tactics flow from the overlap of those two problems.
My final piece of advice to Hong Kong marketers looking to engage the city’s youth is to remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Youth marketing is not easy because it involves a critical approach to the way people perceive your brand. You need an outsider voice to tell you things you hadn’t considered before. Otherwise, young people will do what they do best: tune you out and find their own interests.
Kevin Grubb is a strategist at Razorfish Hong Kong