Innovation & Design

Smells Like Teen Marketing


Plus: 3iYing's $200 Billion Pitch >>

If you think Virgin Mobile has the teen market all figured out, think again. In April, a team of eight intrepid young women met with the marketing team at the hip wireless-phone outfit to explain that its ads in teen magazines like CosmoGIRL were out of sync with the 21st-century girl.

"We just didn't relate to them," says 18-year-old Guyesha Guzman, referring to a few ads, one of which featured a rabbi accompanied with the text: "Cell-phone contracts, avoid them like shellfish."

"Huh? How will that get me to buy a phone?" muses Guzman.

GIRL'S-EYE VIEW. The group presented Virgin Mobile with ideas about what works for young women like themselves, clearly a target market for Virgin. First off, they pointed out that girls on an allowance just can't afford the Virgin "pay as you go" plans, especially with all their nonstop chatter. So, parents' participation was key to Virgin's success with the teen audience. The team introduced Virgin Mobile to the concept of the "Parent Trap," and how young girls like to play on their parents' emotions to get what they want -- in this instance, the Virgin phone.

In August, Virgin Mobile ran ads -- in teen magazines like CosmoGirl -- with a tear-out phone that girls could use to playfully fake phone conversations and guilt-trip their parents into buying them more minutes. Virgin Mobile said it had been working with the idea about the teen-parent pitch before it met with 3iYing. "That's not to say 3iYing didn't talk to us about that idea, but it was executed for us by another agency," says Bob Stohrer, Virgin Mobile vice-president of brand and communications, who acknowledged that he was impressed with the refreshing and bold ideas of the 3iYing team, and thought they were breakthrough thinkers.

DESIGNING (YOUNG) WOMEN. Welcome to the world of imaginative ideas and 3iYing, a new design and marketing firm started by Chief Executive Heidi Dangelmaier. The eccentric founder is known for the girl-market insights she has given to companies such as Sega, which she pushed to make video games for girls. 3iYing is in the extreme-makeover business, providing brands and corporations with strategies developed by smart girls, ranging in age from 15 to 25.

To get her team of 20, Dangelmaier scoured the New York High School of Art & Design and LaGuardia High School of Music & Performing Arts. Students at these specialized schools "have a very developed sense of design, which is why they're able to think forward," says Dangelmaier. 3iYing -- whose name combines a reference to the all-seeing third eye on the U.S. dollar bill with "ying," representing feminine potential -- launched in January.

Demographic trends indicate that potential for the young outfit is quite vast. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of teens aged 12 to 19 soared to 32 million, an increase of nearly 4.5 million. The demographic's 17% growth rate far outpaced the growth of the rest of the population, according to Mediamark Research.

THE TEEN AGE. They're also a robust part of the economy, wielding increasing influence on household purchases. For example, in 2003, nearly half -- 47% -- of 9- to 17-year-olds were asked by their parents to go online to find out about products or services, vs. 37% in 2001. And surveys show that today's teens are among the biggest consumers of iPods and cell phones.

For many companies, the junior customer is the fastest-growing market. "That set of young consumers of girls aged 9 to 17 has been one of the fastest-growing segments in apparel in the past two years," points out Harry Adjmi, CEO of One Step Up, a New York company that supplies clothing to retailers Wal-Mart (WMT) and Macy's (FD), as well as specialty stores like Charlotte Russe and Forever 21. Adjmi has hired 3iYing to develop his own One Step Up line.

"Once [major retailers] realized how big this customer segment is, figuring out how to service this consumer has leaped to the forefront," says Stan Greenstein, chief operating officer of Sara Max, a New York manufacturer of sleepwear and undergarments for retailers like J.C. Penney (JCP). Greenstein is working with 3iYing to develop a line of junior sleepwear and lingerie for J.C. Penney, exploring the dramatic change in the way teenagers view lingerie. One key insight: Boundaries between bed wear and outdoor wear are falling fast and hard.

GIRL MADE, GIRL APPROVED. Beyond apparel, 3iYing is working with Smart Design, an industrial-design firm perhaps best known for its work on the OXO International line of household products. Smart Design CEO Davin Stowell says in order to create products that meet consumers' unspoken needs, designers today shadow people and watch them use products. "To design for a 13-year-old girl, it doesn't matter how much we observe them -- we live in the mind-set of a 25- to 45-year-old," says Stowell, who is in the process of scouting a corporate partner for 3iYing's ideas.

In its 10 months, Dangelmaier's young team has come up with radical ideas on how to design and sell everything from condoms and lingerie to food. They call these ideas "Girl Made, Girl Approved." The teens started by leafing through dozens of girl magazines and analyzing the advertisements. In the process, they found that most brands are out of touch with the 21st-century girl and her desires.

For instance, 16-year-old team member Michelle Cuello points out that tampon marketing is hopelessly out of tune with how today's teenagers feel. She points to ads that feature a goldfish in a leaky bowl, with a tag line that says something like, "A single leak could ruin your life." Or another ad featuring a woman with a shark in the water, with a tag line about how a leak can attract unwanted attention. "The ads highlight fear and shame, and [are] about how this tampon will fix a problem," says Cuello.

CONTENT CREATORS. Such insights are invaluable to people like Smart Design's Cuello. "These young girls are tackling serious subjects like feminine products, which have been traditionally designed and marketed by men at big corporations -- [men] who don't have a clue to the emotional needs of the customer," says Cuello. "That's pretty powerful."

Once the girls identify products they believe are either ill-designed or poorly marketed, they survey their worldwide network of friends via e-mail, or in Internet communities like MySpace.com. They come up with a list of what girls really want and what appeals to them about the product. Then the team redesigns the product and comes up with a marketing campaign that resonates with their age group.

"Such group creativity and content-sharing makes a product far superior to anything that you will ever find," says 3iYing's Dangelmaier. Moreover, members of Gen Y have come to expect a degree of co-creation. A Nov. 2 Pew report says, "Fully half of all teens and 57% of teens who use the Internet could be considered Content Creators. They have created a blog or Web page, posted original artwork, photography, stories, or videos online, or remixed online content into their own new creations."

PARENTAL ENLIGHTENMENT. To be sure, there are pitfalls to an approach where consumers design their own products. Corporations often have found that consumers might not necessarily know what they want, nor do they have the ideas or the acumen to invent what they might want five years from now, warns Chip Walker, executive vice-president and director of planning at marketing and communications firm BBDO in Chicago. Says Walker: "There's no substitute for vision."

It's clear from the solutions presented by 3iYing, however, that Dangelmaier has found a team that can cut through the clutter pretty quickly. And despite the girls' inexperience, their insights do seem to be on target. Although Virgin Mobile didn't, in the end, hire 3iYing, its Web site now presents a segment, developed by agencies Fallin and Mother, titled "Parental Enlightenment" -- educate your folks as to why you need the phone and instructions on how to pressure parents to buy you a Virgin Mobile phone.

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