Urban Youth Are Unhooking Brand Tether

As we head into Christmas and, if you're like me, race to close out a lengthy holiday shopping list, I find myself thinking a lot about young urban consumers and some dynamic shifts taking place.

Looking at my little cousins's wish lists (one teen and one college age), I realized that a great deal of what I've been hearing through the qualitative research we're conducting at Alloy Access is already playing itself out on the ground for urban youth around the country. Although these consumers still value looking cool ... fly ... dope or whatever word they're using this week, what we are seeing is a consumer who is shopping for and asking for things differently.

Just two years ago, my younger cousin wanted either a pair of Jordan's, a North Face jacket or whatever PlayStation was "hot" at the time. This year, he seems more concerned, specifying that I should "get more for my money." On his list this year: either three pairs of Vans, a parka from American Eagle or a gift certificate to GameStop so he can find the right deal.

Could it be that he's beginning to care about more than just the swoosh on his ankle? Is it that he understands that the economic climate is such that he shouldn't even dare ask for a $300 jacket? If you had asked me two years ago about the shopping and buying behaviors of the average urban youth consumer, I would have told you that brand names reign supreme, that young urban consumers more often than not would sacrifice paying a bill or even eating in order to acquire a status material item. But, what's coming through from our recent conversations is a group with a new "hustle."

For this distinct youth population, expressions of self are greater than the check on their sneakers or the name splashed across their shirt. They are striving to express themselves in more dynamic and less stereotypical ways. They're adopting brands not necessarily "urban" in their aesthetics, and creating styles and looks not solely tethered to particular name brands (e.g. Jerkin Style).

Instead of using brand names to define themselves, they're adopting a more multi-dimensional aesthetic in which to say "this is who I am" and "this is what I am about." Just when we thought the focus was on "The Money and the Cars," this urban, "Yes We Can" generation may prove us all wrong. The recession has bred not only a newfound resilience, but also redefinition.

With all of this in mind, it's important to remember that young urban consumers carry unique characteristics and like all young people, appear to be morphing at hyper speed. They want to know that we are listening, watching, and finding ways to meet their needs and that we respect them, not only their hustle, but their ability and right to evolve.

Isn't this what most young people truly yearn for? They want to feel they are being heard and understood, and, ultimately, that connection will have its rewards.

A new year is upon us, so why not try to keep one resolution: Don't rely on the old stereotypes. They're evolving and so should you.

Tags: teens
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4 comments about "Urban Youth Are Unhooking Brand Tether".
  1. Tracy Hill from Thillgroup , December 24, 2009 at 1:11 p.m.

    Great commentary! I would just add that I think urban youths and adults alike are redefining themselves based upon the "Obama Effect". Even though there have always been outstanding professionals, politicians, etc. of color, they have always played second fiddle to entertainers and athletes of color in the minds of urban youths. Having President Obama as a role model, I believe, is encouraging urban youths to desire to be respected for their minds and contributions more than ever before. As that happens, defining one's identity by material objects becomes less important. I believe that it will fundamentally change the way that brands need to speak to urban youths, who have become far more worldly than they've been given credit for.

  2. Robert Sawyer , December 24, 2009 at 4:26 p.m.

    Some interesting points here, and I think on the money; but I also think one should the role of the news cycle, which makes what's new, suddenly quite old in the snap of a finger. Celebrity has become so forced, so obviously manufactured, that a backlash was inevitable.

    What's more, branded objects have become so common as to have lost all meaning. See my critique of Louis Vuitton advertising in the Media Literacy Issue of AFTERIMAGE, where I argue that what Vuitton was arguing was the death of luxury as opposed to the brands ownership of it.

    I like Ms. Hill's "Obama Effect" notion, and hope there's more than a little truth there, but I think one can trace this trend back to Jay-Z's boast, "I'm not a businessman, I'm a business, man." At that point, the man inadvertently pulled back the curtain to reveal the actual nature of commerce—"I, it, we, take your money.

    I suggest it was this commoditization of "icons" who formerly shaped the desire and drove the consumption of Urban and Suburban Youth—from Michael Jordan to Sean Combs—that has caused the "unhooking of the brand tether," which Mr. Pinard has noticed.

    I also suspect that the current and upcoming generation of "youth," brought up on video games and CGI movies, don't find life anywhere as engaging or immersive. I think we'll see an acceleration of this trend, and its effect on consumption.

    Add this to the fact that there's not a lot of money and there's increasingly less credit out there and I believe the result will be renewed interest in "value," in the form of products, goods and services that actually perform.

    Pinard's younger cousin still wants brands i.e., Vans, but he has just adopted a new set of "values" more in line with what's possible, which is to say what's real. Toward that end, I wouldn't sell my Nike stock quite yet.

  3. Andy Wright , December 26, 2009 at 10:04 a.m.

    An interesting point of view. There's no doubt that perception of value has changed, but I'm not sure if that means that brands aren't as relevant.

    I think that everyone, youth included have begun to question their purchase decisions based on the value they're getting. Strong brands will remain relevant and prove their strength. Those trading on short-term discounting won't win in the long term. The top brands that add value to their relationships, product and stakeholders will come out of this phase ok.

  4. J.j. Sullivan from zig , January 13, 2010 at 4:31 p.m.

    "For this distinct youth population, expressions of self are greater than the check on their sneakers or the name splashed across their shirt. They are striving to express themselves in more dynamic and less stereotypical ways."

    I found the above quote interesting. The notion of self-expression. This is a generation that has a larger audience for self-expression than any other, with more ways to express themselves than any other. I am often in awe of how many photos and videos young people have tagged themselves in on Facebook. Often they have taken thousands of media opportunities to express their style just through photos and videos of themselves, let alone the increasing amount of free tools they have for manipulating & publishing media beyond just capturing RL.

    More of an audience includes more critics of their self-expression and more competition for uniqueness.

    Is it easier or harder to define your "self" as a teenager in today's exceedingly connected world?