When you're engaging teenagers, little nuances that are often overlooked become the noose around your neck. You think "hip-hop" is hip-hop, and that teens love hip-hop. Not so fast. There are a lot of different niches inside a genre. One kid hates a certain kind of hip-hop, but loves another. A different kid could be the opposite. You have to understand the subtle – but significant – differences, the same way every color that could be called "green" is not the same. So if you think that teens love green, you better know every different shade and what it signifies. One time I saw a company who'd made Kobe Bryant postings all over New York. Get that mess outta here! Nobody wants to see L.A. Lakers advertising in New York! So it hurt more than it helped. That type of miscue is magnified when you're marketing to teens.
If you don't pay attention to cultural nuances with teens, they will reject your products quicker than pouring them down the drain. Teens don't have to think about whether or not they're going to accept your product. They either accept it or they don't, instantly. They don't want to embrace your product — they want to say it's whack. By the time they're teenagers, they know they're being marketed to. So their skeptical force field is cranked all the way up.
With even the most anti-corporate teens, there's an easy way to get to them. Be hater-proof. Do it in a way where they can't hate it, where they see your brand as facilitating an experience that is more valuable than the charge they get from hating. Every teenager tends toward hating, and you can't blame them. Being a teenager is such a formative time that anything you embrace or align yourself with becomes your identity. And identity-by-association becomes what the teen is judged by. Respect the intelligence and sensitivity of teenagers, as well as what a socially precarious age that is.
It's not just about using signifiers of what teens are into. If you're going to do something with vampires, you better do your research about what it is about vampires that appeals to teens, or you might as well bite your own neck. There's a deeper level that you're committing to. It's about who you get involved with your brand, and who you have as a spokesman for your brand. And do it in a way that’s not so ridiculously over the top.
Let's say you're making a commercial and you're using Skrillex's music because you want to connect with teens, and you've heard he's the king of this thing called dubstep, so you splash the name Skrillex across the screen and crank up his music in your ad. It's overkill. Teens will see that you're trying to beat them over the head by glomming onto a trend and thinking that makes your product cool. But how about just having one part in your commercial where there's a car driving by and you get a glimpse of Skrillex himself sitting on a bus bench. Every single teenager who's tuned in is going to be like, "That's Skrillex!" It's the difference between shouting at a teenager and talking to them on their level. Which one is more effective? It's the same thing whether you're trying to engage them as a parent or a brand. "Hey look we paid Skrillex a heap of money to be in our commercial!" versus, "Oh that's Skrillex, he just happens to be sitting on a bus bench in L.A. where we made this spot." Use the layer effect to make it hater-proof.
When I was a teenager, I remember Sprite did commercials where they had a DJ scratching, and it just happened to be Kool Herc. I thought "Damn! How did they know to use him!" And then the graffiti in the background wasn't fake graffiti, it was done by Phase 2. And I was like, "Wow, that's Phase 2!" It legitimized the whole thing, and it felt proactive to me, rather than an act of co-opting. Any cornball general market follower would've liked the ad because it is hip-hop. The cool teen is going to like it enough because it's hip-hop — unless you're using false signifiers that they can spot a mile away — but they're going to love it because they recognize the DJ, they recognize who's doing the graffiti and if that person is wearing the right fat laces. Was it done by a set and props cornball style, or was it done the way they would do it? You have to personalize it so they'll love it.
Teens want to resist corporate culture, but if it's done the right way it will help the arts and help the people that teens aspire to be. And if it's helping the people they aspire to be, they can't hate on you. You’re hater-proof.