There’s no better place to learn about teen girls than the Miss Teen USA pageant. During the last weekend of July, I had the honor of serving on the judging panel for this year’s competition in the Bahamas. The hardest part? Picking a winner among so many amazing young women. The best part? Getting to know these fun, talented teens better and picking up a few insights on what matters to them most.
Here are three lessons for marketers trying to make real connections with teen girls:
Positive Role Models
There’s more media out there than ever, but when it comes to finding adults to look up to, the pickings are slim. Miss Teen USA contestants named “finding positive role models” as one of the top challenges for women today, and this represents an opportunity for brands. If you want to forge a powerful relationship with teen girls, start celebrating the kind of women these teens can aspire to be someday. Put these role models front and center in your ad campaigns.
So who exactly fits that role? Contestants said they admire everyone from Michelle Obama, Kate Middleton and Oprah to Meryl Streep, Vera Wang and Bobbi Brown. The kind of accomplished women already living the “big dreams” these contestants talked about having for themselves. These same young women, however, struggled to name well-known teens who qualify as role models (maybe the contestants should have pointed to each other!), though a few girls mentioned Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez.
2. Embrace Differences
Even state titleholders competing at the national Miss Teen USA competition struggle with self-esteem and what they described over and over again as the unrealistic images of women in the media. This year’s winner, Logan West, who is biracial, was bullied in junior high for “not acting her skin color” and gave talks to 20,000 students across Connecticut about how to stop bullying. These young girls are looking for messages of inclusion and empowerment rather than pressure to fit an ideal. One contestant even quoted Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, saying, “Once you label me, you negate me.”
Smart brands are already catching on: The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty celebrated women’s bodies in all shapes and sizes in an effort to make beauty about confidence instead of anxiety. Even glossy newsstand magazine Seventeen recently promised not to alter photos and pledged to “celebrate every kind of beauty.” Those changes were spurred by an online protest started by one 14-year-old girl and embraced by thousands of others.
3. Honor the Mother-Daughter Bond
Many of the girls competing in Miss Teen USA were 17 or 18, but they weren’t shy about recognizing their moms (who were holding up homemade cheering signs in the audience!). When Miss Connecticut won the crown and co-host Colin Hornett asked her what she was thinking, she answered, “Where is my mother?” These teens recognize that moms do it all, often working full-time and raising families without much “me time” left over. In fact, the contestants named “finding time for themselves” as one of the top challenges facing women today.
Marketers can build connections with teens by honoring these authentic mother-daughter bonds. It’s something P&G’s “Proud Sponsor of Moms” campaign does perfectly by showing moms raising budding Olympians. The campaign’s “Best Job” video on YouTube has racked up more than 5 million views, but we’re also fond of the spots featuring former Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson talking about what her mom taught her during all those years of training.
We know the Miss Teen USA contestants—and girls across the country just like them—are going places. And if you focus on what matters to them most, they’ll take your brands with them.