'Seriously Speaking' With Teens

Teen entertainment used to be mostly light and fluffy, but in the last two years, teens have embraced themes that people don’t usually associate with young adults. For marketers, this shift means they need to re-evaluate how they engage and work with teen customers. 

The most obvious example of this shift is the burgeoning young adult publishing market, which gave birth to blockbuster series “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent.” Set in dystopian settings, these series highlight teen characters that are fighting for their survival, their identities and their closest relationships.

A more recent example is John Green’s “nerdfighter” movement, which includes a series of best-selling novels, a $300 million hit movie (“The Fault In Our Stars) and an online empire. Last month, the post-apocalyptic teen science fiction “Maze Runner” debuted #1 at the box office despite mediocre reviews and during a time when teen-oriented movies tend not to do well. 



This phenomenon isn’t just exclusive to publishing and movies: this summer, MTV aired “Finding Carter,” a show about a girl kidnapped as a child and is trying to reconcile with her birth family. It was one of TV’s most social shows. On Fox’s fall lineup is “Red Band Society,” a show about teens with life-threatening illnesses, narrated by a teen in a coma. The show premiered to modest ratings, but it has also become one of TV’s most social shows. Shows like these are a far cry from “90210” or “Dawson’s Creek.” 

Sometimes marketers think they need to be shallow with teens, but these examples show there’s an appetite among this audience for something deeper. If your company markets to teens, here’s what you can do to appeal to the changing tastes of teens. 

1. Investigate the Underlying Needs Driving the Popularity of Heavier Themes 

To remain relevant to teen customers, companies need to learn the reasons why more serious content is resonating with teens now. Dystopian movies like “Divergent” and “Maze Runner” have all tapped into need-states that were previously under-explored. Is the popularity of apocalyptic movies an indication that teens are concerned about the fate of the world? Why are teens watching movies and TV shows about life-threatening illness? Is it because they increasingly have family members with chronic and serious health conditions, or is it because they have more access to information about diseases and treatments? Answers to these questions speak to powerful need-states of comfort, safety and well-being, ones that successful brands need to provide in some way. 

2. Explore Ways of Connecting Over More Serious Topics

With teens thinking about weighty issues, there’s an opportunity to facilitate the conversation and connect with teen customers in a way that provides value. Doing so requires a great deal of care, of course, but companies should consider providing a safe place for teens to discuss these issues and build a community around it. Depending on your category, building a two-way relationship with teen customers can help inform cause-marketing strategies and tactics while providing a platform for people to share information and connect with others. Health-care and wellness brands, for example, could invite “Fault In Our Stars” and “Red Band Society” viewers to a community where they could explore how teens cope with their healthcare issues, and those of their loved ones. When approached thoughtfully, these discussions can create an effective “community of caring.”

3. Consider direct tie-ins. 

Where appropriate, brands could partner with popular media properties. Soda and snack brands could partner with upcoming movies, for instance. Dystopian movies could tie in well with gaming and fitness—seeing Katniss kick butt can be very motivating to pursue a fitness regime and get in shape! In a recent episode, main characters on “Finding Carter” went on a Macy’s shopping trip that showcased the brand in a positive, aspirational way. If the fit is right, there are many thoughtful, cost-effective ways to connect to these properties. 

The sudden popularity of serious themes among teens is a sign that marketers need to re-evaluate how they’re engaging this audience. Despite the stereotypes about Millennials and Gen Z customers, this trend suggests that there’s a lot more to discover.

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