Jen admits to being nervous about leaving for college (Chestnut Hill, in suburban Philadelphia) in three weeks. On this day, Tina Wells and I shadow her as she shops. Tina is the 25-year-old founder and CEO of Buzz Marketing Group, a by-youth-for-youth marketing and communications agency with clients that include Sony, Candie's shoes, and Bear Sterns.
Wearing dollhouse jeans, a cropped sweatshirt over a Gumby T-shirt, and black Converse high-tops, Jen leads us to her regular haunts. When Tina and I casually hint we'd like to browse H&M, Jen says she's never been in there, but she knows her older sister has. We don't go.
It's easy to see why Jen serves as a "buzzSpotter" for Buzz MG and is the vice president of the Buzz Consultant Board. She's sharp, precocious, and appears not so easily swayed. She's also not very brand-conscious for a teenager. Jen shops at stores like Target and Kohl's for "what I'm in the mood for. I don't really care about the brand." She does care about cost: "I don't want to spend $100 on a pair of jeans," she says.
When Jen watches TV, she switches channels often. "As soon as a commercial comes on, I'm off to the next channel, and I actually forget what show I'm watching," she says. She buys her movie tickets right at showtime, so she happily misses the ads. She instant messages frequently, but only sends Buzz MG-related e-mails. She loves shopping too much to do it online. She's always uploading photos to MySpace. She doesn't like pop-up ads because they crashed her computer once. If you're an advertiser trying to reach Jen, you might try outdoor billboards, because she spends a lot of time driving.
While Jen tries on a pair of jeans at American Eagle, Tina tells me that she prefers immersion experiences to traditional focus groups. "There are gray areas. My business exists because we can explain the gray. Anybody can explain the black and white." In the mall, Tina's interested in what makes Jen want to check out a store, what she's immediately drawn to, and what she's no longer into. "Young people don't like feeling like you're playing them for a fool and taking advantage of them. That's the hands-down bottom line. Gimmicky is not cool. They'll run in the other direction," she says.
After circling her favorite strip of the mall a few times, Jen returns to American Eagle for a scarf and to Pac Sun for a sweatshirt. Tomorrow she's changing her hair color. During her first year of college, her style and taste will undoubtedly change, too. While the gray areas Tina describes certainly apply to Jen, with studied observation and strategically placed messages, advertisers can translate the gray into green.