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Are You Communicating with Teens?

May 30, 2006
They're numerous, cool and impressionable. They already spend millions. In a decade or so, they’ll be your primary market. Are you talking teens' language?
They want to be cool, are impressionable and have the cash – some $150 billion, reports PBS's Frontline.

Comprising a large part of the Millennial Generation born between 1980 and 2000, the teen demographic is becoming one of the most studied and analyzed generations in U.S. history. They are the fastest growing demographic segment, increasing to 32 million between 1990 and 2000 alone. By 2010 there will be 33.5 million of them, comprising 10 percent of the population.

Sometimes called the Internet Generation, Echo Boomers, the Boomlet, Nexters, Generation Y, the Nintendo Generation, the Digital Generation, the Sunshine Generation (in Canada), most recently Generation Text, and Generation Qué (Latinos), most prefer to be called Millennials, according to a survey by ABCNews.com.

"One of the biggest surprises for adults is today's teens are really mature; they are 15 going on 25," says Michael Wood, vice president of Teenage Research Unlimited (www.teenresearch.com), Northbrook, Ill. "They are exposed to an awful lot these days in terms of images – sex, drugs and violence – but despite this exposure they have great composure. They are basically good kids and are handling this exposure in a good way."

These teens are team-oriented and that makes sense, according to Wood. "This is the first age group that has grown up in organized sporting leagues and teams," he says. "Overprotected all their lives, they haven't really been on their own, but their parents didn't have much choice. The rules changed in terms of what play is for a teen, what they can and can't do. This is a generation that grew up wearing a car seat, a bicycle helmet, being told they can't just go out and play or trick or treat, and they've grown up experiencing some dramatic events – 9/11, the tsunami and Katrina. There's a real sense of parents wanting to protect them."

Teen researcher Michael Wood notes today's teens are rather mature in terms of what they've been exposed to, yet also have been protected and pampered by their parents. Given the chance to customize products for themselves – as suggested by this example from Jones Soda Co. – teens reveal both self-determination and childlike qualities.

Mobility and increased responsibility because of two-income families means teens shop for themselves all the time, but also are responsible for more of the family shopping, influencing major purchases as well as foods and beverages, reports RetailWire.com. The most affluent generation of young people to date, more than one-third get an allowance from their parents, nearly three-quarters work around the house to earn cash and nearly one-third work while going to school, according to Mintel International (www.mintel.com).

They control $4,500 in annual discretionary dollars at age 16, and 70 percent spend up to $35 per week on food or beverages for themselves -- mostly on snacks or fast food. Boys under age 18 have an average of $525 to spend each month, while girls have $430, according to Jim Taylor, futurist and vice chairman of The Harrison Group (www.intellisponse.com/worlds), Waterbury, Conn. Total projected spending for teens in 2006 is $128.5 billion.

The first generation to grow up surrounded by digital media, teens (and children 8 to 12) gorge themselves on eight and a half hours of media a day, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation (www.kff.org). They are proficient at multi-tasking, and one can get exhausted watching them play Internet games, download movies to their DVD players, do homework, download music to their iPods, talk on the cell phone to one person and text message another, all while eating. On the downside, this generation is also known for attention problems and inability to delay gratification.

Don't dis them

Raised by protective, indulgent, active, involved Boomer and Xer parents (and grandparents), teens have been pampered and coddled. They perceive grownups as "too stressed out," and, although they actually like and admire their parents, they don't want the same lifestyle. With pen pals in Singapore and Sydney, Millennials see things as global, connected and open for business 24/7.

Success to them means being really good at your job, having a good relationship with your kids and being in control of your life, according to a survey by TRU. They exhibit a strong need for individuality in their self-expression, have a strong sense of empowerment, like to work in teams, believe they can conquer any challenge, seek out causes to support and are hip to hype from the media.

When it comes to ethnicity and race, teens are the most diverse market segment, and are not overly concerned with ethnic designators. They blur the lines between ethnicity and race, according to market research firm Cheskin (www.cheskin.com), Redwood Shores, Calif., defining themselves as "intra-cultural." In fact, one out of every three teens belongs to a minority race or ethnic group, compared to one out of five in the Pre-Boomer generation. Some 15 percent are African American/Black, 15 percent are Hispanic/Latino, 4 percent are Asian American and the remaining two-thirds are Caucasian. But Asian American teens are expected to grow 31 percent in this decade alone, to 1,1888,000 in 2010, and by 2020 the Hispanic/Latino teen market – now at 4.6 million – will balloon 62 percent, growing six times faster than the rest of teens.

"There is no such thing as hitting teens [as a broad demographic]," says Malcolm Bird, senior vice president of AOL Kids and Teens, an Adweek panelist on targeting teens in an online and mobile world. "You've got to decide what sort of teens and what demo you want to hit within the media."

Brand names are less of a hallmark of quality and more a means for teens to define themselves. "Advertising to teens cynical about marketing demands that they believe they are discovering brands on their own," says Taylor, who divides teens into five groups: A-listers (popular kids in a crowd), American Dreams (regular hard-working teens), Individual Thinkers (opinionated leaders), Outsiders (estranged and suffering from low-self esteem) and Jack Blacks (or JBs, party kids).

Online buzz is king. " ‘Did it break [as in break out]? Do my friends think it's cool?' Those things hold the most sway," Taylor says. "It's an opinion process that goes on through IMs [instant messaging] and text-messaging, and it applies to everything from movies to cargo pants."

Teens constitute a very unique segment – fickle, competitive, ever-changing and constantly on the move, according to panelists at last year's Wharton Marketing Conference. Companies that want to capture teen consumers must be able to speak their language, identify their latest trends and find the optimal ways to target them through everything from music downloads to instant messaging ads.

"Teens are an enormously important segment because they are disproportionately powerful in terms of being trend setters and early adopters," says Keith Niedermeier, Wharton visiting professor of marketing. "Additionally they are an attractive market because of the lifetime value they offer. Capturing teens and establishing brand loyalty can launch decades of positive yields in the future. It's an incredibly lucrative market, but definitely not for the faint of heart." And he adds, "Nowhere does market research have a shorter shelf-life than when talking about the teen segment."

Cool whatever tends to have a short shelf life for teens – if you are reading about it in mainstream publications, it's too late. Unlike other demographic groups, products need to be brought to market lickety-split. That's why cool hunters, who specialize in youth culture, enjoy great success.

Cool hunters Sharon Lee and Dee Dee Gordon, of Hollywood, Calif.-based Look-Look, a teen market research company, use Youth Information Specialists (or former teen innovators) to stay ahead of the trends. "Trends spread in a triangle," says Lee. "At the top there's the innovator (two or three percent of the population), underneath are trend-setters (17 percent), who pick up on the innovator's ideas and claim them as their own. Under that, are early adopters (varies), who take what the trendsetter is doing and make it palatable for mass consumption to the mainstream (80 percent). The mass consumer picks up on it, runs with it and actually kills it."

Connected in their own language

A telephone survey conducted last fall by Princeton Survey Research Associates, found: 84 percent of teens own a desktop computer, a notebook computer, a cell phone or a personal digital assistant, 44 percent have two or more of those items, 12 percent have three and 2 percent have all four, reports the St. Petersburg Times. And the key age for the transition to technology appears to be about seventh grade, when there's a surge in socializing.

A recent NPD Group study found wireless phones are becoming an important "coming of age" marker. Twelve percent of kids ages 8-12 have a wireless phone, but that jumps to 49 percent for ages 13-15, according to a Harris Interactive youth survey last year. Girls 15 to 17 seem to be the technology leaders: 97 percent have used instant messaging, compared with 87 percent of boys in that age group, and 57 percent of girls 15 to 17 have sent text messages, compared with 40 percent of boys.

Who's connecting with wireless?
Users by age Total users in millions % of age group with cellphones
13-15 6.2 49%
16-17 5.8 68%
18-21 13.5 81%

Source: Harris Interactive July 2005-January 2006, Census Bureau (number of users based on Census 2005 population projection and Harris.

For American teens, e-mail is just so yesterday. They prefer instant messaging (exchanging instant messages on-line) often engaged in multiple conversations. They also love their cell phones. In fact, some 45 percent have a cell phone, according to TRU, and 37 percent also use text messaging (see "TEXT MESSAGING," below), with numbers rising every year.

Texting is an abbreviated form of writing that's barely understandable by older people who are more comfortable sending and receiving traditional e-mail, reports USA Today. Short Message Service (SMS) messages are generally limited to 80 characters, so texting users condense their messages to fit more thoughts into a single message. TransL8it! (www.transI8it.com) allows you to enter a message – either in plain English or in SMS-speak. Hit the submit button, and a translation appears. Like many web-based SMS systems, TransL8it! counts characters as you type so messages fit within the 80-character SMS limit. Soon users will be able to send SMS messages to friends directly from the site.

How they define health

Teens' views on health are somewhat different than adults, according to a June 2005 survey of teens conducted by Buzzback Market Research (www.buzzback.com), New York. They believe diet can have a direct impact on their health, well-being, energy levels, performance and appearance and seek foods that deliver those attributes.

To teens, being healthy means looking good (being in shape) (61 percent) and not gaining weight (38 percent). Feeling good, including having energy, and eating a healthy, balanced diet are important attributes to teens making food consumption decisions. It's notable they categorize what they're eating into "junk food" or "healthy food," with healthy food that doesn't sacrifice taste being the optimal choice. But almost half of respondents think healthy foods are too expensive, and 45 percent (more females than males) say there aren't enough healthy snack options. On the other hand, nearly one-third think food and beverages companies do a good job producing new products that meet current health needs and trends.

Well aware of new product offerings, nearly two-thirds tried a new snack, food or beverage in the past year, and younger teens are even more amenable (75 percent). Why? Because it looked appetizing (77 percent), curiosity (68 percent), new flavor (62 percent) or it appeared to be convenient or easy to prepare and eat (61 percent). Males are more influenced by packaging and advertising, while females seek fewer calories and sugar-free/lower carb content.

Attributes most appealing to teens include: fresh, convenient, added nutrients including vitamins and calcium. Products that remove ingredients (reduced salt, sugar and carbs) are less appealing. One in five seeks products with no caffeine, with extra caffeine, and vegetarian or vegan fare.

One-quarter of all teens skip breakfast (higher for females and African-Americans) because they don't have time. On-the-go products are most desirable; in fact, one of the opportunities for processors is on-the-go breakfast foods. Teens consume nearly three snacks per day. African-American teens are most likely to skip a meal and struggle to eat healthily. It's notable only 6 percent cite energy/meal replacement bars as a frequent snack. There's a lot of interest, but they say product offerings often fall short of expectations.

Attributing it to media images, some 80 percent of teens believe there is a lot of pressure to look a certain way. Despite weight pressures, 60 percent say they do not follow any diet plans at all, although portion control is important. For those who do follow a diet plan, 35 percent do the Atkins diet, followed by an individual plan designed by a nutritionist (18 percent) and Slim-Fast diet (18 percent).

Less than 40 percent are happy with their weight, and food products that ease that concern are alluring to them. Females, more concerned about their weight, look for foods low in calories and fat, while males are more concerned about foods' performance and strength-enhancing properties, so they seek products with higher protein levels. Hispanic teens are more concerned about weight than non-Hispanic teenagers and are more likely to be motivated by healthier versions of traditional "homemade" foods.

Quenching their thirst

New products in the beverage category particularly resonate with teens. "Teens are diverse in their beverage tastes, and are very open to trying new products," observes Gary Hemphill, senior vice president information services, Beverage Marketing Corp. of New York (www.beveragemarketing.com). "Bottled water, carbonated soft drinks and energy drinks rank among their favorites. Portability is important to them, as is health."

Teens drink more bottled water than any other beverage (61 percent), followed by fruit juice-based products, milk and sports drinks and energy sodas. Cola drinks are consumed by 44 percent, but females prefer the diet version. Cola drinkers say taste is the No. 1 attribute (59 percent) rather than caffeine content (17 percent).

Hansen Natural Corp. has demonstrated a knack for coming up with products, such as its line of energy drinks, that appeal to both teens and adults.

Yes, females love to tote their fashionable waters, including Aquafina and Dasani. Males are enamored of sports waters, such as Gatorade, and energy and alternative drinks, such as SoBe's Adrenaline Rush. Hansen Natural Corp., Corona, Calif., is masterful at creating cool products, such as Monster Energy, launched in April 2002 and now the leading 16-oz. energy drink in the U.S. and No. 2 brand overall with a 19.4 percent share. Hansen also makes Lost Energy, the No. 8 brand, and newcomer Rumba, a 100 percent juice drink with taurine, ginseng, glucose, guarana, B vitamins and caffeine.

Alternative beverages also are big biz for companies appealing to teens. Peter van Stolk, founder and CEO of Seattle-based Jones Soda, which creates an emotional connection with consumers, says, "People get fired up about Jones Soda because it's theirs." The company appeals to the 14-24-year-old demographic with its energy drink WhoopAss, through extreme sports and blogs on its web site (www.jonessoda.com). Jones lets its young customers decide what new flavors they want and to vote on consumer pictures that appear on the labels of its retro bottles.

One of the fastest growing beverages for teens is coffee whatever … to give them an energy boost and help them stay awake in class. It's not unusual to see teens lined up at a Starbucks for their favorite drink, Frappuccino, which lacks the bitterness of espresso or regular coffee and has a halo of whipped cream. And Starbucks partnership with PepsiCo to produce bottled Starbucks Frappuccino and Doubleshot for retail has been a tremendous success.

Snack attack

"In food products, the good news is teens are very interested in convenience, attracted to products that offer variety and newness and there's a growing interest in healthy food alternatives," says Wood.

There's no doubt, Frito-Lay knows how to build excitement for a brand. "One of the most appealing brands to teens is our Doritos brand," says Jared Dougherty, spokesperson, Frito-Lay Inc., Plano, Texas, a subsidiary of PepsiCo. "The brand has had a long history of introducing bold and spicy flavors that teens are looking for and is involved with appealing promotions.

"Doritos has done a good job using music as well as comedy in advertising to appeal to teens," he continues. "The brand now is offering interesting prizes that money can't buy, experience-based prizes that really appeal to teens and young adults – for example, win a day as an intern at a record label. Last summer we invited people to work backstage at music festivals across the country. And when Doritos introduced its packaging with a great new look for the bag, we held a promotion for teens to get a new look of their own – a makeover."

Crafting grab-and-go snacks for teens is something Kraft Foods and its Nabisco brand excel at, providing options such as Kraft Easy Mac, DiGiorno frozen pizza or its latest offering – 100-calorie snack packs of its most popular snack brands. Teens, particularly females, don't have the time or inclination to figure out portions, so this line makes snacking and calories a no-brainer.

Meanwhile, Minneapolis-based General Mills continues to grow share for its best-selling brand in the frozen hot snacks category, Totino's Pizza Rolls. It's a great snack for hungry teens, particularly males, who enjoy savory flavors. It's notable that seven of the Top 20 frozen Hot Snacks/Sandwiches contain pepperoni, and 49 percent of frozen pizza options included pepperoni, according to AC Nielsen (26 weeks ending Dec. 31, 2005).

"We find in all categories that all ages love spicier foods both in restaurant options and home cooking," says Marlene Johnson, senior public relations manager. "All of us are exposed to and enjoy more full-bodied flavors, including Mexican and other ethnic foods."

When hands are full or teens are watching their weight, chewing gum is a perfect solution. It helps multi-tasking teens concentrate better, eases tension and some brands even whiten teeth. Chicago-based Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co.'s Orbit, the No. 2 gum franchise, second only to Wrigley's Extra gum, will roll out the two latest Orbit flavors in July: Lemon-Lime and Crystal Mint.

"Despite having a lot of money to spend, they want to get good value and are very selective in how they spend," says Wood. "They are an extremely sophisticated group in terms of shopping behaviors. We like to say these teens are as comfortable shopping at Wal-Mart as they are Tiffany."

For the first time, this age group very sees a strong link between what they consume and performance, according to Wood. "They've grown up with Smart Water – water with electrolytes for brain power. We hear them talk about dosing with a caffeine fix before an exam or an energy boost before a game. Because they have so many choices, they don't have to settle on a soft drink when they can have an energy drink.

"My advice to the food industry is it's important to be open and take chances (creating products) for this age group," says Wood. "This is a very forgiving cohort. The myth associated with teens is if they try something that doesn't work and it flops they hold it against you. These teens are not like that, in fact, the only mistake that a brand can make is not taking chances."

U got 2 luv em, TTFN.


Cool, often pronounced "kewl," is the all-purpose word for OK, good, great and terrific, according to Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor of popular culture, reports STL Today.com. "Cool" remains the gold standard of slang in the 21st century, much as it did for the latter half of the 20th century.

Some other teen jargon:

    • All that and a bag of chips – very attractive, fine, cool

  • Awesome –
      great, really cool

  • Butter, butta –
      something that is good

  • Brizoke –
      broke, no money

  • Cheddar, cheese –

  • Chillaxin –
      hanging out and relaxing

  • Crush –
      the person you really like, but they don't know it

  • Dis –

  • M&M –

  • Phat –
      very cool

  • Rents –

  • Slacker –
      not someone who tries but can't do something, this person is lazy or dumb

  • Tight –
      very close, based on relationships; best friends are tight

  • Trendies –
      kids that always are the first to try a popular item

  • Way –
      very. If something is cool, another teen will say "way," meaning they agree, and then some

  • Whatever –
  • one-word answer to something they just don't want to talk about

Source: http://parentingteens.about.com/cs/familylife/1/blawords,htm, http://www.thesource4ym.com/teenlingo/


  • BBL:
      Be back later

  • BRB:
      Be right back

  • IMHO:
      In my humble opinion

  • JK:
      Just kidding

  • H&K 4 U bab, tak caR:
      Hugs and kisses for you babe, take care

  • LOL:
      Laughing out loud

  • LYLAS:
      Love you like a sister

  • NP:
      No problem

  • OMG:
      Oh my God

  • OTP:
      On the phone

  • ROFL:
      Rolling on the floor laughing

  • RUOK:
      Are you okay?

  • CYL8r 2nite@*$'sk:
      See you later at Starbucks, OK?

  • TTFN:
      Ta-ta for now

  • TTYL:
      Talk to you later

  • YW:
  • You're welcome
Source: Wired magazine


Eating morally is a cause celebre for some teens. They work together to decry pesticide use, to limit deforestation and to improve the conditions of food workers in developing countries. They vote with their dollar for fair trade, conservation and natural foods.

More than half of 1,183 teens in a January 2006 Omnibuzz (a collaborative effort between TRU and Harris Interactive) survey believe the nation is headed in the wrong direction - surprising news from a generational cohort often described as carefree and optimistic. Only 18 percent say the nation is headed in the right direction.

They think even less of what we've done to the environment. Only 17 percent are satisfied with the country's progress on environmental issues, compared to 57 percent who believe the U.S. is headed in the wrong direction environmentally. Their sentiments on education are similarly grim: 18 percent approve and 51 percent disapprove of the nation's track record.

TRU Trends Director Rob Callender says last year's natural disasters - and lackluster response efforts - contributed to teens' overall feeling of unease about the world around them. Despite their gloomy outlook, teens haven't yet given up hope, Callender says. "Optimism and faith in the future are integral parts of the teen mindset," he says. "In a follow-up Omnibuzz survey, 60 percent of teens said they believe 2006 will be a better year than 2005.

How we stock their vending machines

According to the agreement reached between the Southport, Conn.-based Alliance for a Healthier Generation (a joint venture of the American Heart Assn. and the Clinton Foundation) and the country's top beverage companies (PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Cadbury Schweppes and the American Beverage Assn.), elementary and middle schools will sell only water, some unsweetened juices and low-fat plain and flavored milks. However, the juice and milk will only be available in 8-oz. containers in elementary schools or 10-oz. containers in middle schools. At the high school level, diet sodas, light sports drinks and reduced-calorie teas will be added to the list, and milk and juice servings can increase to 12-oz. sizes. A final caveat of the guidelines requires at least half of all beverages sold in the high schools be water.

Potato or tortilla chips 43%
Cookies 35%
Fresh fruit 32%
Chewing gum 27%
Ice cream 26%
Candy bar 22%
Popcorn or pretzels 21%
Crackers 19%
Cereal or granola bar 18%
Yogurt 17%

Source: Buzz back's report "Teens Eating Healthy: Oxymoron or Trend?"


TRU asked 1,994 teens (ages 12 to 19) what beverage brands they drank in the past six months:

Coca-Cola Classic 55.2% (higher for Hispanics)
Sprite 52.1% (higher for females and African Americans)
Dr. Pepper 51.2%
Pepsi-Cola 51.0% (higher for Hispanics)
Gatorade 46.4%
Mountain Dew 44.2% (higher for males)
7 Up 43.5%
Aquafina 37.5%
A&W Root Beer 33.1%
Cherry Coke 31.4%
  Average minutes per month
Male 650
Female 825
Combined average 780
Source: Telephia's Q4 '05 Mobile Youth Report


Hip-hop, rap and R&D musicians still comprise more than half of the Top 10 list of music act scores, but rock acts are threatening to make the race competitive for the first time in years.

Top music scores (Percent*)


Kanye West 37
Eminem 36
The Game 35
Green Day 35
System of a Down 34
Three 6 Mafia 33
Weezer 32
Fall Out Boy 30
Jay-Z 29
Nelly 29


Fall Out Boy 52
Kelly Clarkson 50
Chris Brown 49
Green Day 49
Usher 48
Mariah Carey 48
Kanye West 45
Ciara 45
Weezer 43
Gwen Stefani 42


Source: TRU's TRU Score 2006 - derived by dividing percentage of respondents who indicated they like a particular artist "very much" by percentage who are familiar with that artist.



Teens' favorite color is blue, but it's rare to find a naturally blue food. That's why food manufacturers have developed a variety of foods, from cookies to soda that are not blue by nature. It's a way to add interest to ice cream, cookies, toppings, and even french fries. In fact, some think the newly introduced blue M&M's taste better than the other colors.

No matter what the latest trends, teens are rebellious by nature, so a quest for the unconventional is always on their agenda. Since blue is so rare in nature, naturally endowed blueberries in all their forms are a great solution in food formulation for teens. Millennials perceive blueberries as healthy but cool.

TV has some work to do

A poll by Bolt Media, a Web site used to upload videos and photos, found only one in four 12- to 34-year-olds can name all four major broadcast networks: ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox, reports AdAge.com. Surfing the Internet is the most popular activity for 84 percent of respondents, followed by hanging out with friends (76 percent), watching movies (71 percent), and TV viewing (69 percent). The five most-watched TV networks are Fox, Comedy Central, ABC, MTV and Cartoon Network.

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