OIA Industry Breakfast: Teens are primed to head outdoors, but…

If you're worried about the direction of teen culture, here's a piece of good news -- kids these days love to "get the Led out." That's right. U.S. teens really dig Led Zeppelin and other classic rock. Hey, maybe the kids really are, as The Who said, "alright." But you can also take comfort in the fact that today's teens want to get off the couch, get the lead out and be active outdoors.
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If you're worried about the direction of teen culture, here's a piece of good news -- kids these days love to "get the Led out." That's right. U.S. teens really dig Led Zeppelin and other classic rock. Hey, maybe the kids really are, as The Who said, "alright." But you can also take comfort in the fact that today's teens want to get off the couch, get the lead out and be active outdoors.

"There is a real interest in outdoor recreational activities," said Michael Wood, president of Teen Research Unlimited (TRU), while speaking to a crowd of about 500 at the Outdoor Industry Association breakfast Jan. 23 during Outdoor Retailer Winter Market.

After interviewing teens in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, TRU discovered that kids view outdoor recreation as an escape from the daily grind. "We also heard a lot about the sense of accomplishment and problem-solving that's associated with these types of activities," said Wood. The adrenaline and the intensity derived from outdoor sports also appealed to the teens.

On the other hand, Wood said that teens perceive several obstacles to things like hiking. "For some, these sports are seen as boring," he said. Also, kids prefer to do these activities with friends, but they said it's difficult to coordinate schedules with buddies and then find transportation. Cost was a factor as well, and some teens associate fear with outdoor activities -- a fear mostly created by Hollywood. "You don't want to go out in a cabin; bad things happen when you're out in a cabin!" Wood said to a roar of laughter from the crowd.

But Wood said that this generation of teens, perhaps more than any in history, is primed to be brought into the outdoor fold. One reason is that they are heavily influenced by their parents. In fact, today's teens genuinely like their parents and include them in their daily lives. Wood quoted one teen that said, "My dad is really into fishing. So, ever since I was a little girl, he'd always take me, and I've grown to love it." If the outdoor industry can hook the parents, it has a good chance of reeling in the kids.

But outdoor companies are still fishing for ways to market directly to younger folks. To this end, Woods' presentation focused on insights into the minds of the general teen population. To create a profile of modern youth, TRU surveys kids 12 to 19 all across the United States three times a year. It also gets information from 250 teens that are considered trendsetters in their communities. Why should outdoor manufacturers pay so much attention to these kids? Wood said there are 34 million people age 12 to 19 in the United States, and another 800,000 enter this age bracket every month. They spend $176 billion a year, and 85 percent have shopped in a mass merchandiser such as Target within the last 30 days.

One of the most significant observations Wood offered was that parents and society examine and coddle today's teens (dubbed the babied-boom generation) more than ever before. As an example, Wood pointed out that parents turn to websites to check their children's grades daily. Also, teens have a great number of restrictions placed on them and often can't visit a mall without being accompanied by a parent. Plus, teens are not especially self-sufficient, turning to their parents in times of crisis, even at age 18 and beyond. This has created a condition where kids are extremely attached to their parents and dependent on them.

The upshot of this is that teens are heavily influenced by the brands that their parents buy. Also, they expect all of society, including companies, to coddle them and cater to their desires. "They want to know how you are going to protect them," said Wood.

Because teens feel so protected, they worry little about consequences. They live in a "car crash" culture where they are used to seeing their peers and celebrities go through embarrassing situations without feeling shame. (Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, anyone?) Due to this sense of shamelessness, teens think that overcoming adversity is a virtue, and they admire brands that have taken chances, fallen and gotten back up.

In a psychological twist, teens want to feel as if they have the power in a relationship. They need to feel as if they are opting into a relationship with a brand, and there should be a "value for value" exchange, said Wood. He added that teens "have something you want -- their attention. And they're willing to give you that attention if you're willing to give them something of value."

To foster a real exchange, brands should build ongoing relationships with teen consumers and not get bogged down with individual marketing campaigns. And Wood said teens should feel like "they are the ones on the other side of the velvet rope…allowing you to come in when it is something of value, and not the other way around."

If it seems impossible to reach such a narcissistic generation of consumers, Wood said that companies could tap into certain trends, such as "newstalgia" in which everything old is cool. Two-thirds of teens say classic rock is "in," which suggests that nostalgia could be an effective part of marketing, and teens will appreciate hearing about a company's history. "Make your back story part of your current story," said Wood. He highlighted Nike's marketing campaign for its new line of running shoes based on classic designs. Nike uses ad copy that says, "It's vintage. Minus the annoying 'wait thirty years part.'"

And if you find your company struggling to court teens, heed the wise words of Mike Damone from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "whenever possible, put on side one of Led Zeppelin IV."

Michael Wood's other tips for drawing teens to the outdoors

1. Teens say if you can get young people exposed to the outdoors, they'll be interested. Bring outdoor programs into the classroom. Partner with schools to conduct outdoor gym classes and summer camps.

2. Teens expect you to market just like larger brands, using advertising, celebrity endorsements, billboards, contests, promotions, etc.

3. Focus on the social aspect of exploring the outdoors. Let teens know that outdoor activities can be done with their friends.

4. Focus on the idea that the outdoors offers escape. Yes, teens are very busy and the outdoors can help relieve stress.

5. Teens welcome the opportunity to take chances and feel in control, as long as they don't face extreme danger. Highlight the fact that the outdoors can challenge them in safe ways.

To listen to our SNEWS® Live podcast of Michael Wood’s talk, click here

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