Like, what's totally more popular among teens than a Kanye West cell phone ring tone? No, not the next celebrity scandal, but environmentally friendly products, including the natural and organic merchandise found in your store.
Despite the common belief that teens' interests are about as deep as a wading pool, younger age groups are actually starting to care about what they put into their bodies and the environmental impact of what they buy. According to New York-based Alloy Media and Marketing's 5th annual College Explorer study released in July, "33 percent of college students prefer brands that give back to the community, are environmentally safe or are connected to a cause. Together, these socially responsible characteristics surpassed paying more for a brand with a great image (16 percent) or … used by celebrities (2 percent) by wide margins in their influence on discretionary spending. Substantially, one in four students (24 percent) has purchased a product this year specifically because it was socially conscious." In fact, the top three brands students chose in the study were natural brands that emphasize organic ingredients when possible: Ben and Jerry's, Newman's Own and Burt's Bees.
Why the change in attitude? Trendiness can take partial credit—organic and natural products are becoming more prevalent; even Safeway, a conventional grocery store chain with 1,775 stores nationwide and in Canada, introduced a new organic line, O, in July. More importantly, increased awareness and education about environmental issues and the benefits of buying socially responsible products are driving teens to pay attention to how and with what motivations the products they buy are produced.
"It's part trend, part access to information—teens are paying attention to what's in their food and other products they buy. It's true that parents influence what their kids buy, but it's also true that kids are influencing more and more what their parents buy. Word of mouth between parents, teens and peers is a very important marketing tool," says Tina Wells, chief executive officer of New York-based Buzz Marketing Group, which specializes in marketing to younger age groups.
Besides word of mouth and family/peer influence, other marketing tools specific to teens can be helpful in reaping the financial benefits of this age group's newfound interest in natural and organic products. Kiss My Face, a Gardiner, N.Y.-based natural health and beauty company, relaunched Sudz, a natural skin care line geared toward teens, with new packaging in July. "Sales of the Sudz line are expected to reach 7 or 8 million [dollars] this year," says Mia DiFrancesco-Licata, brand manager for Kiss My Face's Obsessively Organic line. She attributes the line's success to its vibrant, sharp packaging and ethical message. "Organic and natural products are becoming more and more 'hip' with this generation, especially if the products are housed in simple, confident packaging," she says.
At the same time, however, it's important not to single out teens in marketing schemes. "Kids and teens don't want to feel like they're being talked down to or manipulated. Instead, look for products that are genuinely going to excite and interest them because of what it does or means, not because it claims to be 'great for teens' or something similar," Wells says. Focus on subtly catching a teenager's eye through in-store displays or clever product placement. "Teens are very savvy. Give them more credit by creating displays that don't exclude other age groups and are sincere in their message—teens appreciate honesty. Put it right out there for them to see in a friendly way that makes their choice easy," says DiFrancesco-Licata.
And while it's true that teens are more independent today than ever before, they're not the only ones making their purchasing decisions. "It's equally important to market to mom as it is to teens, because she's still shopping for them and wants them to be healthy. More and more moms are choosing organic whenever possible," DiFrancesco-Licata says.
Caragh McLaughlin, marketing director for Broomfield, Colo.-based Horizon Organic, maker of natural and organic dairy products, agrees. "We primarily focus on educating and marketing to mothers because they are the gatekeepers of the pantry and refrigerator. Our goal is to get mom on board by increasing her awareness about why organic products are healthier. Once she understands this connection, she'll choose to buy organic for herself and her kids."
Horizon Organic has also tapped into another crucial resource for marketing to teens: the Internet. "Traditional marketing really doesn't work with teens. Instead, there is this whole new frontier of digital media and the Web that manufacturers, brands and retailers need to harness to effectively reach the teen audience. This generation of teenagers does all of their research online, whereas older generations pull from many different sources," McLaughlin says.
In fact, more teens are going online every day. According to a July 2005 Teens and Technology survey by Pew/Internet, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit research center studying the social effects of the Internet on Americans, "87 percent of U.S. teens aged 12 to 17 use the Internet, up from 73 percent in 2000.
Fifty-one percent of teenage Internet users say they go online on a daily basis, up from 42 percent in 2000. Forty-three percent have made purchases online. That represents about 9 million people and signifies growth of 71 percent in teen online shoppers since 2000. Thirty-one percent use the Internet to get health information. That represents about 6 million people and signifies growth of 47 percent in the number of teens using the Internet this way since 2000."
Christine Spehar is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 10/p. 45, 56