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Internet Puts Another Spin on Marketing to Generations

How do you take a local shoe brand and catapult it into a multimillion-dollar international blockbuster for the lucrative youth market? Ask the Carlsbad-based Lambesis Agency.

Back in the ’90s, the advertising agency launched a campaign for Airwalk , a footwear brand that was rooted in San Diego’s beach and skateboard culture. The successful strategy was later chronicled in the seminal best seller, “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference,” by Malcolm Gladwell.

The chapter, “Rumors, Sneakers and the Power of Translation,” showed how the agency helped boost Airwalk’s revenues from $20 million to $250 million in less than three years. Lambesis did this by running off-beat ads, under the direction of Chad Farmer, featuring quirky, goofy “anti-heroes” rather than the usual sports icons.

“At that point, most of the large sneaker brands were sports-based, with giants like Nike,” said Farmer, Lambesis’ creative director. “Everything was being marketed to Gen Xers , be like Mike, super athletes.”

Farmer sensed “a big opportunity” from carefully studying this group, and honing in on their strong music culture. A strategy was born.

“It was pretty much focused on anti-authority and anti-heroes,” said Farmer. “We capitalized on that for Airwalk, and made the communications more style-based, celebrating individual style, rather than being like somebody else. It was OK to be yourself.”

The result?

“The kids just loved it,” said Farmer. “They ate it up. All of our characters were anti-heroes, with personal styles. We explained how this footwear is showing style, rather than athletic ability.”

The campaign , both print and TV , became among the most emulated marketing techniques around, said Farmer, and now is chronicled in scores of textbooks used by educators far and wide.

What happened to Airwalk? The business has become one of Farmer’s case studies , and cautionary tales , illustrating what can happen with the right message, but the wrong means to keep up with the increased demand.

“Four years into it, they were the No. 1 youth brand in the world, over Levi’s and Nike, which wanted to buy them,” said Farmer. “They turned down Nike. Meanwhile, they couldn’t switch their factories overseas in Asia in time to keep up with demand. They missed the back-to-school shipment.”

When its operations didn’t improve, the big retailers rebelled, and the brand “shrunk,” said Farmer.

“Consumer demand went through the roof, but they couldn’t get distribution,” he said. “We parted ways with them. You can’t have marketing without operations.”


The Next Generation

Generation X, the post baby boomer generation, is still driving the market, along with the younger Generation Y, and all of their various subgroups.

“We approach them with blogging, text messages, SMS , short messaging systems , and social networking, such as My Space,” said Barbara Magoffin, senior account manager for Marketing Solutions by Cesson. The San Diego-based boutique marketing agency also has an office in Los Angeles and another is scheduled to open this month in Montreal.

While there is no formal definition for these age groups, the consensus is that Gen Xers were born between the early ’60s and 1981, Generation Y after 1981, and those bountiful boomers from 1946 to 1964.

Each generation has its own defining moments.

For instance, the civil rights and the women’s liberation movements helped define the ’60s, while 9/11 and the “war on terror” has marked the early 21st century, said Tom Sullivan, president of Vitrorobertson, a boutique advertising agency, with offices in San Diego and Atlanta. He wonders what will be relevant to still another niche group , Generation We, “tech natives,” who are younger than 10 years old.

“They know about Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami, Amber alerts and ‘No Child Left Behind,’ ” said Sullivan.

These historical benchmarks help define a demographic , an important ingredient in finding “the sweet spot” of your target audience, he said.

“We still need to come up with a really big idea, but then there is the ‘art of where,’ & #8201;” said Sullivan. “Where does that idea go? Where does that idea live? We’ve got to connect the brand and consumer at the right point, in the right way, in the exact right moment.”

That can be a tall order.

“The whole sequence of marketing and business has changed,” said Sullivan. “It used to be supply and demand. Now it’s demand and supply. If you don’t generate demand, you won’t need a supply.”

While every generation is linked by heritage and history, each has its own habits, too.

“Generation Y grew up spending a whole lot more than Generation X,” said James Chung, president of Reach Advisors, a Belmont, Mass.-based marketing strategy and research firm, focused on tracking shifts in how Americans live, play and buy. “Incomes haven’t gone up, but spending is way up.”

How does that work?

“Parental subsidiary,” he said. “Their generation of parents, the boomers, have different attitudes about raising children. This is the closest relationship between parents and kids ever.”

The Gen Y kids also are “a very empowered generation,” he said.

“Every generation gets more empowered,” said Chung. “But, for this generation, it’s not just kids driving it. The parents are driving this empowerment, too.”

These youngsters also are “way more mature than the prior generation of kids, and way more dependent than other generations,” added Chung. “That’s not necessarily bad. I make no value judgments.”

Gen Yers also are accustomed to being stroked, observed Andreas Roell, chief executive officer and president of Geary Interactive, a San Diego-based online marketing agency, with offices in Las Vegas and New York.

“It stems from their mentality of affirmation , when their parents told them that they played a good game of soccer, even if they lost,” he said. “They feel that they can do anything, and they have to be heard. YouTube and MySpace give them channels to present themselves to the world , even if it’s just 15 seconds.”


Their World

But styles continue to evolve, and market leadership and lifestyle-driven brands turn over about every 10 to 20 years, he observed. Dominant brands can extend their shelf life , if they stay ahead of the curve, said Chung.

But, he added, “Few companies understand the impact of this, how it will shift. They follow generations that they became successful with. But they have to evolve.”

This alphabet soup can get complicated, just trying to keep the different consumer groups straight. Philippe Cesson, founder and managing partner of Marketing Solutions by Cesson, observed that Gen Xers experienced some economic downturns, while, “Gen Y never actually felt what a recession is. They are groomed in the concept that they can be anything they want to be. They haven’t had to work hard, or worry about how to spend money. They have more access to credit, but no concept of repaying debts.”

Even preteens as young as 7 or 8 years old have their own purchasing power, said Cesson.

“They have a very acute knowledge of the world, they are extremely global,” he said. “It’s a different world than the one we grew up with. They have access to a massive amount of information that was unheard of in previous generations. This is their world and reality.”

The younger groups also are especially big on doing their homework long before they even enter a bricks-and-mortar store, said Kathleen Cunningham, president of Advanced Marketing Strategies in San Diego.

“They are more interested in getting their information from a source like the Internet than going into a retail store and learning from the clerk about the product,” she said. “They gather so much information, they are more informed than the people you have on the floor. It’s very difficult to keep your clerks up to speed when the customers have so much information.”

Sometimes it’s the boomers who can present the challenges, said Beth Callender, principal of Greenhaus, a San Diego-based advertising and marketing agency.

“The biggest challenge for us is that those in the power seats of companies are boomers,” she said. “It’s tough for boomers. They want to make decisions based on their own upbringing and how they are wired. Our job is to put on the hat of someone else, not rely on our own bias of a product or service. We have to consider how the next generation is thinking. What will be turn-ons and turn-offs for them.”

One turn-off, said Callender, is phoniness.

“They grew up in a generation that was overmarketed to,” she observed. “They are very suspicious and critical of advertising. So, we try to make sure messages and material are very authentic, not a lot of puff and B.S. You better have the goods to back up what you are talking about.”

Roell agreed.

“Today, when you do an ad, you need to be completely transparent,” he said. “Generation Y has so much access to information, that if you don’t tell the truth, they will find out, and tell the entire world about it.”

But, he added, advertisers shouldn’t be afraid of negative feedback. Rather, they should consider it an opportunity.

“They should embrace it and find a solution, or admit they made a mistake and are working on a way to make it work,” he said. “There is always an upside to a downside.”

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