Thanks for your comments. A couple of the thoughts raised were actually part of two interesting meetings this week.

I heard Andre Harrell and Damon Dash (of Rocawear) speak about Hip Hop Marketing. I also had a breakfast with Steve Knox of Tremor, CEO of a word-of-mouth marketing consultancy. Put this together with a Sunday night broadcast on 60 Minutes focused on Echo Boomers and you have three quite interesting and different views of today’s teen market.

Hip Hop has followed Rock and Roll as a lifestyle choice, beyond the music into fashion and movies. Hip Hop, according to Damon Dash, reflects the reality of life in the ghetto, with kids raised by a single parent, running with gangs, confronting the daily risk of guns and drugs, struggling to survive. It is answering teens’ demand for individual expression and recognizes the limited economic opportunity of this generation. Hip Hop is in every teen’s head–if you see a picture of JZ or Snoop Dog, you know about his music, his lifestyle, and his problems. Hip Hop has moved beyond the negative images of a decade ago, of violence and misogyny, to be cool and smart, from hot to sexy. To communicate to this demographic, companies must be truthful and genuine. “It is not enough to put African American people in an ad with rap music to market fast food–it is not how we live–just too formalistic– avoid exploitation and artificial scenes, which are offensive, and be natural about it,” Dash said.

Word-of-Mouth advocacy by teens depends on finding the right consumers and feeding them information in advance that can be passed along to peers. They are passionate communicators, trend spreaders, not trend setters or early adopters. They will talk about products or ideas in their social networks if the concept is simple to communicate and worth his/her advocacy. They have 15-17 people on their email buddy lists, compared to 8-9 for the average teen. Tremor has recruited 280,000 teens in the US to be in a personal relationship based on hearing cool new ideas before others and promising that their voices will be heard at corporations to improve the product or service. The key point again is credibility, because the teen connector feels his/her social currency is on the line.

The 60 Minutes segment took an entirely different view of teens, as a generation aiming to please, with rules replacing rebellion, convention over individualism, and acceptance of traditional values. Mel Levine, a professor at the University of North Carolina, described a heavily programmed upbringing, with soccer on Monday, kung fu on Tuesday, religious school on Wednesday and clarinet lessons on Thursday–a whole life of structure. Levine is concerned that the overmanaged, overachieving teens protected by parents and with inflated egos will quickly be disappointed by the reality of the workplace. Another expert, Neil Howe, painted a more optimistic scenario, contrasting this generation of teens quite favorably with their self-absorbed, egocentric Baby Boomer parents. He described current teens as good team players, collectively special, more like their grandparents, the World War II generation.

How to harmonize these rather disparate views of teens? I have three of them at home. Some part of all of this is consistent with my experience. A discussion this summer with my 17 year-old daughter, about our firm’s plans to find catalyts within chat rooms to provide them information on new products, reflected significant suspicion about business’ motives and a strong desire to protect individual privacy (“Dad, what the hell are you doing checking on my conversations”). Whatever we do to reach these teens must be based on permission, complete transparency on identity and motive, and having a relationship with both sides listening. Hope this is useful.