In Hot Pursuit of Cool

Gael García Bernal slams. The Finkelsteins are ill and so is Zubz. Mase, on the other hand, is so pre-Ludacris. Cell phone charms are huge, but they can get in the way when you’re boosting turndowns over the rails. The forces of bling have hijacked the hater emcees and anyone who tells you The Narrow are nu-metal just isn’t conscious.

If you missed any of that, don’t hassle; by the time this goes to print it will all have changed. Such is the world of youth magazines, where trends move faster than a runaway surfboard and those who can’t keep up are in for an unceremonious dumping.

That’s one reason publishers cite to explain why the sector’s advertising revenues have traditionally lagged those of adult-targeted competitors. Advertisers and media planners simply do not have enough reliable research to target the youth effectively, and if accurate research is available, chances are it’s outdated.

“A session in some Sandton boardroom is not going to elicit the true picture of what’s taking place on campuses,” says Natalie Dixon, editor of Intelligence Publishing’s SL. “This kind of market needs more authentic techniques – dialogue between an editorial team and readers, going to parties, hanging out, really absorbing what’s happening, as opposed to observing it.”

In theory, such immersive strategies should position mags like Dixon’s as panaceas for advertisers chasing the elusive youth dollar. But it’s not only advertisers who have battled to gain a significant foothold in the youth market. Until recently, no dedicated youth title was consistently selling more than 20,000 copies – surprisingly, given that over 2.5 million of South Africa’s 16-24 year-olds fall into the magazine-buying LSM 6-10 category.

Last year the picture changed. January to June ABCs saw four titles’ circulation averaging over 20,000, with two looking set to break 30,000 in the second semester. All four target teenage girls, a hotly contested space led by Atoll media’s Saltwater Girl, which averaged 28,163 copies per month, about four thousand ahead of its nearest established competitors, Teenzone and Wicked. Generalist titles like SL and Y Mag (affiliated with radio station YFM) are still struggling to break 20,000, though both are trending upwards.

But the outstanding success story of 2004 was a newcomer. 8 Ink media, of the Media24 stable, burst onto the market with a local version of the world’s biggest selling teen magazine, Seventeen. The title scooped the prestigious best consumer mag award at November’s Picas and an impressive 28,097 circulation in its first ABC cycle placed it second in the category by a hair’s breadth.

In addition to stellar circulation figures, the Pica panel commended Seventeen’s innovative techniques for tracking the tastes of a fickle teen market, such as the Urbanscouts programme, whereby 3,000 “scouts” are recruited from the target demographic to provide regular feedback to editorial and management on teen trends.

“A session in some Sandton boardroom is not going to elicit the true picture of what’s taking place on campuses.” – Natalie Dixon, editor, SL

Though clearly effective, the approach is not unique. Wicked, published by Paul Kerton’s Style Lab, launched a similar initiative in 2002. Research gleaned from the “Wicked Angels” programme is utilised primarily to inform editorial and marketing decisions, but is shared with advertisers on a more exclusive basis where relevant.

The stream of market intelligence undoubtedly makes life easier for editor Annabel Cunningham. “We know what colours they like on the masthead and which type of covers they like—what stars they like and what they worry about—what brands they are crazy about.”

Wicked’s convenient handbag-sized format, a la Glamour, and its editorial formula of “feelings, friends, fashion and fun,” has resulted in steady circulation growth, with a year-on-year increase of over 64% as of June 2004. And Cunningham is not overly concerned about Seventeen cutting in on her turf. She believes the newcomer has created heightened awareness of the market and reinforced its importance.

“I don’t think we’ve even started yet in terms of circulation. I would think that to hit over 50,000 before the end of 2005 is still on the cards,” she says. “Our research shows that these girls want advice on fashion, beauty and hair, gossip, boys and informative, authoritative articles about ‘issues’ such as teenage pregnancy, drugs and HIV. And their favourite place to get all that is a magazine.”

But while magazines have generally been alone in their quest to determine what the youth want, some specialist research companies are now beginning to take up the slack. One pioneer is Instant Grass, which enlists trend-aware young “grasses” to report back from the streets. Their research has unearthed a youth sector that is astute, connected and far more educated about brands than marketers tend to realise.

“Young consumers are assuming control of the purchase transaction, and information is their weapon,” says general manager Daniel Beatty. “Telling them that they should swap to a ‘cool’ cellular network just doesn’t cut it when they know exactly how many SMSs they get at what cost on their current network.”

Such insights should be music to youth publishers’ ears. If kids are more brand aware than their parents, one can assume they’re having a growing influence on family spend. While young Jimmy might not be able to afford the latest plasma screen TV, he may be dad’s first port of call when it comes to choosing between a Sony and a JVC.

The corollary to all this media savvy is that dwindling attention spans are divided between a profusion of media types, from TV and the internet to the increasingly ubiquitous cell phone. Beatty’s brand research also confirms what Amps has been telling us for years: young browsers at magazine stands don’t limit themselves to the youth section. Grasses between 18 and 24 are as likely to pick up a Cosmo or an FHM as a purpose-built title like Saltwater Girl or SL.

But Beatty adds a caveat, as applicable to Amps as to any other survey-based research: “There will always be an up-claim when it comes to mag readership, as the youth want to be seen as being more mature.”

This aspirational attitude is something editors take into account in setting editorial tone. “We find that younger girls look to what older girls are doing,” says Seventeen’s Sneddon.

Craig Sims, managing director of Atoll Media, takes the principle one step further. He believes kids aspire not only to the age group ahead, but also to the notch above their current status in the hierarchy of cool.

In addition to Saltwater Girl, Atoll publishes Blunt, targeted at males between 14 and 24, whose circulation has been seesawing around 17,000. Both titles celebrate an urban lifestyle associated with surfing, skateboarding and other adventure sports – a clique to which Sims believes most youngsters aspire.

“The road will become littered with magazines claiming to be talking to the emerging black youth market. Those who try will fail.” – Craig Sims, managing director, Atoll Media

“Our mags were created by identifying the coolest, most influential segments of the youth market and owning those areas,” says Sims. “As a result, our mags are sometimes seen as too niched. We have been described as unconventional and maverick— but actually we’re approaching the youth market in a very logical, informed and systematic way.”

Like Sims, SL’s Dixon makes a conscious effort to reach “the cool kids on campus”. By pushing the medium’s artistic boundaries with in-your-face editorial, edgy photography and top-drawer production values, Dixon hopes to woo creative opinion leaders. “It’s like what Tom Ford did with Gucci,” she explains. “Soon everybody wants in.”

Sneddon is not convinced: “Seventeen doesn’t try to reach or appeal to only the most ‘cool’ and then lure others in…Seventeen’s idea of cool is acceptance by our readers of who they are.”

But if there’s one issue on which publishers seem to concur, it is that race is becoming increasingly irrelevant in determining market niche.

“When we ask our readers about this issue, they look at us as if we come from the dark ages,” says Sneddon. “It amazes me that marketers are still so fixated on the race issue, especially when it comes to youth, who do not have the same set of experiences.”

Beatty points out that there are no longer any “white” magazines. “The demographics of the country, particularly Gauteng, are such that the most powerful driving force is the urban black youth culture, for which YFM and Y Mag are the rallying points. However, this culture is inclusive and attractive for more forward-thinking young whites, and with Hip-Hop still being the defining musical genre across all races, there is more pulling the youth together than is pulling them apart.”

Craig Sims has been going on about the irrelevance of race for years. “At a certain economic level – higher LSMs – there is a rapid and wholesale convergence. The key to dealing with race in the youth market is to not tamper with it. Reflect your world as it is— The road will become littered with magazines claiming to be talking to the emerging black youth market. Those who try will fail.”

Here, perhaps, is another reason why youth mags deserve to be taken seriously: they represent a rare glimpse into the mainstream of tomorrow – a market at the vanguard of consumer trends in a nation still struggling to define itself.

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