Youth Inc.

Meet the must-haves

Three experts offer insights on changing aspirations among the youth and the imperative to sell to them

What can you say about a generation that actually enjoys a television programme that has one of their likes being abused, mistreated and humiliated by a testosterone-fuelled bully? The fact is, there are 3.5 million youth wanting to talk to the bully who acts as the anchor of Roadies. Roadies is more than a TV show; it is one of the most successful online phenomena. It consistently ranked among the most engaging pages in the world on Facebook and was among the top 30 pages for many weeks. At its peak in September 2011, Roadies hit a high of No. 6 when it ranked above entertainer Lady Gaga and TV shows like Entourage, Friends, The Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother

For a man of an earlier generation, it’s hard to understand this phenomenon. The children of liberalisation are very different from their compatriots of the first five decades post Independence. On the one hand, there are participants willing to go through that agony for their five minutes of fame — what desperation! On the other hand, there are millions willing to watch the same as ‘entertainment’. Is the youth of today masochistic, voyeuristic, brazen or are they driven by schadenfreude? It may sound harsh, but one must be demented to enjoy something like this. Or perhaps this generation is just honest enough to say ‘we are like that and there is no need to hide it’. You get what you see with this generation — there’s nothing artificial about them!

One has heard about the confident, ‘can-do’ spirited, independent and the 'want-it-now' generation. But there's another story behind that veneer, deep below the surface, another side exists and simmers. A recent pictorial research conducted by Ogilvy among this group revealed an insecure, lonely, overworked and fatigued generation seeking to escape from it all. Not surprisingly, the mindless humour of brands like Five Star’s ‘Ramesh Suresh’ campaign finds high traction with the young. What else can explain the resounding success of a rather melody-less song like Kolaveri Di? Being random and enjoying randomness is part of this generation. Why must everything have meaning and logic?

Within Kolaveri Di is hidden another facet of the youth… an angst that finds an outlet in being bold and by being willing to hear and say things as is. In the same youth study, it was amazing to see how they put up pictures my generation would brand ‘gross’ and ‘crass’. I call it the Delhi Belly phenomenon. It’s perhaps another expression of their reaction to the extreme pressure cooker lives they live. Not surprisingly, watch brand Fastrack has become a kind of icon with this group; it doesn’t shy away from calling a spade a spade, or calling a boyfriend baggage! The irreverence the brand exudes is bold. And this generation is ready to accept things as they are — no need to camouflage messaging — a truly honest generation.

Much has been said and seen about the youth’s involvement in social causes. There is a view that much of it is superficial — nice to talk about, nice to support virtually and put on an ‘Anna’ cap and join the mela of a dharna. Cynics might say that for a ‘I me myself’ generation, this is just a charade. However, the fact that today’s youth wants to make a real difference in many small ways is also true. Within their self centredness is joy in performing some little good acts — reading to the blind or playing with cancer children in their spare time. This could currently be a small group but the intent is clear and this could cascade into a bigger phenomenon in the years to come.

Clearly, this gives enough ammunition to marketers targeting the youth. There is an opportunity to create brand stories beyond the normal themes of dreams and good life. You can be both meaningless and meaningful — and whichever way, you can be bold and explicit. Today’s youth is more real and more practical than ever, neither burdened by idealism nor shrouded in puritanism. They are non-judgemental, pragmatic and have their feet on the ground. They’re coping with both the good of a consumerist society and the insecurity of a competitive environment.

The economic ship of the nation appears to be floundering in a morass of coalition government-induced decision-making paralysis, a changing federal structure and a sinking world economy. Meanwhile, the social changes that were triggered by the economic liberation of 1991 continue. The millennium generation — defined as those born after 1991 — is now in its 20s and it is redefining society in India. What do these changes mean to
marketers today?

Remember the first truth of marketing. Marketers follow money: they market to wallets, not to Facebook walls. So if most first-time earners belong to the 20+ age group, why would they market to those younger? On the other hand, since this is an era of influencers, why not target the youngsters when they can still be influenced, that is, while they’re under 20? Both seem sound hypotheses, until you see the changes of the past two decades with a new pair of eyes. Then all these theories are untenable.  

The impatient nation

In the 1990s, India changed from a film nation to a TV nation. The lifestyles of the rich and famous, which were hitherto confined to dark cinema halls, entered the brightly-lit 1BHKs of the educated and the poor. It became clear that there were short-cuts to success; hard work was a slow train. As a result, what we have today is an impatient nation. 

We want our new gadgets, new cars, new flats, new vacations now, not 20 years hence, as was the case in the pre-Millennium Generation. To that end, we will sacrifice health, relationships and ethics and bribe old gods and new age gurus. The youth are a product of this same culture of impatience. But as we will see, they are eager not just to consume, they are also eager to change the world!

The second big change of the past 20 years is the increase in the number of working women. And as the number of double income households rise, the child has become the surrogate benchmark of success in the society. Parents substitute ‘less quality time with kids’ with ‘more pocket money for kids’: according to a 2011 study by Cartoon Network, pocket money shot up by 200% in the previous 10 years. This changes the youngster into a buyer rather than an influencer, which is a fundamental shift for a non-working, non-earning member of the family.

There’s another significant change: the younger generation is more at ease with technology, which means their role as purchasers for the family becomes even more pronounced. It’s a known fact that e-commerce is exploding in India. But according to The Economist, roughly a third of all products sold online in India go to cities with population of 3 million or less. My guess is the buyer of technology products online will be the youngster in the family. 

Technology also allows those in their early 20s and below to become not just consumers but producers of books, albums, music, apps and games. Thus, they start becoming earners and spenders well before they join the formal workforce. For instance, in Bihar, I met Abhishek Bhagat who has invented an automatic cooking machine that runs on electricity and can be programmed to make tea, chhole and a few other dishes. Bhagat invented his machine when he was 16 years old, in class 11. In Mumbai, 13-year-old Monik Pamecha created a Twitter festival and raised ₹40,000 for an NGO while in Bengaluru, Mohnish Nagpal started earning from the internet when he was just 13, so he doesn’t even need pocket money. 


What do these changes mean for marketing. It’s a foregone conclusion then that companies and brands need to sell to those below 20. Not only are they part of the largest segment of the population (50% of India’s population is below the 25 year age group), they now play both influencer and buyer, both consumer and producer.  But marketing to this community does not necessarily mean advertising to them. The same sub-20 consumer is also tech savvy and peer group savvy. That means he will not be easily influenced by advertising. So marketing to this group will involve engaging them and involving them in making brand choices.

No single marketing strategy can work for different product categories when marketing to the sub-20s. For instance, since they influence car purchases, while advertising content may be targeted at the parents, perhaps the media plan should include the youngsters as well. On the other hand, technology products that include features that leave parents glassy-eyed may do better by targeting nerdy teenagers in the family. For marketers then, it is a brave new world out there and an opportunity that cannot be exploited with a single, correct strategy. If you’re looking for the wallets of the young, you will need a new pair of eyes. 

Young Indian consumers today are more exposed, educated and, therefore, empowered. They’re also confident enough to aspire to what may have seemed absurd a generation earlier. Boundaries are being pushed by these young aspirants. They want not only to accomplish things but to make a difference in the lives of people around them. That is the most significant change that we are seeing around us. What these youngsters consume incorporates many of these new aspirations. There is willingness to sample new things, but only when it is delivered on their terms.

Young consumers are also distracted, which is why the consumer goods market is so fragmented. Niche markets are created to cater to the emerging subcultures and demanding customers. Their needs are impulsive and driven by passion and they are not as price sensitive as previous generations. The result: sasta, sundar, tikaoo is being phased out of our vocabulary. What consumers are increasingly aware of however, is value: high-quality products at competitive prices and, most importantly, available on-demand.

Domestic consumption constitutes about 65% of our GDP and the absolute numbers are even more compelling. And to support this consumption, younger consumers want to do what they love, and not have to work for it. Many of us worked because that was what was expected of us and a lucky few made careers out of doing something they loved. Today’s generation is going to do exactly and only what it wants and will not shy away from taking risks to get there. And the really cool part is, these youngsters will succeed because for them it’s not work, but a way of life.