Marketing chief answers kids' accusations

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By: Wise Marketer Staff |

Posted on April 3, 2004

Marketing chief answers kids' accusations

The CEO of a US-based marketing company faced a tough challenge in defending the marketing industry against allegations of "manipulation and crass self-interest" set forth by a group of Chicago inner city public high school students. Here's how the heated debate turned out...

Tina Wells, the 23 year-old CEO of Buzz Marketing Group, and managing partner of the Blue Fusion youth marketing firm, took on the challenge that was organised by Marwen - a Chicago non-profit, after-school arts education programme.

The students, who ranged in age from 14 to 17, are in a marketing class at Marwen and were eager to put their new-found ideas and theories to test with Wells, who specialises in connecting major companies with urban youth. After leaving the lively two and a half hour discussion, Wells described the debate as "A firing squad of ideas from brilliant, engaging kids,"

Products and personalities The marketing expert and her teenage inquisitors quickly found common ground in the results of a recent Blue Fusion opinion poll that shows children are more loyal to brands than they are to brands' celebrity endorsers.

"These kids bore out our recent discovery that they'll buy a product, say a lip gloss, that's promoted by a particular celebrity - even if they don't care for or outright dislike that celebrity," Wells said. "Unlike other groups, youth are able to separate product from personality in their buying decisions."

"Don't tell us what to be" The students' sharpest question to Wells was, simply put: "Do marketers project to kids an idea of what marketers want kids to be, rather than marketing to kids as they truly are, in order to force specific products on them because companies have already invested money in creating those products?"

Wells explained that good marketers study markets and trends closely, using tools that range from polling, interviews, demographics, sales studies, and other data to understand those markets. Good marketers will then advise client companies to provide goods and services that the market actually wants, based on that research.

As an example, Wells noted that several students in the class were wearing Nike T-shirts, Structure jeans and Gap sweatshirts. She asked if they felt these companies were talking to them fairly and squarely, or were trying to manipulate them. Clearly, they felt that such companies do speak their language.

Good and bad marketers "That's the difference between good marketing and bad," Wells explained. "Like any industry, there's good marketing, based on careful research, and bad marketing, based on faulty research. You can tell the difference in two seconds."

Wells cited, as an example of bad marketing, a national toy company that recently launched a line of African-American dolls whose dress and automated speech catered to the worst stereotypes of minorities; yet the company aimed to sell the dolls to minorities. "That product failed, and it deserved to," Wells noted, while highlighting the company's misguided approach of squeezing a product into executives' own pre-conceptions of a market. Wells also noted that a rival toy company was able to build on the failure of its adversary to launch a very successful line of African-American dolls.

"I think that in today's event the students came away with a better understanding of marketing, realising that when it's done well it speaks directly to them in a way that's comfortable and engaging - or even exciting and inspiring. But when marketing is bad, it's grating, ineffective, and even insulting." Wells concluded.