What does it take to be today’s tween star?

Posted by Amy Henry on Wed, Sep 28, 2011 @ 03:06 PM

It’s no secret that the crew at YouthBeat has a little bit of Bieber Fever…His music might not be breakthrough, and his dance moves might even look a bit recycled, if completely authentic to him. But after seeing the concert film/documentary of his rise to stardom, Never Say Never, this summer, we’ve caught this contagion all over again. As we wrote, back when the fever was just beginning to brew, Bieber has endeared himself to kids and moms alike by touting his Mama Boy status (and, as seen in his bio-pic, Grandma and Grandpa’s little guy), flirting with mom-favorites like Tina Fey and the ladies of The View (in particular, Barbara Walters), and keeping his image incredibly clean given the temptations that might confront a fifteen year old superstar (even if those temptations might be limited to becoming spoiled!). And far from being just a pretty face, Bieber is a bit of a musical prodigy. The documentary featured cute clips of this entertainer as a 3 and 4 year-old with an uncanny acumen for the drums…And the guitar…And trumpet…And guitar. Then there’s that hair.

He makes it look pretty easy.

So it’s no surprise that Bieber’s YouTube success has inspired a host of hopeful teen stars. Greyson Chance wowed the world with his school talent show rendition of Lady Gaga’s Poker Face, and was deemed likable enough to get the endorsement (and a contract) from Ellen Degeneres. Good or bad, Rebecca Black received plenty of attention for her song, Friday. And most recently, Australian teen, Cody Simpson, the stereotypical surfer boy that the genre may have been silently praying for, has hit the tween scene in a big way.teeny boppers

But do they have what it takes? They all seem to look the part, but somehow they seem to be lacking the same depth – that’s right, we said Justin Bieber has depth – that their predecessor had. His story was the real deal – a true grassroots movement that sprouted at a pace no one expected. Sure, these newer-comers can cause a craze. But will any of them have longevity?

Whether they succeed or not depends on their ability to follow a few simple rules of the tween teeny bopper:

  1. Advertise your authenticity. Perhaps Team Bieber’s most brilliant move to date was showing off his skills…Taylor Swift has swayed her young fans by not only singing relevant tunes, but writing her songs herself. Tweens might be willing to tolerate an artist with the right look for a while, but the ones that last have artistic credibility to back them up.
  2. Advocate accessibility. Twitter and Facebook may be the boon of the young star, giving them the ability to give kid and tween fans what they want: instant access. As adults, we might not really care about the every move our favorite musicians make, but this kind of disclosure is part of the price a young star is expected to pay. The smart ones realize that the key to being a tween idol today is taking time out to get in touch with your fans.
  3. Finally, sell your story. Part of the appeal of this batch of new heartthrobs and fan favorites is their story. First, kids love an underdog, and there’s no little guy that they’d rather root for more than another kid! Second, play up the person, not the celebrity. Even Lady Gaga, with all her pageantry, has learned this lesson…To be loved as a star, she has to first be liked as a person – a daughter, a sister, a friend. And part of demonstrating your down-to-earth nature is showing you appreciate your fame.
Of course, writing songs that matter and dressing the part has to follow. But like any breakthrough brand, the foundation of a true tween star is usually stronger than it seems.

Tags: Youth, Teens, music, tweens, Justin Bieber

Trend Series Part 2: Posh Play Spaces

Posted by Amy Henry on Wed, Sep 21, 2011 @ 09:53 AM

Summer may be behind us, but one of the patterns that emerged from popular culture during it may speak to insight that will continue to be relevant into the next year and beyond. In the midst of an ongoing economic crisis (in fact, during the very time period when the U.S. was at risk of going into default), some Americans made the dream of home ownership a reality for their kids…They’re not the live-in-my-basement-because-that-whole-get-a-job-after-college-thing-didn’t-work-out kids. Nor are they the bearers-of-my-first-grandchild kids. The recipients of these unhumble abodes are from the preschool set, but live a jet set lifestyle in their own backyards.

The “trend”: Parents paying the price so their kids can play house in style.playhouse

Where we’ve seen it: In our recent conference presentations on play, we’ve highlighted some of the innovation we’ve seen in playground plans over the past few years. Major cities have commissioned name brand architects to add style and substance to their newest playgrounds (New York’s Union Square and Brooklyn Waterfront Park), and the loose parts movement has made slides and monkey bars seem quite juvenile. The New York Times featured an article about the over-the-top backyard bungalows that are cropping up in the most prestigious neighborhoods across the country...Dwell Magazine dedicated not one, but two issues (July/August 2011 and September 2011) to well-designed play spaces that let the modern mom and dad capture the clean, cool aesthetic that, in some cases, they may not be able to infuse to the same degree into their own home. And audience savvy HGTV created a new show, My Yard Goes Disney, to give families who can’t seem to leave the Magic Kingdom behind a chance to experience Imagineering in their own backyard. Sure, these parents aren’t funding this fantasy, but they’re more than happy to give their green spaces over to designers and to their kids.

What it means: We don’t know if the mainstream American will shell out the kind of funds required for high-end houses like the ones from a company called Posh Tots, but we think this fringe habit might have a future in the lives of more than a few families. But what will it look like? Starter homes of the same styles featured by these mini villa vendors? A cottage industry (no pun intended!) of mini designer furniture – itty bitty Eames chairs or pint-sized spas? We think it could speak to needs and desires that constitute a formula for today’s families that can be applied to more than just costly kiddie casas…

  1. The elevation of environments. Today’s parents rarely see a space that they don’t think has a consequence on their child’s well-being – be it their ability to learn, stay healthy or cultivate good taste. Parents may be willing to splurge on the artwork in their child’s room before purchasing a piece de resistance for their own parlor. Schools – especially charter schools – tout the importance of an inspiring learning environment as a legitimate expenditure.
  2. The baby budget loophole.  For cost-conscious moms and dads, the desire to indulge might be easy to deny when it comes to their own wants. But perhaps parents who have repressed their own retail inclinations might be ready for a release – in the form of spoiling their kids. This may motivate parents who can’t afford an adult-sized luxury to make their kids feel like kings of their own castle. And it might mean that a gift that makes parents feel like a hero to their tween or teen makes for a justifiable expense when the budget doesn’t really allow it.
  3. The return to home as habitat. With the real estate market (and every other market) less than predictable, homeowners, and especially families, might return to the notion of home as a place to live, not a sure-fire investment. To appeal to this nesting family, look for ways to make home feel more like a retreat…Foods that feel less like fuel-on-the-go, and more like a restaurant experience in their own dining room. Look for ways to help mom and dad model and re-model their kids’ rooms, and perhaps give them ways to teach their children an appreciation for design at the same time. And provide them with affordable ways to make their play spaces fantastic.
  4. The trickle-down effect of adult aesthetics. Instead of aging up kid culture (think Kidult), we think the pendulum has swung back in the other direction. We’ve already seen fashion find muses in the littlest stars (check out any celebrity magazine and you’re sure to see significant real estate given to Suri Cruise’s shoes or Kingston Rossdale’s hairdos). We already have sushi play sets for the littlest sous chefs. Across any category, look for high-end options to find an audience among a sub-set of parents who want to translate their aesthetic aspirations to a smaller scale.

Tags: kids, play, parents, outside, Youth, trends

Back to School Means Big Transitions for Both Moms and Kids

Posted by YouthBeat Speaks on Mon, Sep 12, 2011 @ 09:43 AM

By Paul Metz, Senior Vice President

By the week after Labor Day, this year’s back-to-school period will be all but over and families across America will be settling back into their school-year routines.  The transition back to a school-year schedule happened almost two weeks ago in my family, as we coped with the anxiety of a daughter entering middle school and the excitement of her younger sibling returning to the known stomping grounds of grade school.  While it is a familiar annual event, the back-to-school transition brings a lot of change and emotion.  In fact, in August we talked online with hundreds of moms and observed that while moms’ feelings about the start of the school year may vary from sadness to elation, every mom seems to have a strong and heartfelt opinion on the topic.back to school

We were expecting a majority of moms to relate stories of “mixed” feelings about the end of summer and their children’s return to school.  We did hear plenty of mixed reactions, but we were fascinated that a full half of moms expressed nothing but positive feelings about their children’s return to school.  This sentiment didn’t feel foreign to me, as my wife expressed quite a bit of relief when the school-year began, because it brought a stable routine and relieved my wife of the weekly summer challenge of figuring out how to keep the kids busy and entertained.  What we heard from moms around the country, through our online parent community, ParentSpeak, were various expressions of happiness, excitement and relief.  The onset of school can solve many “challenges”, including irregular summer schedules, lack of time to get work done, and kids’ boredom.  It seems as if many moms welcome the forced discipline of a school-year routine, even though they also acknowledged that they enjoyed laid-back unscheduled summer days.  This mom articulated the feelings of many moms: 

“I’m definitely glad to get back to school.  Being in a routine is so much easier.  I am glad for my kids to have that unstructured play time in the summer; don’t get me wrong.  But I love routine and order.” 

Another mom echoed these sentiments with,

“School gives them a routine and set schedule to follow and it makes for a more harmonious life in our home.” 

Clearly, many moms view school as a positive co-partner in helping them manage the busy lives of their families.

Moms’ outlook about the back-to-school period seems to depend heavily on how they perceive their evolving role as a parent as their children grow.  Some moms are excited that their children are moving to the next grade, getting the opportunity to learn new things and socialize with their friends.  Other moms, however, lament the new school year because it reminds them of how fast their children are growing up and they feel a certain sense of “loss”, and know that the happy, fun days of parenting a young child are not easily recaptured.  These moms tend to feel that summer is too short and that they aren’t quite ready for the school year to start, which leaves them feeling sad and anxious.  Our just-completed research suggests that approximately one in five moms feel this way. 

In between the extremes are a number of moms who exhibit truly mixed feelings.  Many moms have a balanced perspective of both the positives and negatives of summer and of the school year.  It’s not atypical for moms to welcome the regular schedule of the school-year while dreading the early mornings and long nights of helping with homework.  The same mom can feel happiness for her child’s advancement, and sadness about having less time to enjoy with her children. 

This mom captured her competing feelings quite well:

“I am sad that my son will soon be heading off to 2nd grade; I love spending all the time with him in the summer.  But I am also excited because I love watching him grow and become the wonderful little guy he is.  I love hearing his stories about his day.  It’s such a mixed feeling,  but I am glad he is getting a good education  and know I have to slowly let him grow up.”

These are the types of tensions and inner conflicts that companies with child and mom-targeted products and services should try to understand.  There is opportunity for companies who understand moms’ feelings and emotions during the back-to-school time, because they can reflect these in their advertising messages and strike a chord of relevance and authenticity with moms.  For their part, retailers seem to be succeeding at connecting with moms, as we tallied over 60% of moms saying that they enjoyed back-to-school shopping.  And this was something that both moms and kids could agree on, and serves as a positive exclamation point to the end of the summer.

Tags: kids, mom, family, tweens, school

The Anatomy of a Youth Trend

Posted by Amy Henry on Tue, Sep 06, 2011 @ 01:59 PM

It’s officially September and that means youth all across the country are either settling into a school year or are just about to head to class. The back-to-school moment often marks the beginning of trend-spotting season – for youth and marketers.

 At YouthBeat, with a grounding in a syndicated study among kids, tweens, teens and parents, we’re often asked about the latest youth and family trends. But the work of trend spotting is complicated when it comes to youth, so we thought we would both explore some of the central questions surrounding this issue, and, of course, offer some answers.

What’s the timeframe for a trend? Futurists, cool hunters, business strategists and scholars often debate this issue…Many contend that a trend represents a happening that occurs over a long stretch of time – 10 years. Some see trends as obsolete after just a few months (or weeks!). For youth, the matter is more complex because trends are often cyclical. We recently reported on a resurgence of interest in pirates among youth of all ages…Is this a “trend,” or is it an evergreen with a contemporary makeover? We’ve often heard that by the time kids are talking about a trend, it’s on its way out. But if this is true, than who tells us about youth trends? Playing on our YouthBeat thematic, we have coined our own version of trends as “vibes.” We focus on the big shifts in culture, the underlying drivers of behavior across many aspects of youth’s lives and the meaning behind what they buy in a variety of categories. But through this lens, some of the most interesting and inspiring “fads” (another term that adds to the semantics surrounding trends) get lost in the shuffle. Bieber Fever isn’t a “vibe,” but it’s telling…the question is “what is it saying?”Youth Trends

Who determines youth trends? This question might apply to adults as well…Can we really look at early adopters to help us predict the future habits of the majority? Are the phenomenon that have taken hold in other cultures really good gauges for the next big thing in the States? For youth trends, the question of authority is even more issue-laden. Do we rely on informed adults to tell us about the trends? Afterall, much of the “stuff” of youth trends, including products, music, fashion, etc. are at least financed if not created by adults. Youth may determine which adult ideas to seize, but they don’t always think about what’s next. In our own YouthBeat Time Capsule qualitative exercise (an ongoing initiative that results in Time Capsule TV videos available to YouthBeat subscribers), we often see that youth identify familiar properties like Harry Potter or ubiquitous brands like Apple as “new.” If we rely on them to tell us what’s next, we’re not likely to get very far. At the same time, adults tends to focus more on what might be right for the market, or where an undiscovered technology could take a category. We think, to truly predict a trend, you have to marry the sensibilities of youth with stimulus from forward-looking adults. 

And what evidence do we need to name a trend? The answer to this certainly varies depending on your need for trends, but also on how you use them. Do trends require quantitative support or can something that feels “sticky” constitute a trend-in-the-making? Can ten teens in New York City really have their thumb on the pulse of the zeitgeist enough to predict what will catch on in Kansas? And if we ask parents or kids what movements or shifts they’re experiencing, will we really get answers that underline trends, or will we just get a catalog of current behaviors and truths? Furthermore, can a trend be proven by citing an article in the Journal or the New York Times, by referencing buzz on a blog or on Facebook, or by noting a playground practice seen or heard in your local community?

With all of these questions, it may seem that identifying youth trends isn’t worth the trouble. But we know that understanding what’s next matters to anyone who is trying to keep up with the youngest audiences and users of programs and products. So here are a few simple rules we use – and will use in a series of upcoming blogs that will attempt to cut through the fog around fads!

  1. It’s always about the “why.” Trends can be a trap for many marketers and makers of experiences who focus more on the content than on the drivers of content appeal. The happening or the product or the song that signals a trend is over once it happens, but the forces that made it rise to the top of youth’s mind or to its own category are probably not. This means that finding the newest thing isn’t nearly as relevant as knowing the new reasons why something has come back.
  2. Getting “big” usually means getting more than one thing right. It’s easy to look at a trend or a craze and point to one factor that made it pop. But most tap into numerous themes – timeless and timely – all at one time. Kids might be younger, but their relationship to the culture they care about is not. Just because Silly Bandz worked for kids doesn’t mean that a knock-off will work just as well. Twilight might be popular, but vampires aren’t a surefire formula to attract tween girls. Analyzing trends and fads requires a deep look at all of the aspects of a thing, and importantly, how they all fit together.
  3. Finally, finding trends requires flexibility. If there was a formulaic approach to identifying the new dish, someone would have revealed it by now. It’s easy to claim that there’s a transparent approach to finding trends, or that it’s just a matter of hard work. But the truth is that trends can reveal themselves in multiple ways…It may be a matter of noticing that many different kinds of people are talking about the same thing…That a number of popular products or items pull on a common thread…That something from somewhere else (another market, a niche group) looks to be the missing puzzle piece that the mainstream is seeking… In any case, trendspotting is more art than science and that means committing to openness more than a pre-determined process.

Stay tuned for our next post on one “trend” we’ve caught cropping up in a few places, “Posh Play Spaces.”

Tags: research, kids, Twilight, Youth, Teens, culture, research methods, tweens, Silly Bandz