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

Overheard in a Home Depot: Are Kids Taking Over Your Home?

Posted by Amy Henry on Fri, Aug 13, 2010 @ 10:57 AM

“It’s called Twilight!” the tween girl standing next to me told her mother, in a high drama, OMG kind of voice.

This was the weekend, and I was not behind the glass watching a mom-kid pair or a focus group. I was in the paint section at Home Depot and upon hearing the magic word my Robert Pattinson radar kicked in. My husband, sensing what was up, took my toddler son to the next aisle and left me to listen in.

“This one’s called ‘sexy’ she giggled – clearly trying to shock her mother, who clearly had been shocked too many times to react. With practiced practicality, the mom ignored her daughter and simply suggested a slightly less bold paint color. The negotiation began.

“I really feel like I’ll be most comfortable if it’s the color I love (Note to reader: that color would be “sexy”). And this is my room so I have to be comfortable, right?”

It seems today’s kids, tweens and teens have been taught, by example, by the media and by pop psychology that environment matters. And retailers haven’t missed their cue. Pottery Barn and Crate and Barrel saw an opportunity to develop room décor for this style-savvy set with stores like Pottery Barn Kids and PBTeen, as well as Crate and Barrel’s sister store, Land of Nod. And while directing its messages to parents more than kids, Restoration Hardware recently got into the youth home goods game with its new line of Baby and Toddler furniture.

But proving that kids, tweens and teens have influence beyond these boutiques designed for them, Home Depot’s paint display included snapshots of picture perfect children’s rooms alongside images of  Martha Stewart inspired showrooms. When my family rejoined me, I noticed that my son was “playing” with a paint sample – in the shape of mouse ears. He proudly showed me his new “book,” which was really a brochure for Disney paints. He noted that one of these fantasy spaces included a little car just like one that he has at home.Disney Paint Room

For today’s youth, who have grown up watching deserving kids get decked out rooms on Extreme Home Makeover, or who watched their own version of Trading Spaces (Boys versus Girls) on Saturday morning television, this penchant for paint and obsession with getting their rooms just right isn’t a surprise. If you catch HGTV, you’ll notice an increased emphasis on the crafting of kid spaces – with some shows, like Colour Confidential, letting kids get on the act by picking paint colors and weighing in on what their walls will wear. And with more and more kids watching the Food Network and taking cooking classes in cities and suburbs across the country, it’s no wonder that kids are out to conquer the next domestic frontier. Or, if not conquer, at least make it their own.

But will parenDisney Paint Colorsts indulge their kids’ requests for real – and really costly – renovations to their rooms? It’s likely that kids will continue to have free reign over things traditionally chosen by kids for their rooms: posters and novelty pillows, bedspreads and tchotkes. And for some, coloring their walls to match their mood – or their favorite fantasy – might be the next step in designing the world of their dreams.

Tags: kids, mom, Twilight, Youth, Teens, shopping, Home Depot, money

UPDATE: Most Anticipated Summer Movies

Posted by Amy Henry on Fri, Jul 16, 2010 @ 01:39 PM

According to a recent YouthBeat poll of over 1000 grade school kids (~ages 6-10), Toy Story was the most highly anticipated movie of summer 2010!Toy Story, Twilight, Karate Kit

And why were kids were flocking to theaters to see these flicks? Check out some of our previous posts…We’ve written about the appeal of Toy Story 3 among teens, who grew up alongside toy-owner Andy; we’ve opined about the reasons behind the unending appeal of Twilight among tweens and teens (and moms, such as it is!); The Karate Kid made a brief appearance in our recent blog on 80’s properties that have stood the test of time.

We’d like to add just a bit more on why we think the results turned out this way.

Toy Story 3 seems to be that rare brand and property (think SpongeBob) that can truly capture the imagination and pull the heartstrings of three year olds, thirteen year olds and thirty (something) year olds.

My own preschooler can’t get to sleep these days without snuggling up to his Buzz Lightyear and Woody dolls. Independent of the compelling meta-narrative that is Toy Story (and one that plays into children’s deepest fantasies and fears that those toys are up to something when you’re not around), these characters deliver on the old-fashioned notion of a great toy.

In one of the DVD extras for Toy Story 2, the film’s creators discuss a moment that makes the film “pure Pixar”: engaging adventure, followed quickly by a bit of humor, topped off with a moment of heart-warming vulnerability. It seems that this formula fits the needs of many ages, not just the kids who are putting this property on top once again.

On Twilight…Having recently admitted to being a “Twihard”, or at least a “Twihard-in-training” (read a few of these books and you will begin to see the world in terms of Vampires versus Werewolves), I am happy to see that Twilight takes second place. We know that kids are watching, but we’re not surprised it took a backseat to Toy Story, which pushes the limits of animation, but continues to feel like a pretty safe viewing experience. In contrast, Twilight speaks perfectly to teens (who continue to make it one of the highest nominated films at the Teen Choice Awards), who are developmentally driven to be fascinated by risky notions, angst-ridden characters and moral dilemmas.

We’d love to hear what you’ve seen this summer – and whether you agree with our panelists that Toy Story 3 should get top billing this season.

Tags: research, movie, Karate Kid, Twilight, Youth, Teens, tweens

How I Became a “Twihard”

Posted by Amy Henry on Thu, Jul 01, 2010 @ 11:30 AM

For the past few years, I’ve been keeping tabs on tweens’ and teens’ fascination with Twilight. I’ve read about fanatical fans, whose love of Bella, Edward and Jacob have changed the way we think about vampires, werewolves and monsters in general. I’ve watched them take over and redefine the MTV Music Awards and Comic-Con. And I’ve talked to countless tweens and teens about what makes them passionate about the books and the movies that have become the Harry Potter of the post-puberty set.Twilight

But I must confess: up until two weeks ago, I hadn’t read the books or seen the movies. From what I did know, the concept felt just right for this age group…The romantic notion of forbidden love (as relevant to tween girls as it was in Romeo and Juliet). The captivating cool confidence of an edgy outsider who doesn’t seem to have the need to fit in…Even the realistic and sweet relationship between a father who wants to protect his little girl and a daughter who wants to move on while not disappointing him…And what about the real life intrigue surrounding the secret love between stars Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson - K-Pat or Stewartson (which I just made up)? You can’t script this stuff.  

With Eclipse hitting the theaters, and with Kristen, Robert and Taylor doing the media/publicity rounds once again, I thought I’d better get authentic. And here’s the lesson I learned: the concept might be right, but it’s the execution that really makes Twilight work.

First, consider the casting. With a cast of relatively unknowns before the first Twilight film, this makes tweens and teens feel like they discovered them on their own. And while Taylor Lautner isn’t exactly a fulfillment of author Stephanie Meyers’ description of a 6’7” werewolf, he delivers fully on the rest of the fantasy. And, for the record, I’m channeling teens here. As a film that – let’s face it – is a romance more than a monster romp, Kristen Stewart could not be a more aspirational leading lady. We don’t want to be her because she’s perfect or pretty, but more because of that inner beauty that shines through her dark and somber façade.

Second, the movie’s setting, which was originally Seattle and then Vancouver, not only feels believable as a haven or a coven for monsters, but feels right as the backdrop for teen angst. Forks (the town in which the movie takes place) feels less fictional, in some ways, than the pseudo-real high schools we’ve seen in recent teen flicks in theater and on TV. The mood matters in this film, and seems to capture that pervasive state of unease that surrounds teens. And it makes it feel natural when Edward and Jake both seek to protect Bella – not just from vampires or werewolves, but maybe from herself.

Finally, I found myself surprised by the friendships in Twilight. I used to think that the romance defined Twilight – and perhaps it does. But as a real reader, I was most surprised by the bond between Bella and Alice. This kind of friendship might fuel tweens’ and teens’ fantasy as much as the sexual tension between Bella and her two “choices.”

I’ve also been reading lots of other opinions on Twilight, and not surprisingly, there’s a lot of focus on whether the special effects are right, whether there’s enough action versus love (for that all important audience – teen boys), and whether or not the book brought to life the words from Meyers that so many tweens and teens have absorbed.  

But I’m pretty content to be a new fan. Am I a “Twihard”? Well, according to definitions from, I’m probably less a “Twihard” and more a “Twilighter”. The site draws the following distinction:

“The difference between being a “Twilighter” and being a “Twihard”, is that “Twihards” have embraced a new “Twiligion”... er.... I mean, religion based on Twilight. They live and breathe Twilight. Most “Twihards” are for Edward and Bella. Therefore, those “Twihards” are all for true love and love at first sight. Point out one thing to a “Twihard”, and they can relate it to Twilight instantly. Savage and wild, they need every single thing to be perfect in the upcoming Twilight movie.”

I do drive a Volvo – but more because of the suburban mom connection than the Edward Cullen one!

Tags: kids, movie, Twilight, Youth, Teens, TV, tweens