Google recently published the results of a survey titled It's Lit – a Guide to What Teenagers Think is Cool.
While that sounds a bit like something dreamed up by embarrassing parents who really do not understand their children at all, it is actually a big deal for marketing and advertising – and the results contained a few nasty surprises for some brands.
Researchers spoke to American teenagers in the so-called generation Z (13 to 17 years) and millennial (18 to 24 years) age groups to find out what engages and drives them, and what brands they most recognise and identify with.
It was no great surprise to find YouTube and Netflix scored the highest in terms of brand recognition and cool.
After all, the idea of sitting in front of a television at a set time on a particular day to watch a TV show interrupted by adverts is an increasingly outdated idea, even to people in their 30s and 40s – so for a generation that has grown up with the internet – traditional broadcast TV schedules are bewilderingly archaic.
This is not good news for people in charge of businesses that have traditionally relied on adverts on traditional television channels to reach young people.
YouTube is considered cool, according to the report, because of its variety and breadth of videos: “From DIY to make-up tutorials to news, YouTube keeps Gen Z connected and in the know. The price is right, too.”
YouTube has more than a billion users, and reaches more users in the 18 to 24 demographic than any cable TV network.
One of the surprises was how poorly the Vice brand fared. For Gen Z, few were even aware of its existence, and among those who were, only the Wall Street Journal was considered less cool among the 122 brands rated.
This will raise concerns for Vice, which is about to launch in the Middle East with an office in Dubai, and promotes itself as the voice of the same young people who rejected it in this survey.
Joe Akkawi, a managing partner at Paz Marketing in Dubai, believes this is not as surprising as it might appear.
"Recent reports show a major shift in the newer generation towards more conservative values," he says. "Vice's content is targeted more to social-justice thinking and liberal-focused news."
Other studies back this up and while it is not quite a case of “the kids are alt-right”, there is a shift. According to research by global consultancy firm The Guild, almost 60 per cent of Gen Z respondents in the United Kingdom described their views on “same-sex marriage, transgender rights and marijuana legalisation” as “conservative” or “moderate”. In comparison, 83 per cent of millennials called themselves “quite” or “very liberal” on these issues.
Other results that raised eyebrows, and might make brands nervous, include the fact that despite most teenagers being aware of Red Bull, they do not consider it cool. For a brand that works so hard to promote itself as youth-focused and trendy, this will not go down well. Likewise, clothing brand Supreme is now considered less cool.
Meanwhile, the simple pleasures of Doritos and Oreos were among the most popular.
Closer to home, teenagers have higher aspirations. Dubai residents Cody, 14, and Tala, 16, who grew up in the UAE, largely agreed with the findings, but pointed out some crucial differences for Gen Z teenagers here.
“Instead of Oreos and chips, teenagers here would rather have an Açaí bowl that is cool to post on their Instagram feed,” says Tala.
“When going out, we are more likely to eat at a new restaurant such as Black Tap, instead of a fast-food joint, because then we can tell our friends all about ‘that new restaurant that serves those crazy looking drinks’.
“And when it comes to fashion, teenagers here care about the brand. So you could find a 16-year-old rocking the new white Gucci shoes and an Hermès belt, rather than plain-old Converse, while girls take pride in the branded bags they carry – not borrowed from their mothers, but something they purchased recently.”
The more overtly consumerist attitude of young people in the UAE is attributed to the materialistic culture they are exposed to while growing up here.
“We are so used to seeing luxury wherever we go that the small things don’t matter anymore,” Tala says. “It’s become more of a competition within our groups of friends: who has the biggest collection of Yeezys or who has the latest iPhone?”
Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp rated badly in the survey, while Snapchat scored extremely highly on both brand recognition and coolness.
Both age groups were aware of the celebrity gossip brands People magazine and TMZ, but neither was considered to be particularly cool, with the latter ranked as least cool by millennials out of the brands they were asked to rate. For the younger generation, obsessing over the Kardashians and their ilk is passé. Celebrity portals might be better off covering Chance the Rapper and Ariana Grande if they want to attract and retain younger readers.
Struggling brand Yahoo! also received a poor rating. This is perhaps not surprising, given most of the people who have a Yahoo email address are those who have been using it for many years and haven’t switched to Gmail.
It was not all doom and gloom for older brands, though. The recently rebranded Old Spice is now considered cooler than Axe (Lynx), so it is possible for struggling companies to make a comeback and appeal to younger consumers. But teenagers have strong opinions about what they expect from businesses.
A 17-year-old female who took part in the Google survey said: “When I think ‘cool’, I imagine companies that do great things for customers/employees.”
Companies with poor customer service or those who do not pay their interns should beware as they risk alienating your future customer base.
Even Google itself – considered cool by nearly all respondents – sometimes gets it wrong. The name of its survey, “It’s Lit”, for example, caused online observers to complain that using the term was tantamount to cultural appropriation from the African-American community.
But perhaps the one thing that the survey shows above all is the eternal truth that the one sure way to alienate teenagers is by trying too hard to be cool.
Key points of the survey
Generation Z never knew a world before the internet. As a result, it is the most informed and evolved generation to date. They value information, stimulation and connection, as evidenced by their affinity towards YouTube, Google and Netflix.
Smartphones are the new TV, with teenagers doing most of their viewing – often via YouTube – on their mobiles.
Snapchat and Instagram are considered the coolest social-media platforms. Facebook, although still a daily habit among many teenagers for “reading and stalking”, is not something they consider cool to post on.
Males are more likely to be persuaded by fads or friends, while females are more likely to decide something is cool based on how it makes them feel.
Video games scored highest for males, while clothes/fashion for females. While this is not too surprising, one thing that scored notably high for both sexes was technology, suggesting it is no longer a predominately male preserve.
Coca-Cola was judged to be cooler than Pepsi and Nike beat Adidas. Xbox beat PlayStation for Gen Z, but the older millennials prefer PlayStation.