It's Friday night, and 24-year-old Javier Vega is hanging out with his friends in Condesa, a Mexico City neighborhood that has become a watering hole for the young and hip. Before nightfall, rich kids descend from the hills in new cars and strut into a martini bar while gabbing away on their cell phones. Students linger over coffee and cigarettes at outdoor cafes. Dressed head-to-toe in the latest imported gear, Vega--a law student who moonlights as a fashion designer--surveys the scene. "Brands have a certain personality," he says. "I want a certain personality and a certain lifestyle, so I go for those brands."
Vega and his cohorts are the reason marketers flock to youth hangouts like Condesa these days. Warner-Lambert Co. staged a block party in the neighborhood to launch a lozenge in November. Male and female models clad in nothing but Levi's jeans, their torsos painted over with bright designs, turned up at hot Mexico City nightclubs last year. Companies are battling as never before for the hearts, minds, and wallets of Mexico's biggest consumer segment: the 25-and-under set. "They're the critical target for both today's and tomorrow's sales," says Joanne Black, director of marketing for Jugos del Valle, a Mexican juicemaker.
Mind you, most of these kids don't have much money to spend. Some two-thirds of Mexican teens and twentysomethings are poor or working class. But what this market lacks in cash it more than makes up for in size. Some 23 million Mexicans, or 23% of the population, are between the ages of 14 and 24. And the money they drop on such small-ticket items as colas, snacks, and CDs can add up to big figures. Antenna Consulting, a Mexico City market-research firm, estimates that spending by Mexicans aged 13 to 18 comes to $10 billion a year.
BLITZED. Still, marketers are having to work harder than ever before to grab these kids' attention. Thanks to trade liberalization and foreign investment, Mexico's young people are now exposed to a broad array of brands, from candy to cars. "This is the first generation in Mexico that's a generation of choice," says Liz Paul, president of marketing services for Antenna. This is also a generation that has been blitzed with advertising from an early age. That means companies must come up with creative ways to win them over. "It's `surprise me or don't invade my space,"' says Juan Manuel Meyer, marketing manager for Levi Strauss de Mexico.
Advertisers can't just look north of the border for inspiration, though. Teenage rebellion is one theme that doesn't go over well this side of the Rio Grande. That may be because one-half to two-thirds of Mexicans ages 14 to 24 get all their spending money from their parents, according to a study by Antenna. "You can see somebody on the street with tattoos and earrings and purple hair, but he's still with Mommy and Daddy," says Carmen Arce, MTV Latin America's Mexico veejay. She should know: At 24, Arce still lives with her parents, as do almost three-quarters of Mexicans aged 21 to 24. Other things U.S. youth have embraced that have not caught on in Mexico include mountain biking and natural foods. Young Mexicans "are global brand consumers, but they're not global trend followers," says Antenna's Paul.
For marketers courting Mexico's increasingly sophisticated teens and twentysomethings, it's also no longer enough to run ads on top-rated TV shows and radio stations that appeal to older adults as well. So some consumer-product companies are migrating to outlets that narrowly target the market segment they desire.
One of these is MTV Latin America. In Mexico, where cable TV reaches only 15% of households, MTV was once dismissed as a channel for a tiny, Americanized elite. Not now, says Juan I. Ruiz de Ojeda, a brand manager at Coca-Cola Co.'s Mexico subsidiary. Ruiz de Ojeda commissioned a survey of teens in a handful of out-of-the way towns and cities in Mexico last year and learned that 70% to 80% of them were familiar with MTV. They watched it at bars, at friends' houses, or on pirated cable hookups. Based on that research, the company launched a promotion for Sprite on the music-video channel in September. Although Ruiz de Ojeda won't disclose how much he spent on the campaign, he believes it paid off. In a follow-up poll, the percentage of respondents that agreed that Sprite is a brand that "really understands young people" jumped almost 20 points.
DARING. MTV Latin America's roster of clients continues to grow, with 36 new companies added last year. The list ranges from more daring advertisers such as Volkswagen to the comparatively stodgy Procter & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive. "We give them a pure demographic," says Melisa Quinoy, MTV Latin America's vice-president for ad sales. For the same reason, marketers are also going online. Although Internet penetration is only about 4% in Mexico, users are overwhelmingly young. New York-based StarMedia Networks Inc., a Spanish- and Portuguese-language portal, claims that 78% of its users are under 35. Moreover, thanks to the proliferation of special-interest chat rooms and sites, companies can now target the narrowest of segments. Indeed, Gary Bonilla, vice-president of strategic planning at StarMedia, predicts that the day is not far off when advertisers will be able to "talk directly to 13- to 15-year-old girls who play volleyball and wear purple nail polish."
Nestle is exploiting the craze for Puerto Rican pop star Ricky Martin to lure Mexican cybernauts to a new Web site for its Sin Parar ("non-stop") ice cream. Teens log on to the site to play a video game, and if they win, they get tickets to a Martin concert. Less than a week after the promotion was launched on Feb. 9, more than 1,000 kids a day were playing the game. Christof Leuenberger, Nestle's brand manager for the Sin Parar line, admits he didn't do much research before plunging into the Net. "It's a bet," he says. "Internet is the medium of the future." His hunch appears to be paying off. Many of the contest winners are from middle- and even working-class neighborhoods. Kids are going online, even when there's no computer at home.
In Mexico, youth marketers are also changing what's acceptable in advertising. Brazil's Universo Online introduced its Mexican Net portal in January with a TV spot showing two men breaking away from a kiss. Some companies prefer to keep it tame, though. A TV ad for Jugos del Valle's Apreton, or Squeeze, line of juices aimed at teens shows a boy of about 13 asking his older brother for advice on how to woo a girl. "Give her a squeeze," is the answer. Demand for the Apreton juices is so high the company has had to postpone launching the product outside Mexico City until it builds a new plant. Around the world, sex sells. But sometimes, small doses are best.