Like many of my Gen-X peers, my first encounter with Apple (AAPL) computers was at school. Apple dominated the educational market in the 1980s. But while there was no shortage of Mac geeks of all ages back then, Apple had yet to make a big impact on many teens' lives outside the classroom.
Then came the 2001 debut of the iPod and the dawn of the Gen-Y love affair with Apple. Since I began blogging about youth marketing in 2004, I have read a lot of studies that list teens' favorite brands. Apple is inevitably at the top of every brand list. In fact, a survey reported by Autoblog said teens put the iPhone higher than a car on a list of what they wanted most!
"Unique Cultural Cachet"
But widespread teen affection for the iPod didn't happen overnight. Like most trends among youth, it began with the cool hunters and early adopters telling everyone this would be the next big thing and it spread until it became a cultural phenomenon. "There were teenagers who were more excited about Steve Jobs than Maroon 5," says Leander Kahney, managing editor of Wired.com and author of The Cult of Mac. "They had a passion for the company—and people don't tend to worship businesses and business leaders. Apple had unique cultural cachet."
The numbers prove Kahney's point. Research by Viacom's (VIA) teen network, The N, found that the iPod emerged as the brand that is "absolutely essential to teens." Research from consulting firm the Keller Fay Group found that the product teens talk to each other about most is the iPod. A survey by Piper Jaffray (PJC) found that 78% of high school students own a portable media player, and that of those students, 82% own an iPod. Obsession with iPods has spread to Apple's other products—namely, the iPhone. Of those surveyed by Piper Jaffray, 25% said they're willing to shell out $500 for one of the music-playing handsets.
In a matter of years, Apple has gone from the maker of computers you use in school to the designer of computers that make you cool. There are lessons for other companies hoping to replicate at least part of that Cinderella story.
1. Meet a real need. Music has always been teens' No. 1 love. It's the soundtrack to their lives. Back when, we used to agonize over mix tapes for each other, right down to the cover collage. Almost overnight, the iPod created the digital equivalent of the mix tape. Instead of having to buy an entire overpriced CD, teens could now create portable playlists of their favorite songs. And while most were downloaded illegally, Apple also provided a way for teens with guilty consciences or extra-vigilant parents to buy them legally for 99¢ apiece at the iTunes online music store. Teens became the content creators—and Apple gave them the tools to be creative.
"Apple has positioned itself as a company that wants to empower young consumers, giving them the freedom to DIY," says Holly Brickley from Outlaw Consulting, which specializes in research on youth. "Though other technology companies have provided similar tools, no one brand has so effectively aligned themselves with satisfying this motive—that is, the desire to be empowered as a creative unique individual—which is so important to Gen Y."
2. Design matters. Your product should not only meet a need, but to attract teen loyalty, it needs to have good design. You can also extend that design aesthetic into your marketing or branding. Think about how Apple ads use the white earbuds and iPod in contrast with the black silhouette. They also integrate their design sensibility into their brick-and-mortar stores.
The Apple Genius Bars have become hotbeds for young people to fix their Macs, moon over the latest hardware—and each other.
At Manhattan's SoHo Genius Bar, "the men of the help desk have become a draw for New York's damsels in hard-drive distress," according to a 2005 New York Post story, "Geek Gods." Other brands teens love extend the aesthetic in their advertising to physical stores, too. Among them: American Apparel and Nike (NKE), with its Niketown stores.
3. Let fans and the media do your marketing. Wired's Kahney notes that whenever Apple began to get lots of media attention, it would scale back on marketing. He also observes that Apple never overloads ads with information. They keep marketing simple, letting the press and fans fill in the gaps. When individuals (and other brands, like Fuse TV) began to parody the iPod ads and the "I'm a Mac, and I'm a PC" ads, this simply fueled word-of-mouth marketing for Apple. And organic word of mouth is always the best marketing. Teens are the most social of social creatures and value friends' opinions above any traditional advertising.
4. You don't have to be for teens to reach teens. In some ways, this is the biggest lesson brands can learn from Apple. Their products are for everyone. Apple's ads are not age-specific; the silhouettes show all different kinds of people. The spots also feature varied genres of music, even as they resonate with an MTV audience. It's the brand values of creativity, diversity, and individuality, combined with a line of well-designed products that deliver, that has converted this generation of teenagers into Mac addicts.
Most brands will never be able to fully replicate Apple's zeitgeist moment with the iPod and its continued success with teens and young adults. Some brands come close, however. On a smaller scale, Nike created a phenomenon with NIKEiD., a site where sneakerheads can design their own shoes and pay big bucks for the ability to do so. The site combines strong design with the capability for young people to infuse their own creativity and express themselves through their sneakers. It also attracts an insane amount of fan love from sneakerheads who profess their love on sneaker blogs and sneakerhead social networks.
Even if you can't create your own cult of Mac, you can learn a thing or two from Apple on how to reach the iPod generation.