Opinion

Mumbrella360: How do you win in youth culture when you’re not a young brand?

After presenting at Mumbella360 last week, 72andSunny's global chief strategist, Bryan Smith, recaps his session on how to win in youth culture when you're not a young brand.

Let me start by clearing the air: I’m coming from a place of empathy and common sense. Because for years you’ve had people like me trying to make you insecure about how much you supposedly don’t get young people. How first Millennials, then Gen Z and now Alphas are supposed to be these totally new species with alien needs, desires and motivations that you need experts to even begin to understand.

Nope. I don’t buy it, and I’m not selling it.

Young people are still people. They just happen to be going through a gloriously wild life stage that every one of us has gone through before. And the so-called rules of connecting with them are a contradictory mess.

Be authentic… Except they’re always posing. 

Be social first… Except they’re sick of social. 

Be cause-driven… Except they can spot virtue signalling a mile away. 

And if you think that’s confusing, you’re not alone. So I’m going to keep things dead simple instead. 

Relevant brands win

That’s my big advice, and it holds true no matter how old your audience is. 

Because when you’re relevant, everything else follows: people are more likely to notice you, remember you, like you, choose you, and choose you again. And when you figure out how to stay relevant in our fast-churn world, that’s how you really win. 

So how you do it? How do you make your brand relevant?

First, put your specific growth audience at the heart of things. It’s impossible to be relevant to everyone, or even all young people. Don’t even try. You have to be relevant to the right people that you need to grow your business with. 

Once you know who they are, you can look at the 3 ways to build relevance with them. 

  1. Cultural relevance – how much your brand is in and contributes to your audience’s subcultures. It’s what our industry usually focuses on, and it’s important. But it’s not the only lever you can use.
  2. Product relevance – how well your offering fits your audience’s specific needs. 
  3. Identity relevance – what your brand says about the people who choose it. Who they are, or who they want to be.

Simple, right? But to make things even more actionable, I’ll get into some practical tips for achieving those different forms of relevance as illustrated through a few real-life case studies from 72andSunny’s archives.

Product relevance. 

Start here. Because if your product isn’t relevant, nothing else matters.

Tip #1: Show how your product is relevant to what young people are actually doing.

It’s not what you wish they were doing that matters. You have to meet reality head on. 

Case in point: Google. For decades, they wanted young people to search for life-enriching answers in pages of blue links.

But the somewhat awkward reality is that young people are actually searching for social capital and practical know-how… often on TikTok. Because young people are hyper-visual learners, and because TikTok is full of snappy videos from people like them that can make ‘em look good and teach ‘em something useful.

So we embraced that reality and introduced a Gen Z-friendly promise of our own: dive into your pop culture obsessions with lots of pictures and almost no words. Just point your camera at something you’re curious about and get a visual answer in return.

The ‘New Ways to Search’ campaign deliberately broke a cardinal design rule: we messed with an icon, transforming the iconic search bar into the search blob. We did it to show that you can search what you see – and, as importantly, to get you off autopilot with something you think you know all too well. 

Then we partnered with the Barbie movie to demonstrate the app in action – with a healthy dose of attention-commanding humor. 

Tip #2: Build from what your new and old customers have in common.

Avoid a leaky bucket – bringing in new customers while losing the ones you already have – by getting behind what unites them. Like we did for the National Football League (NFL) last year.

A Teen Vogue headline summed up their challenge well: “I won’t be watching the Super Bowl because football is too dangerous to exist.” 

While safety improvements were helping, the NFL needed a bigger product innovation to win over young people. So they embraced flag football in a big way. With their help, it’s now the fastest growing participatory sport in America – and that’s crucial, since players are more likely to watch.

But some older NFL fans saw flag football as a symbol of cultural decline and ‘softboiness’. 

To win over young people without alienating that base, we made a Super Bowl campaign that didn’t highlight what was different about flag. It connected flag to the timeless joys of football: the same giant personalities, the same high-octane action, and the same thrilling momentum. It went on to become the #2 Super Bowl spot of the year, trailing only a commercial starring a dog (aside: dogs play well).

Identity relevance.

All brands today can be badges of identity. Yes, you are what you wear and what you drive. But you’re also what you text with and brush your teeth with and everything in between. 

And I don’t say that cynically. It’s a sincere privilege to help people figure out who they are or want to be—and especially young people, who are wrestling with a seemingly impossible tension between wanting to fit in and stand out. 

So how do you resolve it? Derek Thompson, the host of the fabulous “Plain English” podcast, has the answer. “We feel most like ourselves when we find a place where we belong. Identity comes from the group.”  

Which gets to my next tip.

Tip #3: Shine a light on their hidden depths.

It’s possible that your brand already projects an identity—just not one people want. And that’s okay! People are complex, and there’s more to them than what’s out there now. 

Take Call of Duty, for example. Negative user imagery was damaging the brand’s reputation. Like this guy:

That aggressive stereotype kept many non-players away—because they didn’t want to be associated with people like him.

But there’s a more magnetic, rarely recognized side of the community. They’re not just combative and competitive. They’re also connected and creative. They call themselves CODNation. And we reintroduced them to the world in a content series starring and co-created with them, created right in the game itself.

The campaign clocked in at about 100 social films. Here are my favourites. 

Tip #4: Channel their need to rebel.

Gen Z is often painted as angels—all social causes and personal growth—but like past generations of young people, they also crave mischief and rebellion. Tap into that, as our Sydney team did for Tooheys Extra Dry.

When we started working with them, the aught’s coolest, edgiest beer brand had become a joke. “I drink Tooheys Extra Dry,” the Betoota Advocate quipped, “because I enjoy disrespecting myself and bringing great shame to my family.” 

The rebellious opportunity: Young Australian guys, tired of the pretension and performativity run amok in youth culture, were responding to the raw authenticity of bands like the Chats, who sang about everyday life with unapologetic ordinariness. This inspired our big idea: being proudly ordinary is the most rebellious stance today, whether you’re a beer brand or its fans.

So we wore our ordinariness like a badge, turning meh reviews into bold ads. 

Then we partnered with local creators to tell their own proudly ordinary stories in the most lo-fi, unpretentious way possible. Like this one:

Cultural relevance.

You can make your brand culturally relevant on two time horizons: long-term plays that tap into deeper cultural currents to build enduring brands, and short-term plays that create brand fame through of-the-moment spikes. Modern brands have gotten good with the long-term plays. It’s the shorter-term tactics that need a tune-up.

The current playbook involves reacting to big cultural moments in real-time on social media, hoping to break through. But reacting to mass culture is like playing the viral lottery—someone’s going to win, but odds are it won’t be you.

At 72andSunny, we prefer “Culture Hacking.” It’s all about increasing your odds of fame by injecting the brand into the right (and by right, I mean WRONG) parts of culture for your audience. And that emphasis on “wrong” is critical— because people are far more likely to notice the surprises and the outliers.

Tip #5: Be wildly responsible in your provocations.

You can hack your way into culture by being provocative—but only if you do it in the most wildly responsible way possible. Telling your clients or bosses to “be brave” is just another way to say “be reckless.” The responsible thing to do is prove your provocation will connect with your audience.

With Diablo IV, for instance, we knew our action-horror gamers were vehemently anti-religion, anti-prayer, and anti-spirituality. The data was overwhelming. And that allowed us to create a sacrilegious stunt, filling a real church with demonic murals that we then used to create a live tour, social content, and longform trailer. 

And because we knew what our audience would respond to, it wasn’t a crazy leap to re-use that evil church as a set for a music-video with their favorite taboo-busting artist, Halsey. 

Tip #6: Make the unexpected connection.

Nice but obvious doesn’t get you anywhere. You’ve got to find the interesting hook.

Like for United Airlines, we knew that young people said they valued sustainability… but were also tired of brands bragging about sustainability. And that was potentially awkward, considering our big news was called Sustainable Aviation Fuel. 

What made that news more interesting: that fuel’s made from trash. People, plans can fly on trash now! Which is fun on its own, but really fun when you bring in some star power. Like Oscar the Grouch, the world’s best known advocate for trash. So we made him our “Chief Trash Officer” and spokespuppet of a surprisingly fun campaign about a surprisingly good piece of news. 

Takeaways.

I’ll end right where I started: Relevant brands win. With young people, and with any people. 

To make your brand relevant, you need to start with a clear-eyed take on who you want to be relevant with, and then build it from one of three sources, depending on the nature of your challenge: product relevance, identity relevance, and cultural relevance.

Bryan Smith is global chief strategy officer at 72andSunny.

To watch this session recording and more from Mumbrella360, head to Mumbrella Pro.

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