Young set own standards using new marketing tool
ONCE UPON A TIME marketers told consumers what they needed and consumers listened. When a company wanted to sell its products, management would sit in the boardroom with a team of highly skilled marketing executives and create strategies that dictated to consumers what they should aspire to… Those days are gone.
Time magazine’s Newsmaker of the Year in 2006 was “The consumer” because of the profound effect he’s making on the modern global economy. The rise of consumer-driven resources such as blogs and Wikipedia has seen the Average Joe playing an important role that’s influencing the course of history in commerce and politics.
Nobody believes an official spokesman any more, but somehow we all believe the “unnamed source”. Marketers worldwide have started to take cognisance of that power shift from corporations to consumers. Nowhere is that trend more pronounced than in the youth market.
The advent of the “Information Age” has revolutionised the way young consumers make decisions worldwide. The Internet, combined with other forms of technology, has increased the speed and ease with which people communicate and share information.
According to research done by Instant Grass, consumers of today – particularly the young – are moving targets. They don’t believe or accept everything they’re told. They’re astute, informed and highly suspicious of marketing. They carry finely tuned filters that screen out the ever-increasing number of commercial messages that they’re bombarded with on a daily basis. They’re consumers no more. Instead, they’re “PROsumers” and marketers are only beginning to understand how to market to this new and evolved variety of customers.
In recognition of such changing dynamics, one South African marketing executive decided to ensure that young consumers were being heard and found a novel way to connect companies to them. Ian Calvert, co-founder of Instant Grass – SA’s first marketing intelligence agency for young people – realised that most of those creating marketing strategies for that market didn’t know the first thing about them.
In his many years as a leading expert in his field, Calvert understood that the nature of SA’s population demographics meant that the young were quickly becoming increasingly important to marketers. He also realised that many of the people involved in the industry were too old to understand or relate to the people they were trying to communicate with.
Says Calvert: “Over time, I realised that the sheer size of the youth population meant they’d be one of the most important segments to marketers. However, the decisions made by marketers in relation to young people were made with some very anecdotal informa- tion. And conventional research just wasn’t cutting it anymore.”
With that in mind, Calvert decided to partner with Greg Potterton to create a marketing agency that could connect marketers to the young people they knew so little about.
Instant Grass’s major asset and number one currency is a network of very carefully and specifically selected individuals between the ages of 18 and 28 in SA’s metropolitan areas. They describe them as early adopters of mainstream trends. They are the “grasses” – and they’re highly networked individuals within their social groups who pride themselves on being highly informed and opinionated about various topics and social phenomena.
The agency is constantly connected with its “grasses” – which they arm with an email address and a digital camera. The intelligence the agency receives from its “grass” network is completely raw and untainted. It isn’t diluted or confused by the constraints of conventional market research. As a result of its highly unorthodox and open-ended research methodology, Instant Grass is able to translate the information it receives into real-time insights into the young market’s moods and trends, which it uses to help companies build better communication and brand marketing strategies.
“There’s no single youth identity in SA. It’s splintered into many tiny pieces and beneath each culture is a subculture or tribe,” says Instant Grass MD Greg Moloko. “Our grasses therefore act as access points to their broader peer groups, giving the agency wide-reaching insights into key tribes and sub-cultures.”
The Instant Grass model basically tries to identify people who fall within those categories and uses them to do all the work. Grasses are essentially a combination of connectors and mavens and are therefore ideally positioned
to gather and spread information among the greater population.
The beauty of the model created by Calvert and Potterton is that marketers can use the resource for a number of things. Above and beyond the simple application of trend spotting and providing insights into what SA’s young people are doing, buying or thinking, Instant Grass is able to solve marketing “snags” by conducting probes to extract specific information on very specific issues.
Similarly, it’s able to disseminate information through the Grass network to the wider young population like a virus by “seeding” brands and messages in the network – an operation that they’ve appropriately named Instant Seed. Probes and seeds can take any form and deal with varying marketing issues, such as brand health testing, concept testing or even new product development.
Grasses are never paid to participate, so their responses are more honest and natural.
One of the more interesting Instant Grass case studies was the Levi Strauss Eva Project. In 2005 Levi Strauss approached Instant Grass to help them understand why they weren’t growing their business with 15- to 29-year-old black women. They wanted to find a way for young black women to include Levi’s in their wardrobes. To that end they asked Instant Grass to uncover the underlying fashion and apparel needs of young black women. What they discovered was nothing short of phenomenal…
The grasses were given a voucher and asked to go shopping for jeans at any Levi store and then report back on their experience. Levi Strauss had expected issues of branding and store location and advertising to be the problem but it was wrong. Instead, the grasses reported that it was in fact the product design itself that was the key obstacle.
The probe found that most black women were extremely proud of their bodies and acutely aware of their unique shape, which they enjoyed showing off. While it was common for white women to try to hide their bad features, their black counterparts chose to highlight their unique features – including among other things wider hips and fuller buttocks.
With that in mind, clothing for young black women became a frame that accentuated their unique features. But despite their desire to show off their features they weren’t prepared to sacrifice comfort and practicality for “the look”. The clothes therefore needed to feel as good to wear as they looked.
The black female grasses found that Levi jeans didn’t cater for their unique features and struggled to find a pair of Levis that fitted their frames. Therefore, the perception among black women was that Levi Strauss weren’t interested in them as customers. In response to those insights Levi decided to create a new range of jeans for African women, which they conceptualised, designed and named with the help of the Instant Grass network.
The grasses felt that the jeans should be called Eva, the original African woman. And so Levi’s Eva jean was born and became a resounding success – despite the fact that no marketing was used for the first year the jeans were available in its stores.
Harvard Business School guru Robert Hayes says: “Fifteen years ago companies competed on price. Now it’s quality. Tomorrow it’s design.”
The Eva project is just one of many that Instant Grass has undertaken on behalf of clients, which range from fashion brands such as Foschini and Hang Ten to financial services brands like First National Bank. They’ve also worked with communications and media brands like MTV, Media24 and MTN.
Instant Grass also acts as a useful sounding board to a number of advertising agencies, including Saatchi and Saatchi, Lowe Bull and Ogilvy, who use its services to test their advertising campaigns.
Just four years since its inception, Instant Grass has offices in Johannesburg and Cape Town and newly established branches in various key emerging markets worldwide. Though the company employs only 15 people, it has small teams placed in Nairobi and Moscow, with another office being opened soon in India, where 55% of the population is aged under 25. Instant Grass represents the “new age” of marketing experts that are pioneering the discovery of prosumers. They recognise that consumers are no longer passive and sedate receptors of information and their model is driven by the idea that participation and not dictation is key.
Says Calvert: “Most people have a fundamental need to be heard. The grasses in our network get a real kick out of the knowledge that they’re contributing to something. They like knowing that their thoughts and ideas will be used by some big shot CEO sitting in his corner office. All brands offer aspiration, smart brands offer participation.”
In the age of the prosumers, regular participation with a brand or product is one of the fastest ways to nurture brand loyalty. Brand participation can take a number of forms. For example, Oscar-award-winning director Peter Jackson had a website that regularly interacted with fans and sought their input during the filming of King Kong.
Websites such as Reporter.co.za now allow the man in the street to report on the news rather than just read it. In Brazil, Kaiser Beer asked its customers to help it develop a new beer. More than 11 000 contributors in 130 cities throughout Brazil co-created its Kaiser Novo Sabor beer, a new premium product reflecting the personal tastes and preferences of its customers. The beer became an instant success because it had 11 000 ambassadors keen to promote the beer they had played such an active role in creating.
Examples like these illustrate that big business is beginning to understand that their brands no longer belong to their marketers but instead to the consumers who want to control the product they receive and the brand they decide to buy.
The Jo’burg team. Daniel Beatty and Mnigi Mhinga
Connecting marketers to the youth. Ian Calvert and Greg Potterton