Like anyone else creating content these days, our agency has spent years marketing to teenagers through social media for brands like Nike and Red Bull. We've looked closely at the data of each campaign, tracked the engagement and distilled the learnings to inform our next effort. All the standard practices. But what we lacked was a more qualitative deep dive into the generation that was coming of age in the culture of rapid digital sharing.
So we decided to make our first feature documentary. Obviously.
What followed was a three-year journey that began by shadowing teenage influencers as well as average users and ended with the SXSW premiere of our film Social Animals. In between, we learned a lot, both about the challenges teens face and also about the new challenges brands face when speaking to a generation that is playing out their formative years with the basic toolkit of advertising in their pockets. Marketing is their native language.
Think about it. Art, copy and analytics aptly categorize all those filtered selfies, witty captions and the incessant tracking of our likes and comments. These tools help teens (and all of us) move the needle for the brand-of-self. For today's teens, this isn't anything new. 24/7 self-marketing is the norm, and like everything in high school, the emotional stakes of winning at this game are at their highest.
Ask any expert, and they'll tell you kids on Instagram are self-obsessed. But is this the result of a platform? Haven't teenagers always been consumed with their popularity and appearance and always tracked what people say about them? Of course they have. The difference now, if there is one, must be connected to the way that photography has become the primary expression of self-presentation. In the '80s, a teenager may have stood in front of the mirror for hours choosing what to wear to a party, but the final presentation of self to one's peer group was an embodied one.
By contrast, a good portion, if not the majority, of visual impressions a teenager makes to his/her peers today are digital ones. Both guys and girls are sizing up the online versions of their classmates before wasting any time getting to know the in-the-flesh version they see in the hallway. That's why they've got to get each post perfect.
"There is a lot of pressure to make sure you look absolutely perfect in every single photo." —Margo, 14, from Social Animals
Multiple teenagers explained to us how they use friend focus groups to choose the next photo to post. They will send four or five photo options (that often looked strikingly similar) to a small group of friends and poll them on which image is most likely to get rewarded with likes. Once that photo hits the feed, they track the performance. If it doesn't get enough digital validation within an hour, they'll delete it. The whole ritual plays like a company pulling a product from the shelf after a bad first-quarter market response.
"Now we have numbers, we have statistics, to see if our lives are matching up to other people's lives." —Landen, 17, from Social Animals
At this point, it seems inevitable (and commonly known) that these platforms encourage humans to behave like brands. So what does this mean for brands themselves, both in terms of connecting to this audience and the responsibility that accompanies this new kind of influence?
If you've been a part of more than one marketing meeting, you know that most brands want to be "aspirational." The unspoken definition of the word has to do with material comfort, beauty, popularity and a host of other things that comprise a narrowly defined ideal of the perfect life. But keeping up with all of this perfection can be emotionally exhausting.
"When I post a bikini picture, I get lots of likes. So sometimes when I'm sad, I post a bikini picture." —Jenny, 18, from Social Animals
A lot of middle school and high school students we talked to are tired of daily digital perfection, both on their own feeds and others. Really tired of it. A few had even deleted their accounts or started over. And many had created "finsta" (fake-Insta) accounts where they could truly be their silly or sad, unperfect selves to the trusted circle of friends they allow to follow them. (The irony of their "fake-Insta" being the more truthful self was not lost on them.) These teens seem to be craving real connection with a few over the projection of perfection to many.
Following their lead, can brands model and celebrate the unperfect? Could brands help people aspire to this kind of honest connection? What would that look like?
The other "a" word in the modern marketing lexicon, authenticity, is often as fabricated as the products themselves. But persuading an audience that you really stand for what you say you stand for is more difficult when the audience has practically mastered the techniques of marketing, and is, as a result, more suspicious than ever of the whole apparatus. The same cheap card tricks won't work when the room is full of professional magicians.
In the social media era, authenticity must then be based more on how a brand behaves than what a brand says. This concept is not new by any means, but relatively few brands have really embraced it.
From everything we've observed while making Social Animals, teenagers (and the rest of us) have fully embraced the logic and practices of the marketplace to market the self. The response, it seems, from brands should be to more completely embrace the logic and interpersonal practices of people. To find ways to champion connection over commodity, empathy over rhetoric, and vulnerability over perfection. How exactly brands do that will be specific to the industries and audiences they are working within. We're still working it out ourselves case by case, one client at a time.