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Want to tap into the $211 billion youth market? Offer cool, functional and affordable products

Young people are the the outdoor industry's future — and a large part of its present, with major power to buy and influence purchases. SNEWS takes a look at what attracts youth to particular products and how to do a better job of reaching out.

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We all know that the youth market is the future of the outdoor industry — and a major part of its present, with 8- to 21-year-old consumers enjoying overall annual spending power of $211 billion. But what’s the key to reaching kids, teens and young adults and building brand loyalty among them?

According to the Outdoor Foundation’s Special Report on Youth 2010, 60 percent of those aged 6-24 participate in outdoor recreation, a figure that’s fallen in recent years. The biggest reasons teens don’t get outside are a lack of time and interest, the report noted. For those who participate frequently, various factors play into a decision to choose one brand over another, and a few outdoor companies have said the younger demographic has less brand loyalty than its older counterparts.

“I don’t know if they have as much affinity to any one brand,” said Mark Satkiewicz, president and general manager of SmartWool. “Certainly they have affinity to multiple brands.”

Those preferences are based on a few things: a brand’s “cool factor,” price and the functionality of its products.

And reaching this demographic is essential, said Ann Krcik, The North Face’s director of outdoor exploration.

“Today’s youth will be the outdoor explorers and conservationists of tomorrow,” Krcik said. “Reaching youth helps ensure that we’ll continue to have wild open spaces for future generations.”

Cool factor

Dartmouth University freshman and champion telemark skier Lorin Paley — who’s also a SNEWS youth reporter — cited several brands she thinks work hard to engage young people, including Burton, REI, Dakine, Teva and GoPro.

“They are inherently cool,” Paley said. Reaching youth “isn’t something they’re doing on the side; it is their focus.”

Plus, Paley added, such brands are masters at “blending everyday life with kickass function.”

Another aspect of the cool factor is fashion. Young people like to look good while being active, Paley said. “Functionality is important but let’s be real,” Paley said. “Style makes a huge difference. If one pair of hiking pants has a more flattering cut than another, the choice is pretty natural. On the other hand if one company is ‘in’, youth will buy that and not the knockoff.”

First time, price and function factors

Elizabeth Williams, executive director of Big City Mountaineers, said a good first experience with a brand helps develop loyalty.

While the folks at Big City Mountaineers don’t give their young clients a choice as to what brands they use for their outdoor adventures (generally they outfit them with whatever companies have donated), they do find that program participants become loyal to brands they used their first time out.

“I think people will go back to things that they’re comfortable with and something that they know,” Williams said, while acknowledging the ephemeral currency of cool plays a role. “Plus, if they perceive it as cool, they’re going to stick with it.”

For those who have a menu of options when it comes to buying gear and apparel for the outdoors, function and price play a big role.

“I look for items in terms of functionality, style and price,” said Harvard University sophomore Alex Wirth. “I want something that is going to last and fit my needs, while at the same time being affordable.”

Plus, Wirth added, the more functional features on an item, the more likely he is to buy it.

Ivan Levin, director of Outdoor Nation, said accessibility and cost play a big role in what teens and young adults purchase.

“What it really comes down to is where can you purchase the gear at and how much that gear costs,” Levin said. “A lot of companies have their own stores, but you can also purchase The North Face products at many different retailers.”

Surefire ways to lose teens

This is a demographic no company wants to deter from spending. According to a 2011 report released by Harris Interactive, Generation Y, youth ages 8 to 21, has a buying power of about $211 billion annually.

“While the purchasing power of today’s youth is strong, it is even stronger when coupled with the influence these kids have on what parents buy,” the report stated.

Many things can keep them from spending their (or their parents’) money. While Wirth said social media doesn’t make a difference in what outdoor brands he chooses to purchase, Paley said she finds satisfaction in being a fan of her favorite outdoor brands on Facebook, especially when they offer special deals.

On the other hand, some companies’ Facebook and Twitter presences harm rather than help.

“I really despise some brands for putting up way too many ads or obnoxious videos,” Paley said, not naming names.

Satkiewicz of SmartWool said his company learned this lesson the hard way. He didn’t go into details about the “minor event,” but said the company has learned that how a brand communicates digitally makes a difference among outdoor consumers and whether they will purchase its products.

“If you handle yourself the wrong way digitally or in the social realm, you’ll lose that customer,” he said. The younger generation, he said, “wants communication from a brand in a credible and genuine way.”

There are other things companies do that turn off the youth demographic, such as failing to keep up with trends, offering products that aren’t sufficiently functional and neglecting to directly market to teens in advertisements.

Levin said there are a lot of good things going on at companies like The North Face and REI, but “in general all of the companies could do a better job including youth in their advertisements. I don’t think it’s a matter of the ads and where they appear, but of who is in the ads. I see a lack of two things: I don’t see a lot of young people, even college-aged or younger people, and I don’t see a lot of diversity in ads.”

Answer the call, do more

Every teen and young adult seemed to mention The North Face, Burton and GoPro as companies getting it right in terms of reaching out to the youth community.

But according to the youth SNEWS interviewed, there’s more to be done. Teens and youth want to be heard, they want to have a voice and they want to have a say in what you’re doing. Paley and Wirth both suggested consulting youth is a great way to do that.

Graham Gephart, global brand manager for the K2 Outdoor Group, said companies need to understand that teens and even tweens are more independent than the younger kids, and they like to choose things that they want, rather than caving to parental preferences.

“Most outdoor companies are staffed by men and women in their late 20s to early 40s and 50s,” Gephart said. We know how to design a lot of stuff for ourselves but it’s a lot harder to design the products you think kids want.” 

How can companies remedy this?

“They need to bring young people in to help design the products and have campus representatives that can help [promote] the products and personally vouch for them,” Wirth said.

“I always feel like companies are just a half-step behind,” Paley said. “If they had youth design consultants that they took seriously, I think it would make the naturally cool factor of that company way higher. It would be more work organizationally, but it would completely legitimize their designs.” 

Well, brands, the youth have spoken, and we’d all better listen.

“The success of The North Face and the outdoor industry depends on younger generations and multi-cultural communities becoming outdoor enthusiasts and consumers,” Krcik said.

–Ana Trujillo