When it's hip to be square

the market
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Design a wacky leaflet in shades of orange and lime green, slap a picture of Oasis on the front, kick off your spiel with a friendly "Hi Kids!" and wait for the young people to rush out and buy your product. A hoary old marketing executive might well think it's as easy as that. But in fact the young are elusive. And as manufacturers and their marketing teams tend to be old, they have to employ someone else to reach out to youth; someone who can identify what's hip, cool, of the moment.

Which is where companies like Reaction UK enter the picture. Reaction UK are "targeting specialists"; they help big businesses market their products to young people aged 16-25. "What we've identified is a form of guerrilla marketing," says Donna Spriggs, managing director of Reaction (clients include BT, Eurostar, British Rail, Guinness and Rowntrees).

Every year, Reaction carries out a nationwide survey of the young, on campuses up and down the land - the Youth Track survey. From this, the company compiles the Hot List; a picture of the most sizzlingly hip young hangouts, including restaurants, pubs, cafes, clothes and shoe shops. This is valuable information for big businesses, who may want to target youth, but don't know quite where to find it. "More often than not, our clients are traditional, 'establishment' types of company, who have identified this group as potential consumers, but have more trendy competitors," says Donna Spriggs.

So: who's on the Hot List? Cream, Office Shoes, Patrick Cox, All Bar One, Mash and Air, Red or Dead, Diesel, Johnnie Loves Rosie, step forward ... but! - not so fast. Step right back again; because it turns out that the favoured haunts of the young are perhaps less sizzlingly hip than one might imagine. Ahem: step forward, then, Top Shop, Next, River Island, Dolcis, Pizza Hut and ... McDonald's.

"Young people are not necessarily impressed by what we think they're impressed by," says Donna Spriggs. She believes this is one survey where the plain truth is told. "The people we use to do our research dress like students, look like students. They aren't women with clipboards. We believe this encourages people to tell the truth, rather than answer to impress."

Student houses are no longer pits of squalor, but are likely to be equipped with microwaves, videos, Sky television and mobile phones (and 59 per cent own a car). "There is a perception among marketers that students are still like the Young Ones - anarchic, revolutionary, unwashed, with a picture of Che Guevara on the walls," says Donna Spriggs. "Students are still wild in some ways but their sense of maturity about social and environmental issues is quite remarkable."

This sensible bunch do not always respond to traditional "youth-marketing" ploys. "When we look at things that have worked well in the past, it's not necessarily the zaniest or wackiest campaigns," observes Donna Spriggs. "You are much better off talking to them like adult consumers. It's no good bunging a picture of Oasis on the front of a leaflet - they are much more sophisticated than that."

But surely this mature (some might say middle-aged) stance makes selling to them easier rather than more difficult? Not necessarily; mainly because the young remain nomadic, fragmented and difficult to advertise to as a single group. One of the secrets is targeting an extremely specific set of victims. Reaction recently helped BT successfully nab a very narrow band: second-year students moving into their own accommodation. (As well as a sober and adult information campaign, one of the main thrusts of the promotion was sponsoring parties and bar evenings.)

As the election looms, Reaction have been collating information on the youth view of politics. "Most of them are apolitical - they are not apathetic, but they really have no idea who to vote for," says Donna Spriggs. So the field is pretty well wide open for any politician who would like to try a little self-marketing. Tony Blair, though, is the least trusted; while John Major is perceived as the most hypocritical. Is there any role model out there at all? "Well," says Ms Spriggs, "Harriet Harman is more popular than you might expect."

Hester Lacey