Tapping into aspirations with kids' marketing | Insights

How aspirational marketing captures a young audience

September 2021


  • Jeremy Burrows, CEO
  • Ariel Hitchcock, UX Lead

Marketing to youth is an exercise in contradictions. Any successful campaign must thread a needle to deliver the right message to the right audience at the right time. But the more rigidly you focus on a single age range found on one channel, the more susceptible you are to missing the target.

The digital media landscape is in constant motion, especially for kids. No matter how well you construct a framework around your audience, you can’t really control its boundaries. Given the way we grow up, brands should be mindful that any young demographic they target may not always be committed to acting their age.

Here’s a shortcut when you want a message to reach an audience under 10: Focus on what 12-year-olds are doing.

Our cognitive and social capabilities change rapidly as we age, and a young audience isn't monolithic. Finding your target customer by potentially speaking over their heads sounds counterintuitive – and even a little risky. But think of aspirational marketing as an approach that aims for a sense of sophistication rather than subject matter. Once you’ve recognized your brand’s audience for who they are, you can apply aspirational marketing to target their keen interest in who they’re going to be.

Aspirational marketing and its roots in dead-tree media

Applying multilayered research allows you to establish parameters around your brand’s media plan. However, even if you’ve drawn a target around a specific age group, you have to consider who your audience admires and what they’re doing as well.

The data-rich world of digital media allows marketers to develop a clearer picture of a platform and its users. But at one time, marketers had only vague ideas about the makeup of their audience. Legacy publications like GQ and Seventeen built their identities on hyper-focused reader demographics and were dedicated to serving those interests. For GQ, the target audience was young, successful urban professionals with the disposable income to look their best. As for Seventeen, well, the ideal age of its reader was right there in the name.

Except regardless of how much these publications focused on their demographic, they had no control over its makeup. For GQ, many of its readers skewed toward high school-aged boys who had no money but were anticipating their next step in life. And for all the energy Seventeen dedicated toward an audience at the cusp of adulthood, many of its readers were closer to 14.

Digital channels provide a far greater level of assurance when it comes to understanding their users. But given the rapid pace of change in the media landscape, no strategy can be leak-proof. Even on digital platforms, audiences don’t always conform to the expectations of their creators — or marketers.

Looking beyond expected channels to find your brand’s fans

Much like print media segmented its audiences into different publications, social media platforms also began by targeting specific user groups. From Facebook’s well-documented college roots to TikTok and Snapchat's growth beyond their youthful targets, these platforms just as readily attract new demographics.

For brands targeting an especially young audience, aspirational marketing introduces some gray areas. TikTok’s terms of service requires its users to be 13 or older to ensure compliance with COPPA guidelines. But younger kids are still finding a way to use the platform. Like so many aspects of digital culture, products that captivate one population find a way of bleeding into another.

Marketing to a young audience already introduces a number of uncomfortable questions if you don't apply a well-considered approach. To be effective and ethical with aspirational marketing, you only have to recognize platforms have a broader reach than may meet the eye.

As kids look ahead for inspiration, they’re not living in their current age bracket with their social media platforms any more than girls who stole their older sister’s copy of Seventeen. Though brands should avoid childish visual flourishes to reach these unintended audiences, they need to be aware younger audiences are consuming these platforms too.

Instagram, YouTube, and the new digital older sibling

Before social media, kids could always turn to their older siblings for guidance on what was cool. Now, with so many social media channels at their disposal, kids have the potential to consult thousands of older brothers and sisters who at times provide digital babysitting.

From YouTube streaming stars to Instagram celebrities, young people tap into an assortment of figures who impact their decision-making. A lot of brands still overlook the power of social media influencers, but they carry a lot of weight among kids looking to find out what’s next.

For brands, partnering with influencers to reach a younger audience carries a level of risk that's balanced with potentially high rewards. In the attention economy, many high-profile YouTube personalities like Logan Paul have gained their following by pushing the envelope. If your brand hopes to reach their audience, you need to ensure your brand aligns with an influencer's content instead of forcing them to conform with yours. Otherwise, all sides will only wind up disappointed.

Challenging a young audience by staying true to your brand

When your brand needs to connect with a young audience, you’re in far more treacherous waters talking down to them than risking going over their heads. More often than not, kids are eager to be challenged and feel like they’re pushing beyond their age group. Brands can help satisfy a craving to explore their next phase in life by building tasteful, interesting campaigns that recall their older counterparts.

For example, Nike's kids section succeeds on the strength of its clear connection with a far older audience. The photography carries the same bold colors and cool appeal, and the language doesn’t rely on slang to identify with its target. Other than the models and product photos, the experience recalls the rest of Nike's site. Rather than attempting to appeal to youth in an inauthentic way, the brand still looks and sounds like itself.

In other words, they’re not talking down to kids—they’re reaching out to them while staying true to their brand. If your marketing successfully applies the same approach, you won’t have to worry about zeroing in on a single age group or channel. The audience you need will simply find you.