Risk-taking, experimental and subversive, the premium on understanding young people in society is high. But for all their potency, they are frequently misinterpreted. Learning to speak their language, breaking their codes is where understanding begins.

Houston – can anyone hear me?

Hard to communicate with, hard to relate to, hard to keep up, in short, young people are hard to reach. Often organized in self-sufficient, fluid, informal cliques and sub-cultures they live in a world in perpetual motion. The amorphous nature of this world is impacted by a need to create exclusive groups which reinforce feelings of identity and well being. Experiencing the transition from childhood to adulthood and gradual reshaping of the family unit has meant that young people have formed their own communities and networks of friends. Support groups now come in the shape of best mates, crews, and posses who share the same interests and attitude.

Establishing new support networks has allowed young people to create new identities for themselves which don’t necessarily conform to those of their family and their inherited culture. The paradox is that while young people are now freer to express themselves as individuals, the desire to conform within their group is often greater. The problem facing marketers is the fact that these new groups and networks are often private, self-contained and difficult for outsiders to penetrate.

While some brands have successfully responded to the changing nature of contemporary youth culture, taking into account its complexity and diversity, many have failed to respond adequately, to the extent that their lack of foresight is commonly acknowledged across the marketing industry. Although the topic of youth culture seems to be everywhere; the consequences of mass exposure more often leads to the dissemination of sweeping assumptions and misinformation, than to informed understanding and intelligent insights.

So what is the answer?

Marketers and brands need to understand that youth culture does not conform to traditional industry theories and is continually mutating, forming new tastes and creating new rules of behavior. Youth culture today may not be a coherent group but rather a series of fluid overlapping groups. What is needed is a fresh approach – writing reliable content and a new way of approaching the target audience.

It is time to abandon well-worn generalizations like ‘young people take drugs’, ‘they go to clubs’, ‘they’re media literate’, in other words ‘they’re all the same’. The industry needs to recognize, understand and celebrate the facets that go towards making youth culture so creative, complex and powerful. What about creativity? Individuality? Distinctiveness? Young people are often cynical about ‘youth brands’ because they know they are being targeted. Anyone attempting to communicate with young them needs to get closer to their world, understand their values, attitudes, language, humor, and passion. Successful PPC advertising campaign that is meant for young people requires a commitment to understanding them rather than targeting.