In the days before format radio, I listened to KLIF-AM in Dallas. KLIF played an amazing array of music not found on commercial radio stations today.

I particularly liked the R&B program hosted by Cousin Lenny. He began his broadcast at 10:00 p.m.—about the time I was supposed to be in bed sleeping. I'd pull out my blue Panasonic Toot-A-Loop radio and lie there listening to Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, The Stylistics and other R&B legends.

That was about the time I started taking drum lessons. Much to my parents' regret, I actually stuck with it. During the decade to follow, I studied and performed classical, jazz and rock. But still I loved R&B.

Over the years, I have cultivated an appreciation for R&B and its offspring, including hip-hop, house, rap and urban, in general. A benefit of my musical upbringing and interest has been a greater ability to understand youth culture in a manner that is decidedly non-adult-like.

In the research I conduct for Fortune 500 brands, this has been particularly helpful.

Why? Because in recent years not only has urban style become a part of mainstream music, fashion and culture, but also urban values have become drivers of trends in America. Many teenage consumers are in the sweet spot of this important segment.

Simply put, teens are the consumers of today and of the future. When a brand connects with a teen, it could tap into a lifetime of loyalty. On average, US teenagers have more than $90 per week in disposable income. This astonishes uninformed marketers who believe that teens have no purchasing power. In reality, teens have more than $190 billion annually in primary purchasing power and influence.

A skeptical client once remarked, “Yeah, but teens purchase only video games and pizza… they don't really buy expensive items.”

That depends on whether your definition of expensive would include a $160 pair of Nike Shox or a $300 MP3 player.

Like most consumers, teens will spend disproportionately larger dollars in those categories in which they have a high degree of interest or involvement. Those categories include footwear, clothing, music, mobile phones, home electronics and entertainment.

In the beverage category, Sprite learned the strategic importance of teen marketing more than a decade ago when it tapped into America's youth with its “Obey Your Thirst” campaign. As a basis for its strategy, Sprite relied on consumer research that revealed vital insights:

  • Brand preference patterns are formed during preteen and teen years. As young consumers grow older, they have greater access to money. Increasingly, they are able to make their own decisions about brands. Preferences and habits are formed that extend into their adult lives.

  • Young consumers recognize when they are being courted by marketers. They are often skeptical and very aware of what they see in advertising.

These insights led Sprite into a long-term brand strategy and advertising campaign in which sports celebrities spoofed traditional product endorsements. Beneath the blatant and humorous advertising was the real message to young consumers: “Marketing is nothing—Taste is everything. Don't believe the hype—Obey your thirst.”

This message bucked the marketing system and led Sprite into market share leadership.

Sprite knew that if you communicate with your teen audience in a consistent manner for a decade, you end up with a twenty-something adult who has established brand preferences.

Now, granted, not all teens are consumers of urban culture. In fact, most teens pick and choose bits of music and fashion from an array of influences. Moreover, the hip-hop variety of urban culture is a way of thinking, a mindset that functions often without regard for race or ethnicity.

Do you feel your product or service has a stake in marketing to teens in the urban lifestyle? How can you get a greater understanding of the urban target audience?

  • Read. Don't know the difference between “crunk” and “off the hook?” Learning the language of the culture is a good first step toward consumer insight with teens. A must-have reference is Hip Hoptionary: The Dictionary of Hip Hop Terminology. Using this comprehensive compendium of urban teen lingo, you'll finally be able to translate every lyric from Snoop and Fifty Cent. Also check out Hip Hop America for an enlightening perspective on the music and the culture.

  • Listen. Tune into a local urban station to immerse yourself in the music. When I'm in New York, I always listen to Hot 97. The Hot 97 Web site also provides several links for an overview of current urban culture. When I get back home to Dallas, I listen to K104 for a broad sampling of urban musical styles.

    You also may consider loading a selection of top hits on an MP3 player so you'll always know what's hot. If you still can't decipher the lyrics after listening for a while, check out Ohhla: The Original Hip Hop Lyrics Archive. You'll learn words you never knew.

  • Watch. In two words: BET and MTV. Specifically, check out BET's Rap City: The Basement for a look exclusively at hip-hop and rap artists. Music videos provide the essential link between music and style. And many of today's artists and hip-hop celebrities have their own fashion lines: Urban impresario Russell Simmons started (and “banked”) Phat Farm; P Diddy has Sean John; and even Nelly started Apple Bottoms—a line of women's jeans for those with a generous posterior endowment. Fashion and music are of equal importance to urban culture.

  • Go. To have a fuller appreciation for urban teen culture, you have to experience it first-hand. Do some research and find out where teens go for their music and fashion in your city. Visit those stores and see how they use visual merchandising and music to connect to their consumers.

And if you really want to get knee-deep into it, go to a nightclub or attend a concert. A couple of years ago, I attended the Up In Smoke Tour featuring Snoop and friends. A key learning was that the audience was more than 50% white, a visual testament to the urban mindset of the culture. Go for it; besides, you'll get “street cred” with teens when they learn that you are “down” with G-Unit. Aight?

Does this mean that any product or service can be marketed this way? Of course not. And you can't stick some teen-speak into your advertising copy and expect it to work.

But for the right product or service with ownable urban values, the potential is tremendous. Teens are brand-loyal consumers with significant influence and financial resources.

To connect with them in a meaningful way requires your brand to learn about and live in the culture. If your brand has values and benefits that connect with the urban teen mindset, the advertising and marketing need to reflect insights from their culture, experience and aspiration. Do the right thing, and you'll be off the heezy fo sheezy.

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Mitch McCasland ( is director of insight and brand strategy at Moroch Partners ( and a leading advocate of using customer insights and competitive intelligence as a basis for brand strategy, advertising, and new product design.