Although cutting-edge may not be the first attribute that comes to mind when you hear the name The Procter & Gamble Co., the company’s youth-focused brands such as Old Spice, Secret, CoverGirl, Tampax, Always and others have taken the lead in learning how best to connect with 13-to-18-year-olds.

A key player in P&G’s success marketing to teens has been Dave Knox, who pioneered much of the company’s strategy of forging partnerships in the digital and real worlds with youth-generated communities and social networks around passion points such as music and sports.

Knox began exploring those areas when he worked on the Secret brand, continuing as teen external relations manager for P&G Beauty brands and co-founder of the company’s internal Teen Marketing Expert Network. Although his most recent position has been as a brand manager on the Wal-Mart Customer Team, as of October 1, Knox will relocate back to P&G headquarters and assume the role of global marketing digital brand strategist, a new position at the company.

Knox addressed the topic of evolving marketing models to meet the needs of the youth market at IEG’s Making Sensory conference. Below are excerpted remarks from his presentation.

It is not just marketers with teen brands that need to understand teen or youth marketing. Everyone should gain an understanding of this market for two reasons.

First, even if this group is not consuming your brand now, they are forming opinions of it and will be your consumers in a few years. Second, the way the youth market acts gives you insight into how others will behave; it is the youth market that is changing the way brands connect with all of us. They are the tip of the spear.

There are a number of important trends that make the 13-to-24-year-olds of the Millennial generation different from their predecessors. One is their state of optimism combined with stress. The majority of this generation believes they will achieve happiness in their lives, but at least half also says their stress level is high or very high.

The youth market also is driving a shift from a “me” culture to a “we” culture in which the opinions of the group matter the most. Youth are also very socially conscious.

Their lives are completely digital. Youth name the computer the product they could not live without. They are multitaskers who always want to be connected to the world around them.

Yahoo!’s Truly Madly Deeply Engaged Study identified community, personalization and self-expression as the three motivating factors that come out of those generational trends.

Community is self-explanatory. The rise of MySpace and Facebook show that youth strive to feel connected with each other both locally and globally.

Those who once would have been isolated physically or socially from off-line communities can be a part of many others in the digital world. These communities are created by shared experiences and constant communication such as instant messaging, texting and Facebook posting.

Personalization speaks to today’s youth demanding control. They are used to customizing and personalizing everything in their lives.

They demand products and services that suit their moods and they want to live in an on-demand world. This means brands must give them the tools to personalize their products, putting the power in their hands.

The third motivating factor, self-expression, is a type of personalization. Youth want to be seen and to be heard. When it comes to brands, they are seen as a badge identifying what the consumer stands for.

So the cola they drink is a form of self-expression and the clothes they wear are a form of self-expression. This generation attaches meaning to every single thing someone does.

Brands must figure out how to play into self-expression and how to empower youth to leverage your brands in the best way.

Something that works in a brand’s favor is the members of this generation love to be asked what they think and to give their opinions. So one of the ways to get your finger on the pulse is simply by talking to them.

Create a way to have conversations. You can create outlets for interaction inexpensively. It doesn’t cost any money to create a blog and say, “Hey, we’re open for business, come talk to us. We want to talk with you, not at you.” It doesn’t cost any money to put up a Facebook page where they can talk to you.

If you develop those channels, the ideas will start spinning. They will give you ideas of what they want to see and how they want to interact with you.

Five Rules Of Youth Marketing
Based on those generational trends and motivating factors, if you don’t live by these five ideas when creating marketing programs aimed at youth they are going to reject you.

Entertain Them
• One of the top traits that makes someone “cool” to youth is a sense of humor. Same thing applies to brands
• Don’t take yourself or your brand too seriously
• You will be fighting for their attention in a world full of distractions. Make it worth their time

When you think about marketing to this generation, you need to give them something fun to do. For example, around our Old Spice commercial that featured Will Ferrell as his character Jackie Moon from the movie Semi-Pro, we shot two different spots, but we also had all of these great extra takes of Ferrell improv-ing ad copy.

We decided to put all of these ad-libbed spots online and allow kids to look at them, pass them along, blog about them, post them to MySpace, etc. It got thousands of kids to interact with our brand and created a sense of fun and entertainment around Old Spice. The high entertainment value made it worth their time to become involved with the brand.

Don’t Try To Be Something You Are Not
• Youth crave authenticity. In fact they demand it
• Be a cultural anthropologist to learn their world
• With niche being the new mass, you have to invest in their communities. You cannot just shove your way in line
• Most of them think they can do better “marketing” than you anyway

This is the biggest mistake we make as marketers. We hear about some new trend and we say, “We have to be there. We need to figure out how to do that.”

This is a generation that can sniff out b.s. in a heartbeat. They think they are marketers themselves and frankly they probably are better marketers than any of us because they have been marketed to their entire lives.

So you need to figure out how to talk to them in a very authentic way, because authenticity is the single most important thing with this generation. How can your brand play that way? How can you really connect with them?

It begins with recognizing that niche is the new mass. This is a generation with so many different ways to connect with each other across the globe, you need to invest in some of those communities they are involved in and do so in a very real way. To do that, you must follow rule No. 3.

Put Them In Control
• Give them the tools to embrace your brand
• They are going to take your brand and shape it in ways you never imagined. Let them!
• Engage them. Enroll them. Befriend them
• Never make the mistake of forgetting them or talking down to them

They are going to hijack your brand or your property whether you like it or not, so you might as well play to them in the right way and give them the tools to use your brand to make it something that speaks to them.

Jones Soda is a great example. Consumers can create their own labels that appear on Jones bottles. The idea of putting consumers in control has given a little soda company the momentum to compete against Pepsi and Coca-Cola.

Recalibrate Your Risk Tolerance
• Innovation requires placing bets
• Recognize that by the time you see a wave, it is probably already crashing
• To have any hope of catching the next wave you have to create it or see it earlier

One of my favorite things to say to management at P&G is “we need to stop thinking the old way and start thinking like a venture capitalist.” The old saying at P&G was you never got fired for buying a TV spot. In the future you probably will get fired for buying a TV spot, because you need to think differently.

The venture capitalist says, “Try 10 things, three of which are going to fail miserably, five which will be moderate successes and two that will be home runs.” That’s the only way to win.

About four years ago when MySpace was just starting out we did just that with Secret deodorant. We had a new brand coming out called Secret Sparkle Collection for teen and tween girls. Being a niche product, it was a smaller launch; we did not want to do a TV spot.

We wanted to do a little bit of traditional marketing with print, but we also wanted to try some different things. So we placed a couple of bets not knowing what would happen.

We created an AOL IM bot called Secret Sparkle and let consumers just interact with it. We thought maybe a couple of kids would do it; who really wants to talk to an IM bot of a deodorant? It’s not very exciting. We ended up having 100,000 teens within one week interact with this thing. No one would have guessed that. It was a small bet that paid off.

We did the same thing with MySpace. We created a MySpace group around emerging music artists called Discover Your Secret, an easy play on words. We ended up having 500,000 consumers join us as a friend within about a four-month campaign.

Leverage The Power Of Your Network
• Get out there and shake hands
• Never underestimate the power of someone saying, “You should really meet…”
• Pay it forward and help people out. You never know when the favor will be repaid
• The world is all about connection. Never forget it

With youth trends changing so quickly, we can’t rely on anyone knowing everything. None of us have enough money, not even P&G, to do focus groups to learn about everything going on with the market.

The way to do it is leverage the network, leverage the people you meet at conferences, leverage friends of yours to find out what’s going on and what you need to be on top of. Take meetings even if you don’t know if anything will come of it; it might put you on a trend that you didn’t know about. You need to leverage your network to really think about this.

Doing Youth Marketing The Right Way
The following examples are deals that have delivered great results for P&G.

P&G Beauty/Varsity Spirit. P&G has a ton of beauty brands, including CoverGirl, Herbal Essence, Secret, Pantene and Olay, but on the consumer side no one really knows that we have all those brands, they know them as individual brands.

What we wanted to do is put together a deal where we could tap into teens across our beauty brands and find a unique way to connect with this audience. The way we found to do that was through Varsity Spirit, the largest cheerleading and dance organization in the country with three million teenage girls participating in camps and competitions.

We have been a partner with Varsity Spirit for about four years now. Among the things we do is to have a beauty tent at competitions. We are there to support them at a time of high stress, to give them a chance to do their hair and makeup right before they go on stage and we also provide a place to relax afterwards in our Beauty Lounge, which has comfortable chairs and a DJ.

We do similar things at Varsity’s more than 400 summer camps, which provide a perfect opportunity for sampling. We also collect information from the participants and can use them as quasi focus groups to test new ideas. If we have a new fragrance, we can blast that out to these girls and get their feedback.

Varsity Brands also has a uniform division, which we partnered with CoverGirl to create custom kits that coordinated with school team colors, so that when you ordered a uniform from Varsity you could also order a matching set of all the CoverGirl products that worked perfectly with your school colors.

Six months after we started this sponsorship, Secret’s market share among cheerleaders went up 30 percent. That is a crazy result, and we certainly are not getting it with traditional media.

P&G FemCare/HERO. We are in the first year of a partnership with the United Nations Assn. of the United States of America’s HERO program, which is one of the first big cause marketing programs the company has done and the first one for our feminine care brands, Tampax and Always.

HERO provides school-based support to vulnerable children in Africa. P&G partnered with UNA-USA on the Protecting Futures Program to build and equip schools with proper bathrooms because there is a large population of girls who stop going to school once they get their periods because of the lack of facilities and access to feminine protection products.

Our donation was about $1.5 million and we have on packages that the purchase of Tampax and Always supports the program. But we also wanted to take it a little bit further, because anybody can give money to an organization.

We wanted to involve the youth market and get them thinking about this issue, so we created the HERO Youth Ambassador Program, where we give 20 girls or guys the chance to go over to Africa and help build schools. We document their experiences and post them as webisodes on BeingGirl.com, our destination Web site for teen girls.

The feedback has been great from visitors to the site who thank us for making them aware of the problem and who want to get involved.