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It’s officially September and that means youth all across the country are either settling into a school year or are just about to head to class. The back-to-school moment often marks the beginning of trend-spotting season – for youth and marketers.

 At YouthBeat, with a grounding in a syndicated study among kids, tweens, teens and parents, we’re often asked about the latest youth and family trends. But the work of trend spotting is complicated when it comes to youth, so we thought we would both explore some of the central questions surrounding this issue, and, of course, offer some answers.

What’s the timeframe for a trend? Futurists, cool hunters, business strategists and scholars often debate this issue…Many contend that a trend represents a happening that occurs over a long stretch of time – 10 years. Some see trends as obsolete after just a few months (or weeks!). For youth, the matter is more complex because trends are often cyclical. We recently reported on a resurgence of interest in pirates among youth of all ages…Is this a “trend,” or is it an evergreen with a contemporary makeover? We’ve often heard that by the time kids are talking about a trend, it’s on its way out. But if this is true, than who tells us about youth trends? Playing on our YouthBeat thematic, we have coined our own version of trends as “vibes.” We focus on the big shifts in culture, the underlying drivers of behavior across many aspects of youth’s lives and the meaning behind what they buy in a variety of categories. But through this lens, some of the most interesting and inspiring “fads” (another term that adds to the semantics surrounding trends) get lost in the shuffle. Bieber Fever isn’t a “vibe,” but it’s telling…the question is “what is it saying?”

Who determines youth trends? This question might apply to adults as well…Can we really look at early adopters to help us predict the future habits of the majority? Are the phenomenon that have taken hold in other cultures really good gauges for the next big thing in the States? For youth trends, the question of authority is even more issue-laden. Do we rely on informed adults to tell us about the trends? Afterall, much of the “stuff” of youth trends, including products, music, fashion, etc. are at least financed if not created by adults. Youth may determine which adult ideas to seize, but they don’t always think about what’s next. In our own YouthBeat Time Capsule qualitative exercise (an ongoing initiative that results in Time Capsule TV videos available to YouthBeat subscribers), we often see that youth identify familiar properties like Harry Potter or ubiquitous brands like Apple as “new.” If we rely on them to tell us what’s next, we’re not likely to get very far. At the same time, adults tends to focus more on what might be right for the market, or where an undiscovered technology could take a category. We think, to truly predict a trend, you have to marry the sensibilities of youth with stimulus from forward-looking adults. 

And what evidence do we need to name a trend? The answer to this certainly varies depending on your need for trends, but also on how you use them. Do trends require quantitative support or can something that feels “sticky” constitute a trend-in-the-making? Can ten teens in New York City really have their thumb on the pulse of the zeitgeist enough to predict what will catch on in Kansas? And if we ask parents or kids what movements or shifts they’re experiencing, will we really get answers that underline trends, or will we just get a catalog of current behaviors and truths? Furthermore, can a trend be proven by citing an article in the Journal or the New York Times, by referencing buzz on a blog or on Facebook, or by noting a playground practice seen or heard in your local community?

With all of these questions, it may seem that identifying youth trends isn’t worth the trouble. But we know that understanding what’s next matters to anyone who is trying to keep up with the youngest audiences and users of programs and products. So here are a few simple rules we use – and will use in a series of upcoming blogs that will attempt to cut through the fog around fads!

  1. It’s always about the “why.” Trends can be a trap for many marketers and makers of experiences who focus more on the content than on the drivers of content appeal. The happening or the product or the song that signals a trend is over once it happens, but the forces that made it rise to the top of youth’s mind or to its own category are probably not. This means that finding the newest thing isn’t nearly as relevant as knowing the new reasons why something has come back.
  2. Getting “big” usually means getting more than one thing right. It’s easy to look at a trend or a craze and point to one factor that made it pop. But most tap into numerous themes – timeless and timely – all at one time. Kids might be younger, but their relationship to the culture they care about is not. Just because Silly Bandz worked for kids doesn’t mean that a knock-off will work just as well. Twilight might be popular, but vampires aren’t a surefire formula to attract tween girls. Analyzing trends and fads requires a deep look at all of the aspects of a thing, and importantly, how they all fit together.
  3. Finally, finding trends requires flexibility. If there was a formulaic approach to identifying the new dish, someone would have revealed it by now. It’s easy to claim that there’s a transparent approach to finding trends, or that it’s just a matter of hard work. But the truth is that trends can reveal themselves in multiple ways…It may be a matter of noticing that many different kinds of people are talking about the same thing…That a number of popular products or items pull on a common thread…That something from somewhere else (another market, a niche group) looks to be the missing puzzle piece that the mainstream is seeking… In any case, trendspotting is more art than science and that means committing to openness more than a pre-determined process.

Stay tuned for our next post on one “trend” we’ve caught cropping up in a few places, “Posh Play Spaces.”