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In our recent YouthBeat data, we’ve notice some interesting – but not altogether unpredictable – statistics…Kids, tweens and teens are most likely to cite a favorite film or book that’s part of a franchise or series. Year after year, they choose SpongeBob as their favorite cartoon character. Their favorite clothing brands continue to include adidas and Nike. And their list of favorite foods stays the same year after year.

But conventional wisdom tells us that kids, tweens and teens are fickle. Many marketers have made the decision to ignore younger audiences for just this reason.

So what’s the real story on youth brand loyalty?

First, it’s complicated. Like most questions pertaining to youth, simple dichotomies need not apply. Brand loyalty lives on a continuum, not on the poles. And the answer to the question, “Are today’s youth brand loyal?” is, frustratingly, “It depends.”Brand Loyalty

And what does it depend on? Age and stage for one. It’s likely that individual kids, tweens and teens are more inclined towards brand loyalty than other members of their cohort, but as a group, we often see recognizable patterns. For kids, “brand” loyalty looks more like passion for a favorite character, property or food. It’s just as likely to apply to the “type of mac and cheese my mom makes” as it is to a specific brand. For these younger youth, brands aren’t public displays or cultural currency in the same ways as they are for tweens and teens, but they do serve as symbols of sameness – or an affirmation of the familiar. Youth love what they love, and are loyal to those products and experiences that provide them with the comfort they seek. Even when they try out something new, it’s typically because there’s an element of the familiar in that new thing…So for brands, a friendly warning – “new” doesn’t mean never been seen. But for kids, and even moreso with tweens and teens, authenticity is important. Even if a brand isn’t the property of their generation, youth prefer brands that have a reliable essence but don’t back away from a brand refresher once in a while.

Loyalty also depends on the category…Let’s face it: some categories invite improvisation, and others need to nurture the new with more subtlety. For tweens, loyalty to favorite foods lingers, but, at least for girls, clothing is a chance to change things up. But while tweens are willing to try new styles, and with that, experiment with new brands, they also seek stand-bys that can serve as filters. With so many options, and tweens so concerned with avoiding missteps, retailers and brands that serve as safe symbols provide tweens with the net they need when they’re tip-toeing into new fashion territory. For teens, brand loyalty matters less, as teens are constantly on the look-out for that new and undiscovered item that fits “brand me” – not that they can fit into.

And, finally, loyalty can languish if a product or category no longer meets their needs (which do change). While there are timeless cues that can help guide us when we’re thinking about the things that teens want, we also know that wants change over time. Teens are caught in a cultural feedback loop – they may dictate what the market makes, but they also develop new needs based on what’s offered to them. And because of this, loyalty can be fleeting. Teens might prefer Apple right now, but even a brand as bankable as this one is vulnerable to the next cell phone manufacturer who delivers the perqs teens want at the price that fits their budget (or their parent’s). In categories like technology, in particular, teens are on the lookout for the latest big thing, and this means that loyalty must be earned, not assumed, among this group of youth.

What does this tell us? We think loyalty is worth nurturing among the youth market, but it can’t be left to develop on its own. Youth respect brand integrity, but expect brand evolution at the same time. And finally, figuring out the right strategy for your brand requires a little resistance: beware of simple formulas for creating loyalty with youth, and instead, take the time to look and listen to how they’re living and changing with your brand in the real world.