10 Questions: What's Cool?

(Noise Marketing)
More and more companies are grappling with the challenge of how to reach the pickiest possible demographic: young people.

One marketing agency—Noise Marketing—specializes in reaching young adults for corporations like Six Flags and JP Morgan Chase. Its CEO, Noah Kerner, who founded the agency at age 25, just co-wrote a new book on the subject, called "Chasing Cool". He is the subject of this week's 10 Questions.

1. Noah, your agency, Noise Marketing, has become a go-to shop for brands like Sprite and Yahoo to try to reach a younger audience. What are you teaching them exactly?

Young people are driven by aspiration. They don't want to be spoken to as young people. One of the most common misperceptions is the belief that in order to reach young people, you need to pander to them.

2. You've written about starting to DJ at the age of 14--and becoming such a hit that you even appeared on the Tonight Show. Was that good training for a marketing career?

It was the best training. Like I write in the book, DJing is the ultimate focus group only you're really out there with people seeing what moves them, what bores them, and what it takes to keep them coming back for more. To be a good marketer, you need to be intimately connected to culture. Same thing applies to DJ's.

3. Your new book talks about how companies can stand out in a cluttered marketplace. What are the obstacles, in your view, to brands getting their message out to young people?

Young people are always moving, so you need to move with them. The biggest obstacle is the inability or unwillingness to continuously shake things up.

4. You've said you can't "chase cool." In effect, your brand just has to be cool. But what is cool? And who decides?

Producers decide and consumers will quickly let you know if you're wrong. Cool means vastly different things to vast groups of people so chasing someone else's definition of cool, as if there is some sort of objective definition, is a flawed strategy. Ultimately, cool is the outcome of a process, not a strategy that can be manufactured. All those people and brands - from Robert DeNiro to Grey Goose - who have been fortunate enough to achieve that perception have lead the marketplace with personal vision, not chased after it like a greyhound after a fake rabbit.

5. If you can't buy cool, if no marketing company can deliver cool--then why are you getting hired? And how do you choose which potential clients to accept?

Most of the time we are challenged to build new products or sub-brands for companies that will better appeal to young people. So while we're in the marketing business, we're also in the product development business. If we don't have a hand in the product itself, it's supremely difficult to be successful. Even if the advertising is great, you'll ultimately fail if the product doesn't deliver. As a visionary adman once told me: great advertising makes a bad product fail faster. In terms of clients, we try to work with companies who share this belief.

6. This is a generalization, of course--but what do young people want from the companies that market to them?

Products that deliver on the communication.

7. Does TV and radio advertising still matter to young audiences, or is it all about the web?

Young people still watch TV and listen to radio so its certainly relevant. But the tide is quickly shifting. What's certain is that you'll be more successful launching campaigns for young people on the web than in any other medium. And what will ultimately happen is that companies will one day build campaigns around the web as the central medium and think about TV as the alternative channel.

8. Do the companies you work for have any obligation not to market harmful or unhealthy products to their customers--who, after all, aren't yet adults?

100%. Companies have an obligation to be honest about what they are marketing. We work in the 16-30 range so our core audience isn't all that young. But we won't work with a company that doesn't take the responsibility to be forthright about its products and messages.

9. Who, or what, are the most important opinion-leaders for younger people? Celebrities? Web sites?

Friends, first and foremost. Celebrities have an impact but most celebrities have been diluted to the point where there's no trust left. If Jessica Simpson is schilling for Pizza Hut one minute and Proactive the next, where's the credibility. Doesn't pizza cause pimples?

10. Finally, a bit of a self-interested question, what do you think network newscasts should do to make themselves more relevant to young people?

Shorten the content. Understand new technology platforms and provide content intelligently across those platforms. Don't repurpose news programs for mobile phones, create new news programs for mobile phones. Stop wasting time fighting piracy and figure out how to monetize illegal channels which is something companies like Podzinger are doing.