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  Philip Marineau
© Nathan Mandell
Philip Marineau ’70, president and CEO of Levi, Strauss and Co. delivers a conference keynote.

Zell Conference reveals next marketing wave
Marketers turn their attention to next generation
: Zell Center conference explores strategies for communicating with “Gen Y”

By Kari Richardson

First came the baby boomers. Shaped by the Vietnam War and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, as young adults they stretched the boundaries of societal institutions, made their mantra “free love” and questioned everything around them.

Next there was Generation X, the skeptical children of a television age, who grew even more jaded as they watched their parents divorce and the economy sink during the 1970s.

The most recent group to come of age in the postwar era is known as Generation Y, those who are now 7 to 25 years old. Gen Y makes up about 21 percent of the population with some 70 million members — a total that exceeds the number of baby boomers when that generation hit its peak.

It’s no surprise that marketers are eager to figure out what makes this latest generation tick.

To learn more about the strategies firms are using to court Gen Y, about 200 people gathered at the Kellogg School on Nov. 1-2 for a conference titled, “The Risk of Misreading Generation Y: The Need for New Marketing Strategies.” The Zell Center for Risk Research, its mission to promote the study and understanding of the way people perceive risk, co-sponsored the event with the Kellogg Marketing Department.

Marketing experts from both the business and academic communities participated in panels focused on ways to understand, communicate with, and develop product offerings for “Y.” The keynote speakers for the event featured Philip A. Marineau ’70, president and CEO of Levi, Strauss and Co., and Christopher B. Galvin ’77, chairman and CEO of Motorola Inc.

To anyone trying to market a product, “Y” is more than another letter in an alphabet soup of generations. As a group, teen-agers spend more than $175 billion annually, according to figures from the conference.

Marineau, CEO of Levi, Strauss and Co. for the past three years, was hired to combat declining sales at his firm and reposition the brand with a new generation of denim wearers. To that end, the turnaround expert has helped the company introduce fresh styles and identify new places to sell its product.

Marineau realizes recapturing the attention of youth will be crucial if Levi is to increase its sales.

“Today we are definitely the jeans of the baby boomer generation,” he said. “I’m wearing a pair of classic 501s, the original jeans. … If you talk to Generation Y, these tight-fitting, antifit jeans are not necessarily the kind of jeans that they want to wear.

“One of the keys to (our) success is to win over Generation Y.”

Charles D. Schewe ’72, a professor of marketing at the University of Massachusetts, said it is not merely age, but shared cultural experiences that give each generation its collective values and traits. Members of Gen Y, for example, grew up during a time of economic prosperity, but also experienced the terror of the Columbine High shootings and the Sept. 11 attacks.

As a consequence, Schewe says, Y’s are team players who crave “real experiences” instead of hype, and remain hopeful about the future, despite increasing threats to their security.

“It’s mostly the stock market that has given them this sense of optimism,” he said.

Said Marineau: “This is the most ethnically diverse generation we’ve ever known. They are better educated and there’s more gender equity among them.”

But savvy marketing professionals realize some things never change. Youth of all generations are fun loving, like to experiment and crave independence.

Robert Bailey ’68, executive vice president for research and planning at BBDO Chicago, says his advertising firm had success marketing Wrigley’s chewing gum to Generation Y using classic themes such as fun, friendship and desire for the opposite sex.

“We find the insights that motivate Generation Y are often timeless,” Bailey said.

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University