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Study Looks at Eagerly Sought but Hard-To-Reach Group

Bombarded by media messages since they were born, consumers 21 to 25 years old are a particularly difficult group for advertisers to reach. But as these consumers begin to spend money, they are also much sought after by marketers, who are looking for ways to understand them better.

Many are finishing school or are recent graduates and have started a first full-time job. They are beginning to make large purchases like cars and furnishings. But basic characterizations only scratch the surface. How do they live and work? What about their friends and social activities? And what are their priorities?

``What you need, I think, to be profitable and have a chance at relating to this group is a very, very strong human sense of who they are,'' said John P. McManus, editorial director and chief operating officer at Simba Information in Stamford, Conn., a media and marketing trends newsletter that is part of the Media Central unit of Primedia.

``I think the 21-to-25 age group certainly has had, by volume, a higher level of exposure to media messages,'' he said. ``There's been no generation coming of age in adulthood that has had such exposure to media messages.''

To develop an in-depth look at this age group for strategic planners at agencies, PortiCo Research, a marketing research company, interviewed 16 young adults who live in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. Staff members ranging from a cultural anthropologist to a brand planner delved into the daily lives of the group. The researchers explored their homes, workplaces and parties, met their roommates and friends, listened to their music and talked with them about decisions they made and plans they had.

The 43-page report that resulted, called ``Coming of Age in the Age of Possibility,'' is intended to be sold to agencies, along with a 30-minute documentary that illuminates the participants through discussions of their impressions of themselves and the world around them. The report and the video cost $25,000, and include a presentation of the findings and a brainstorming session with a PortiCo staff member. PortiCo can also work with an agency or marketer to develop the findings further and do more specific research.

``One reason our clients, the ad agencies, the brands that we work with, are targeting this group is that they're young enough to still have a lot of room in their life to make decisions and old enough to be consumers,'' said Caroline Gibbons Barry, the president of PortiCo, which is based in Chicago and has offices in Los Angeles, New York and Paris.

This is the first study PortiCo has compiled independently to sell to agencies or marketers rather than as a result of a commission for a specific project or brand. Ms. Gibbons Barry said the growing importance of focusing on the age group, as well as a weakening economy that could impede an agency's doing its own research, helped motivate the study.

The findings, developed over four months at the end of last year, depict the group as people who see their lives as opportunities for self-expression, self-fulfillment and self-reflection.

``I didn't get the impression that they were self-centered, but very reflective and introspective,'' Ms. Gibbons Barry said. ``What they do in life really matters to them and really fits who they are. They're always sort of checking that this is the path that they want to take in life.''

Melanie Fallon, a project analyst at PortiCo's New York office, said the open-minded attitude was not ``just youthful optimism.''

``They have a savvy perspective on the world; they know all about money and finance,'' she said.

The research highlights four categories in which the group reveals its values: being real, being a good person, expanding their horizons and having fun. It also shows how their independent attitudes can lead them to think that anything is possible, and that the possibilities can be overwhelming.

``I've always had an obsession for being very successful, not like successful with your job or something, but like being somebody big in the world,'' said Ruben, a media executive interviewed on the video, which identified the participants by only their first names. ``I'm not making a lot of money, but it's a challenging job, and I'm doing things that are important.''

So far, offices of three agencies have bought the information: BBDO Worldwide, part of the Omnicom Group, which works for marketers like the Pepsi-Cola brand of PepsiCo and the Wrigley's brand of the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company; J. Walter Thompson, part of the WPP Group, with clients like the Lipton brand, owned by Unilever, and United Distillers and Vintners, part of Diageo; and Rubin Postaer & Associates, with the American Honda Motor Company and the VH1 cable television unit of Viacom.

The kind of research that PortiCo developed, Mr. McManus said, ``gives more of a human dimension to what all the quantitative data would be telling you.''


Allison Fass, The New York Times. June 14, 2001

Copyright © 2001 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.