Keeping Your Cool

You're either cool or you're not. If you are, here's how to make the most of it.
Magazine Contributor
8 min read

This story appears in the September 1999 issue of . Subscribe »

The trouble with selling things on the street, from shopping bags or from the trunk of your car, is that when it rains, you get awfully wet.

But who cares? Daymond John no longer needs an umbrella. Several years ago, he and his friends (Carl Brown, J. Alexander Martin and Keith Perrin) were on the avenues and in the alleys, selling clothing they designed to any New Yorker they could find. "It came out of necessity . . . to make everyday money," says John, now 29. "After awhile, we started liking what we were doing."

They became an enterprise with a roof in 1992, calling themselves FUBU (For Us, By Us), and one of their biggest breaks came when John approached an old neighborhood acquaintance. Soon, L.L. Cool J was wearing a new brand of clothes. Kids who watched MTV saw the rapper, and after-school job wages and allowances were funneled into FUBU. A lot of allowances. Today, FUBU is worth more than $200 million.

Teenagers own the world, of course. They just let the rest of us live here. "The teen consumer is determining not just urban culture, but also pop culture and pop trends," says Sam Brown, vice president of advertising and marketing for Icon Lifestyle Marketing in New York City, which helps companies like Hugo Boss Fragrances target young African Americans.

More to the point, teenagers decide which companies have street credibility. And whoever's got street credibility can co-own the world.

You might want street credibility. You might savor it. And yet you might not have a clue what street you belong on. "Who are you trying to sell your product to?" wonders John. "The street has several different aspects. The street has skate, the street has surf, the street has grunge. It has club, it has techno, it has hip-hop."

And keep this in mind: You either have street credibility, or you don't. "You can't buy it," stresses soft-drink entrepreneur Peter van Stolk. What if your business cup overrunneth with coolness, but nobody knows it? Fortunately, accessing street credibility is way possible, and it's da bomb, and if this square-as-a-cubicle journalist was hip enough to know any other teen slang words, he would put them in this sentence.

Geoff Williams ( is a 29-year-old freelance writer and part-time features reporter for The Cincinnati Post. He thinks Billy Joel is cool, Katie Couric hot, and enjoys a mean game of Scrabble. He's pretty sure that if he ever went out into the street, he'd either be beaten up or run over.

Meet The Street

If you want to gain street credibility among teens, simply follow three basic steps: 1) Discover who your consumer is and who you are. 2) Spread the word. 3) Don't hold this magazine accountable if all this advice blows up in your face.

After all, we're dealing with teenagers. "Once the word spreads, you can't stop something from going, whether it's positive or negative," says marketing expert and record label owner Stephen Rifkind. "And if it's negative, you're done for."

Van Stolk has mostly heard positive feedback. The Vancouver, British Columbia, founder of Urban Juice & Soda Co., launched in 1996, had 1998 sales of $7 million, which he expects to double this year. His soda--in flavors like peach ginseng and blue bubble gum--is sold throughout Canada and in 35 states. While he'd like to sell Jones Soda in all 50 states, van Stolk fears becoming too much of a hit.

"The problem with a mainstream audience is it's a very expensive audience to attract because it's mainstream, man. It's everybody," says van Stolk, 36. "A lot of companies don't have the budget to attract the mainstream right off the bat, so they have to make some serious decisions on the type of target audience they're going to attract. With my company, we decided we wanted to attract 14- to 24-year-olds."

So if 30-year-olds start drinking it, it's not going to be cool.

"Part of [teenagers'] concern is they want to have the feeling they're not like everybody else," continues van Stolk. "They want products like shoes and pants and jackets that not everybody wears, and beverages that not everybody drinks. That's why I dread going mainstream, because from my perspective, I [wouldn't be] providing the emotional connection to my product to the consumer. It's like saying `Hey, I'm Coca-Cola.' Well, I'm not Coca-Cola."

For now, van Stolk is happy to simply win over teenagers--so sip your cappuccino and leave his Jones alone--and he's winning them over with more than bizarre flavors. Jones labels feature images of goatees, pierced navels, braces, skateboards and even photos fans have sent of themselves. The result is to make it the teens' soda almost as much as van Stolk's.

"I use a philosophy called grounding a product. We don't want to market Jones Soda; we want to create an environment, a brand that captures an emotional connection with our consumers. We allow our product to grow between the toes of the consumer, just like grass." (Hence, the term grounding.) Van Stolk wants kids to find his product in tattoo parlors, surf shops and music stores, but won't go for a huge marketing campaign.

That's because grounding, says van Stolk, deals with psychographics (like demographics, but deeper). Teens, he says, are brought up in a society of constant change, they're media- and marketing-savvy, and "they're skeptical as hell. If I tell them I'm great, the first thing they're going to say is `Screw you, dude; you're not great.' But if their friends say `Jones Soda is cool,' then they're going to accept it on a different level."

His point: Know your audience--and yourself.

Spread The Word

If you decide you need credibility from the street, you need to drop by and visit. Or somebody from your company does. And when Rifkind sends reps, he gets results. The 37-year-old owns two businesses, The Stephen Rifkind Marketing Company (started in 1989) and Loud Records (launched in 1993). Combined, his companies, which are located in New York City and Los Angeles, respectively, are worth $90 million.

Rifkind, who trademarked the term "Street Teams," takes marketing to the street--literally--by hiring youths to tell their communities about his artists' music. "My philosophy has always been `You can't stop word-of-mouth,' " explains Rifkind, who has street teams fan across cities, distributing free singles to teenagers at housing projects and schools, and scrawling the names of his albums in the dust on parked trucks, which then serve as mobile billboards. The end goal? Says Rifkind: "We're going to get the music into the hands of the right people--the trendsetters in every city, from New York to L.A."

To create your own street team, you'll want a spokesperson, says John. "You need [someone] who understands the culture [you're trying to reach]. You need to put him in a position where he's compensated well, and where he feels comfortable to represent your company and, like, live it. You also need people who are professionals and who will look at the market as professionals. One will look at it emotional-wise, as a consumer; the other can translate it into dollars or action."

"I have the head of my street team living in a bus right now," says Rifkind. "He's camping in the city for four or five days to see who's really out there. Who's visiting retail? Who's visiting radio? Who's visiting clubs? And it's just touching people. It's almost like going into a maze . . . and you follow the maze through the city, and then you attack! It's almost like a contest. Wherever you go and whoever you see the most at these spots, that's who's on our street team."

The secret to Rifkind's success--and any entrepreneur's--is to decide whom to sell to and do everything legally possible to create a positive buzz. Listen to your consumers, urges Rifkind: "The street doesn't lie. Just listen to the street, and you'll have a successful [business] on your hands." Then you just might find yourself on the road you've really been looking for: Easy Street.

Teen Scene

If you think a teenager's itty-bitty income can't add up to much, think again: In 1998, teenagers spent $141 billion, a 9 percent jump from 1997, according to Teen Research Unlimited (TRU) in Northbrook, Illinois. Expect those figures to rise, reports TRU's senior analyst, Kate Danaj. The teen population has been climbing since 1992 and should continue to grow until 2010, when today's roughly 31 million teenagers swell to 34 million.

That means increased sales of soft drinks, as well as clothes, movie tickets, lipstick . . . you get the idea. Teenagers aren't exactly snapping up milk of magnesia products. The boys, says Danaj, are going for "fast food and entertainment, especially electronics; girls are much more fashion-, health- and beauty-conscious."

The Rand Youth Poll in New York City has surveyed the teenage landscape annually since 1953. Its 1998 studies put typical weekly earnings for 13- to 15-year-old boys at $42.95 ($22.55 in allowance, plus $20.40 in odd-job/after-school salary). For girls, the typical weekly earnings are $50.90 ($26.20 allowance plus $24.70 salary).

A 1996 survey by the International Council of Shopping Centers indicated 39 percent of 18- and 19-year-olds have credit cards. But in general, teenagers bring home the bacon in more traditional ways. Eleven percent of teenagers have full-time jobs; 32 percent work part time, and 47 percent have occasional jobs. Thirty percent receive allowances. And 53 percent of teenagers also bum whatever they can off Mom and Dad. Only 53 percent?!

Contact Sources

For Us, By Us,

Icon Lifestyle Marketing, (212) 929-3800, fax: (212) 929-2588

Urban Juice & Soda Co., (800) 656-6050,

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