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Why It Matters That Teens Love ‘Brands’ More Than ‘Fashion’

Piper Jaffray’s most recent Taking Stock With Teens survey came out last fall, but the wealth of data it contains warrants a closer look at the trends and insights influencing Gen Z spending.

Teens are back to a time when being associated with certain brands trumps “being in fashion”—whatever that may mean. In fact, Piper Jaffray pointed out, nearly half (45 percent) of teens describe a “brand” as the most important purchase driver, up from 33 percent six years ago.

This “broad resurgence of preference for ‘brands’ over ‘fashion’” could in part explain the return to popularity of the once lowly Crocs, which got a boost last year from a pair of sellout collabs with teen-friendly rapper Post Malone. People—and presumably, teens—are mad for the foam flats in standout prints like tie-dye and camouflage, which retail data and analytics firm Edited said were among the brand’s top-selling prints between July 2018 and early March. Crocs also saw a spike on social media when then-21-year-old swimmer Lilly King posted about her love of the counterintuitively ugly shoe on two separate occasions last summer, garnering more than 11,000 likes on an Instagram message alone, according to data from influencer marketing firm Traackr. On digital shopping platform Lyst, the Crocs Classic Lined Clog earned the highest page views over the past six months, while total searches for the brand rose 14 percent monthly.

When looking at overall wallet share, spending on food comprises the largest share of male teen budgets, reaching 24 percent for the high-income demographic, and trailing clothing spend (26 percent) to claim the runner-up spot.

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That interest in and affinity for brands relative to fashion, coupled with an alimentary obsession, could explain all of the fast-food fashion drops hitting the market in the past year or two that have been squarely aimed at millennials and younger—demographics that enjoy expressing individuality through their choices and purchases. Taco Bell, the fifth-favorite restaurant among teens from average-income households, hosted a fashion show for a “saucy” clothing collection that riffs on the Mexican-inspired chain’s iconic condiment packets, corn shells and more and now carries a full line of lifestyle merchandise for the diehard fan. Not to be outdone, fast-food leader McDonald’s followed up its 2017 Big Mac-bedecked onesie with a July 2018 “’90s throwback” collection—nostalgia, anyone?—including socks bearing images of its legendary double-decker special-sauce sandwich and golden fries, plus T-shirts emblazoned with the catchall for how the Golden Arches sees itself: “classic.”

Wealthy teens say McDonald’s is their fourth-favorite place to eat, behind No. 1 Chick-fil-A, Starbucks and Chipotle. The chain fares slightly better with Gen Zers from average-income homes, coming in at No. 3 (again trailing the chicken chain and coffee empire).

Piper Jaffray found female accessories spending at an “all-time low,” and even went so far as to say teen girls have “deprioritized” handbag purchases. However, Kate Spade came out a winner as it remained the second-favorite handbag brand among teen girls in all income brackets, gaining 100-basis-point mindshare year-over-year as opposed to No. 1 Michael Kors and No. 3 Coach, which saw their mindshare decline.

Overall, affinity for the Kate Spade brand seems to be on the upswing. Victor Luis, CEO of Kate Spade parent company Tapestry, noted during the company’s Q2 2019 earnings call that “the percentage of women who agree that Coach and Kate Spade are their most loved handbag brands and are brands that they would confidently recommend, increased versus a year ago.”

To celebrate the inaugural collection from new creative director and Gucci alum Nicola Glass, the brand that makes “women feel feminine, beautiful and fun” tapped a trio of millennial and Gen Z Hollywood faces to front the fashion campaign. Twenty-five-year-old Julia Garner, 16-year-old Sadie Sink and KiKi Layne, 27, perched prettily in the front row at Kate Spade’s New York Fashion Week show that unveiled the colorful, whimsical collection.

A nod to the resurgence of easy-recall logos favored by young consumers, Kate Spade has been hard at work designing “compelling and covetable brand icons and codes such as the Spade turnlock,” Luis said, a feature that makes its bags “instantly recognizable and more distinctive.”

Looking at top 10 fashion trends among wealthy females, ultra-fast-fashion darling Fashion Nova garnered 2 percent of the vote, enough to crack into the No. 10 spot when it hadn’t appeared on any of the three prior survey periods, at least. Partnerships with stars like curvy and keepin’-it-real rapper Cardi B may have helped keep the L.A.-based brand top of mind with young women. Meanwhile, embattled lingerie giant Victoria’s Secret dipped from 4 percent to 3 percent, perhaps reflecting the brand’s waning cultural relevance.

Vans earned the distinction of becoming Piper Jaffray’s fastest-growing brand—ever—thanks in large part to “staggering increases” among upper-income teen girls. Among teens’ top trends, Vans climbed to No. 3 with 6 percent from the No. 5 spot (and 4 percent) relative to the spring survey. Steven Rendle, CEO of Vans parent company VF Corp, said the brand turned in a 27 percent growth performance for the third quarter of 2019, “cementing its rightful place as the number-three global sport lifestyle brand.” He highlighted “balanced” growth across Vans, with footwear up 25 percent and clothing 23 percent higher than the prior period. Though the Old Skool might be Vans’s most iconic silhouette, the easy-wear slip-on style showed the fastest quarterly expansion, Rendle noted, further demonstrating the brand’s place in consumer lifestyles.

On Lyst, searches for Vans jumped 21 percent year over year, with the Vans Old Skool Platform Black and Vans Classic Sneakers White drawing the highest page views. Across the past year, the Old Skool was mentioned 739,000 times and spawned more than 7.3 million engagements on social media, Lyst added.

The Nike/Jordan brand disappeared from wealthy teen girls’ top 10 from spring to fall, the survey found, though it remained on top and grew its share from 12 percent to 14 percent among affluent males during the same timeframe. During its Q2 2019 earnings call, Nike alluded to a “return to growth in the Jordan business.” Lyst, the fashion shopping platform, said page views for styles like the Nike Air Max 97 plus and Nike Air Vapormax have been trending up since September 2018 on top of “rising demand” for the brand overall, with searches for “Air Jordan” up 115 percent since the beginning of 2019. For their part, the Nike Air Jordan 11 Retro and Air Jordan 4 Retro are generating the highest number of page views on the platform since July, according to Lyst.

Among teen girls in high-earning households, Converse steadily dropped off in popularity from spring of 2017 through fall of 2018. Over that same period, teen guys’ affinity for khakis and chinos declined as did preppy styles—which fell out of the top 10 completely by the Fall 2018 report.

A look at which brands are on the rise with teens could provide insight into American Eagle Outfitters’ decision this month to add an Urban Necessities (UN) sneaker resale shop inside its SoHo store. The teen-friendly apparel chain landed at No. 5 on wealthy males’ list of brands they’re starting to incorporate into their wardrobes—but which labels took the four spots above them? Adidas (17 percent), Nike (7 percent), Vans (7 percent) and Champion (6 percent)—all of which are carried in a street-style-minded shop like UN, making the partnership a perfect fit.

Turns out, American Eagle (garnering 8 percent of the vote) tops list of the brands that Gen Z girls in the same earning bracket are just beginning to purchase—followed by Vans in the No. 2 spot with 7 percent. That finding again confirms the logic behind American Eagle’s shop-in-shop tie-up with UN.

Puma barely registers on a list of well-heeled teen girls’ favorite sneaker brands—which could shed light on the brand’s end-of-year collection designed around 26-year-old pop icon Selena Gomez, whose Instagram following runs north of 147 million. Reebok, absent from the list altogether, signed up Cardi B in December as their latest brand ambassador, a move designed to speak directly to young women and their love of the enduring athleisure lifestyle.

Back to Adidas, the brand with three stripes took mindshare from Nike—and garnered higher social engagement among fitness influencers with 30 percent of followers in the covetable 13-20 age range, according to data from Traackr. Edited said the average full price of Adidas Originals men’s sneakers ticked upward 10 percent to $119.98 from Q3 2018 to Q4, while the price tag on women styles dipped 3 percent to $99.30. On top of that, hyped chunky styles like the Adidas Falcon, a “reference to the ongoing ’90s affair within the teen market,” according to the analytics firm, sold through completely in all colorways from July 2018 to now. Year over year, the brand has grown its investment in men’s and women’s sneakers by 34 percent, per Edited’s data. Lyst said most Adidas searches are accompanied by terms such as “Originals” or designers like “Raf Simons” and “Stella McCartney,” demonstrating the continuing popularity of the throwback retro look and high-end collabs.

No story on teens is complete without mentioning Amazon, which continues to climb in popularity with Gen Zers, 47 percent of whom told Piper Jaffray it’s their favorite website for shopping. What’s more, a growing number of teens has access to Prime, up 8 percent from the prior year to reach 74 percent, the financial firm said. The findings are in line with a CPC study showing that more than 63 percent of young people in the Gen Z demographic prefer Amazon over other retail websites, citing convenience, low prices and quick no-cost shipping as the reason why they purchase apparel from certain online shops.