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TRU probes the world of the teenager

Teen marketing research isn't what it used to be, and that's a good thing. In 1982, Peter Zollo, the president and co-founder of Teenage Research Unlimited (TRU), says that very little research on teenagers was being done, and it was not...
September 1, 1996

Teen marketing research isn’t what it used to be, and that’s a good thing. In 1982, Peter Zollo, the president and co-founder of Teenage Research Unlimited (TRU), says that very little research on teenagers was being done, and it was not very creative or insightful.

‘A lot of it was that people felt that the market was just too hard to reach and perhaps not all that important,’ he says. ‘There just wasn’t enough information about teenagers.’ That’s why TRU, a teen marketing research firm, was born.

The Northbrook, Illinois, company formed when two research firms, Social Research Inc. and Educational Communications Inc., and Zollo joined together as one firm that specializes in teenagers, ‘but do it at a different level than anybody else has ever done it,’ says Zollo.

TRU, which has nine full-time employees and consultants, offers many syndicated and custom services. Every spring and fall, the firm publishes a syndicated study called Teenage Marketing & Lifestyle Study, for which 2,000 American teenagers between the ages 12 and 19 are interviewed. It covers anything from what makes a brand or a person ‘cool’ to what kids read.

‘The results are actionable from a marketing point of view,’ says Zollo. ‘They give you insight, [and help] you understand more about teens than sometimes you think you need to.’

Also part of TRU’s US$10,000-per-year syndication package is TRU View, a quarterly newsletter, and monthly ‘hot sheets’ on hot teen topics. Among its 100 subscribers are Coke, Pepsi, Nike, Reebok, Fila, Frito-Lay, Procter & Gamble, Nintendo and Levi’s.

TRU also offers custom services such as ‘immersion experiences,’ in which the firm immerses the clients into the teenage culture at a non-traditional venue. (A recent immersion took place at Michael Jordan’s restaurant in Chicago.) The immersions vary depending on the client objectives, but each event is structured so that the interaction is a positive learning experience for everyone.

Another research method TRU likes to use is the element of surprise. ‘Sometimes, it’s the surprises that are the best findings,’ Zollo explains. For example, a candy company wanted TRU to evaluate the company’s brand positioning. ‘Because this client gave us the opportunity to probe around on other issues, it gave us lots of time to talk to the kids. We found out that there was a whole flavor issue that could be packaged in such a way that they’re moving on it right now. It’s another product in their line that had nothing to do with their original objective.’

The key to TRU’s success is constant learning. ‘We can never stop for a second to try and understand teenagers or how to go about doing research,’ Zollo says. In fact, he had just talked to a client about researching newborns up to six-year-olds. ‘Obviously you aren’t interviewing them,’ he points out, ‘but you can learn a lot about them.’ And the learning continues. TRU is also considering branching out into international research.

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