Tina Wells, Teen Whisperer
Wells began by offering 10 teens to companies for product reviews and image consultations. Her business grew, along with the Internet, and she found more and more teen consultants, upping her stable of “buzzSpotters” — cool kids on the ground floor of youth culture who’d weigh in on a new sneaker design or soft-drink ad. In 2000, Cosmo Girl put Wells and her company, Buzz Marketing Group, on its “Entrepreneurs” page. When she was 20, Entrepreneur magazine wrote about her: “Look out, Oprah!” Then, at 25, she was in O magazine: “Everyone said it would change my life. I thought, ‘No, it won’t.’” She grins. “It changed my life. The people who called after that … ”
Today, Buzz Marketing Group has a network of 9,000 buzzSpotters all around the globe, testing products, offering opinions, pointing out trends. Wells pays for their input with freebies, samples, discount cards and cold cash. “My first teens were 13 to 19,” she explains. “When they turned 20, I thought, ‘Do I lose them?’” No, because Wells realized something about how corporations — she’s worked with, among others, Sony, Time Inc., PBS and Procter & Gamble — should approach Millennials: Where marketers traditionally have aimed at age brackets, today they need to think in terms of mind-set, defining customers based on cultural attributes. “Techies,” for example, have to have the latest gadgets before anyone else — and they can be 15 years old or 55.
The Internet has empowered the masses, even when those masses are young. “Corporations are losing control,” Wells says over lunch at Parc. “Look at the record industry. They want you to buy entire albums. But now kids won’t buy the songs they don’t want.”
On TV, Wells has a high-gloss gleam, but in person, stabbing at trout amandine, she’s much more muted, petite and pretty in a nubby wool jacket over a brown paisley dress. She’s just come from a meeting of the Franklin Institute’s board of trustees; she’s also on the Orchestra’s board. “I get invited to be on a lot of boards,” she says wryly. “They don’t have a lot of people who look like me.” She doesn’t always say yes. But she loves classical music, and besides, her brother Will (the youngest of six Wells siblings), who plays tuba at Berklee, told her, “You’d be the coolest person ever on the Orchestra board!”
The Wellses are a tight-knit clan. Tina’s father is a minister and an only child; her mom is one of 13, and her father was also a minister. “She wanted a 104 on every test,” Wells says. “You read that Amy Chua article? My mom was a Tiger Mom.” Every February, for Black History Month, Wells’s dad would make his kids thick coloring books about famous African-Americans. “We’d be like, ‘Oh, the coloring books again,’” she laughs. It was an insular and disciplined upbringing for someone whose livelihood would become trendspotting.