This post was written by Ulli Appelbaum, Founder and Chief Strategy Officer of First The Trousers Then The Shoes Inc. (also known as First The Trousers or FTT), a brand strategy and innovation boutique. It was originally posted on the FTT Blog and is shared here with permission.
Millennials are probably the most researched generation in marketing history. In fact, a simple Google search for “Marketing to Millennials” yields over 17 million search results, more than twice the results for “Marketing to Baby Boomers” (eight million search results) and nearly nine times more than the same search for “marketing to moms” (two million results).
And yet despite this abundance of information and research data, or more likely because of it, most marketers still struggle to successfully market to Millennials. In fact, while all this research may be informative and interesting (everyone knows something about Millennials) most of it is also full of stereotypes and generalizations and therefore not helpful or actionable when trying to develop effective Millennial-focused positioning platforms and communication programs.
To address this issue once and for all and turn the stereotypes, half-truths, and generalizations about Millennials into specific and actionable insights, First The Trousers decided to analyze 76 North American case studies of effective marketing to Millennials, where brands and campaigns engaged Millennials in ways that led to business results. For the data, we relied on WARC and its case studies database which includes Effies, Creative Effectiveness Lions, MMA Smarties awards, etc. and covers the last ten years.
So, what did we learn about effectively marketing to Millennials?
- They target sub-segments rather than the Millennial generation as a whole. It’s easy to identify shared values and behaviors for this generation. In fact, most of the research out there does just that. However, remember that the Millennial generation numbers tens of millions of people – and this approach can lead to information too broad to be useful and too obvious to be interesting. Instead, the vast majority of the cases we analyzed (79 percent) went beyond these general descriptors and shared values and instead identified Millennial sub-segments that were defined by a range of more actionable marketing variables. These included specific category-relevant behaviors (“beer transitionals”), life stage (new homeowners) and big life events (young parents delaying potty training), social-demographics (men in their early 30s with higher HH income), gender, ethnicity, geography, passion points (Zombie fans) and interests, etc. In other words, they used targeting criteria to define their core audiences that went beyond the general criteria used to define Millennials as a generation.
- They understand the role their category plays (or doesn’t play) in the lives of Millennials: Most successful brands started with a deeply contextual understanding of the role their brand and category played (or didn’t play) in the target’s lives, and used that understanding to arrive at what problem the communication needed to solve. Interestingly, awareness was rarely as much of a problem as lack of relevance or low reach. For example, in 2015 Coke Zero realized that 80 percent of Millennials have never tried its product. Research also showed that 60 percent of those who did try Coke Zero, liked it so much that they would re-purchase it. The solution? Get as many Millennials as possible to actually sample Coke Zero at various events by engaging them via innovative sampling tactics and by rewarding them for their engagement with a coupon. In other words, successful Millennial marketing here didn’t just focus on understanding Millennials but went one step further to understand the relationship Millennials had with their specific category and brand, and used that relationship as a starting point.
- They design their marketing programs around real-life events. Interestingly, the majority of campaigns we looked at (66 percent) involved a tie-in to a real live event, either an existing one (sports event, national holiday, Comic Con, etc.) or one specifically created for the campaign (a concert organized by Lifebeat featuring Millennials’ favorite stars to promote AIDS awareness and testing in NYC for example). So yes, while this cohort is often described as “digital natives,” the key to their hearts and wallets seems to be through real-life events that they can experience firsthand (and then often share that experience digitally with their social circle!).
- They amplify and add value to existing experiences. When designing their campaigns around an event those brands, however, went out of their way to amplify the experience as opposed to just show presence through passive sponsorship. The same holds true for their online experiences. As one case study pointed out, they didn’t just provide for a “status update,” they enabled a “status upgrade.”
- They use celebrities to introduce their brand to Millennials (often as part of a broader marketing program). Borrowing interest by using celebrities to endorse a brand message is generally not a very popular practice in the creative community. However, our data suggested that involving celebrities in the campaign, whether rock stars, comedians, actors, celebrity chefs or YouTube and Instagram celebrities is a key success factor in breaking through to Millennials and winning their attention and interest. In fact, 66 percent of the campaigns we analyzed used this tactic as part of their campaign. Not only did the celebrities act as a short-cut to Millennials’ limited attention span, they also enabled those brands to extend their reach to the celebrities’ fans and followers.
- They cooperate with entertainment and media properties already appealing to Millennials (again often as part of a broader marketing program). Another shortcut most brands we looked at (79 percent) used to gain the favors of Millennials was to team up with media platforms popular with Millennials such as BuzzFeed, College Humor, Vice, etc. or with entertainment platforms such as Call of Duty®, The Walking Dead, Pretty Little Liars, The X Factor, etc. The key to success, however, seems to be to develop content together with those media platforms or to cooperate with the entertainment property to create more engaging and involving experiences. The “brought to you by band X” approach isn’t enough any longer.
- They reward Millennials for their participation with free giveaways. The big “myth” in marketing to Millennials is that this audience will gladly act as brand ambassadors for brands that share their values or brands that do good. However, our analysis shows that most successful Millennial brands (82 percent), even those creating very involving and share-worthy experiences, still usually lured and rewarded their consumers for their engagement with free incentives (or free products) that usually helped drive sale (coupons, free samples, etc.)
- They seed their brand message across a multitude of on- and offline touch-points. Another generalization about Millennials is that because they are “digital natives,” the only or primary way to reach them is in the digital space. Our findings do not support this conclusion, as 80 percent of the brands we looked at, used a multitude of channels both online and off, and usually including point-of-sale when relevant, to reach their audience. The objective became how to reinvent and reinvigorate the in-store experience for an omnichannel world, not somehow to eliminate it. In fact, the few cases we analyzed that indeed used an online-only approach usually did so due to a lack of budget.
- They use social media to amplify their message rather than as a media channel. Unsurprisingly, most of the brands we looked at used social media in one form or another. The learning however is that most of these brands tapped into the power of social media by giving Millennials a reason to share their brand message (and by making this sharing easy) and by sponsoring content they knew was already share-worthy rather than by exclusively buying advertising space on social media (even though some of the brands we looked at did). In other words, they understand that social media is not a media channel but rather a sharing platform.
- They use digital innovation to add social currency and a WOW factor to a message, not to replace it. Another myth about marketing to Millennials is that they only respond to cool and innovative digital or social gimmicks. And yes, many of the case we analyzed provided some really cutting edge and innovative digital solutions. But I hope by now the reader will have realized that while these innovative ways to communicate play an important role in helping spread the word and create buzz for the brand, they were usually designed as a clever answer to a communication challenge rather than as an end, or as a creative indulgence, in itself. For example, Lowe’s “Fix in Six” campaign is based on an insightful understanding of the new ways Millennials seek and consume information which led to a series of six seconds DIY Vine videos. In the same vein, the TV show Moonshiners understood that in order to get a younger audience to watch the show it needs to make it more involving and participatory. The solution? Teaming up with a distillery and enabling consumers to influence the distillation process of bourbon through Twitter (and potentially win one of those barrels).
Millennials are often thought of as this mysterious cohort that lives in a different (digital) world with different conventions and values and that speaks a different language that needs to be decoded. A group for which the conventional principles of effective marketing and communication do not apply. And a large amount of Millennials research out there, as well as all the Millennial experts out there, seem to perpetuate this myth.
So if you’re looking for the latest and flashy buzz-word for Millennials, this won’t be the place for you (but thanks for reading all the way through here). In fact, our learning show instead that the best strategies to attract Millennials to your brand are based on sound, basic, no BS and proven strategic principles (not flashy and mystical new marketing or communication concepts) and smart creative executions that are rooted in timeless principles of human persuasion yet take advantage of today’s technological capabilities.
In fact, our research and experience show that Millennials are a group of very pragmatic consumers that demand value and substance from the brands they chose to interact with and that responds to sound, insightful and creative marketing programs just like any other consumer segment. Millennials just happen to have grown up in a digital world and therefore are way more familiar with the digital and social space than most marketers trying to appeal to them.