Marketing October 15, 2015 Last updated September 18th, 2018 1,885 Reads share

How Millennial-First Marketing Initiatives Miss the Point (and Alienate Millennials)

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I have a secret to tell you:

Instead, the focus shifted to the two S’s: story and service.

And that’s what we sell now. Sure, it may come in the form of a toothpaste (one that reassures us that its compostable packaging will leave a greener world for our kids), or a delivery service (that provides real-time GPS tracking of the package), but we’re all storytellers and CSR’s now. And that’s something the Internet did, not millennials.

The Problem with Millennial-First Marketing  

Thinking otherwise – that millennials are an entitled, ironic bunch living a life that’s completely foreign to everything that came before – is really problematic, mostly because it enables us to be lazy in our efforts. We catalogue “examples” of millennial culture – on-demand service, humanitarian concern, electronic music, brunch – as models for how brands should look, how experiences should feel. And, in doing so, we almost always miss the mark.

Take McDonald’s “Lemonade” ad (a clear attempt at painting McDonald’s as a “millennial brand”) against the comedian Amy Schumer’s raunchy (very NSFW) “Milk Milk Lemonade”; they’re nearly identical yet only the latter positively resonates with audiences. The reason is this: McDonalds takes a millennial-first approach to selling lemonade while Schumer crafts her sketch to be both relevant and appropriate to the current moment.

It’s the difference between being original and counterfeit, between contributing to the current moment and attempting to hijack it. And that authenticity (or lack thereof), when offered up at touchpoints across a customer’s experience, dramatically shapes how millennials relate to brands, whether they engage, and how they spread your message to others (or not).

Creating a Relevant, Engaging Culture-First Marketing

To capitalize on the current moment, then, we need to stop looking to millennials as a new species to translate and bridge into our current experiences. A chat client and a savvy social marketer aren’t enough, and I’m not sure a meme ever retained anyone. Instead, brands need to begin the process of understanding how they fit into the current landscape. It isn’t about getting millennials to buy McDonald’s lemonade. It’s about strategically aligning McDonalds with the concerns and communication styles of today so that millennials feel comfortable about going there (which will result in lemonade sales).

These are a few quick strategies for developing a “culture-first” approach to marketing:

  • Prioritize the world your customer lives in: Use tools like Clarabridge to understand customers’ experiences with your brands, Hootsuite Ubervu to understand how/where people talk about your industry, and CircleBack to always have access to your customers (both individually and as a business). This data, considered together, paints a picture of the kind of culture your business can potentially fit into.   
  • Highlight the lifestyle that your brand promotes: sure, you make a great [insert product here] but so do 5 other businesses. What do you bring to the table, really? Business success is a story-telling competition, and the winner is the one who tells it best. How can you contribute to the lifestyle fantasies of your customers?
  • Risk being (slightly) inappropriate: one of the most thrilling aspects of the Internet is the mix of high and low culture, the highly important with the highly absurd. Over-exposure to traditional messaging / consistency has dulled their impact. Something shocking (and in good taste / good humor) makes your brand stand out as young, relevant, and ready to mix things up.
  • Build to channels, don’t bend them: each channel you use to engage customers in experiences has its own uses, its own culture, and its own set of rules for what’s engaging and what’s noise. Of course Facebook performs best for personal/company stories, Twitter for sharing articles, and LinkedIn for targeting businesses, but each one can be leveraged as maximally effective if you take the time to learn how to talk on each. Work to create strategies for each one, discovering how your brand talks on Twitter, creates awesome Youtube videos, etc.
  • Hire makers, not marketers: the difference between marketers and makers is the difference between novice and professional. Yes, traditional marketers “know how to get the job done” and, for analytic insight, they’re second to none, but in terms of making something authentic to the culture, they struggle. Because their sights are set on past performance – and, more significantly, on ads – they run a much greater risk of cannibalizing rote, formulaic messaging and delivering a McDonald’s experience. Makers like Schumer – on the other hand – think ahead of the curve, make their livings anticipating the future, not rehashing and repackaging the past.

The Takeaway

The “millennial problem” isn’t actually a problem, much less one that marketing can address through millennial-first experiences. Instead of studying millennials like a new species of insect, brands need to focus on building culture-first initiatives that adapt to the demands of the web. These demands, after all, have shaped and are shaping the people we think of as millennials. It’s a response to this technology – to the access, availability, the trends that it surfaces – that drive our culture forward, changing the form and content of “how people think,” and, by focusing less on how to target this group of “aliens”, brands can begin the process of discovering their digital voices and creating authentic, meaningful messaging.

Images: “ closeup of a young man holding a chalkboard with text our name is the millennials in front of a brick wall, slight vignette added /


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Austin Duck

Austin Duck

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