With so much written about millennials, it's difficult to see how reams of data about this generation could apply to an individual brand's goals. Some basic guidelines can help. First, accept that not all Millennial trends will be applicable to every brand. Second, understand that millennials aren't necessarily who you think they are. Our organization has published information about the six unique segments of this cohort. Our most recent research focuses on the fact that millennials have grown up, while the world erroneously views them as young and unattached. Many now have children.
What's the lesson here? Millennials are a continually moving target that deserve ongoing study. With that in mind, here are five timely lessons for brands that target and seek to engage them.
Millennials celebrate brand purpose. This is one of the most compassionate generations with regard to social issues. This quality extends to purchasing and brand preferences; research shows that millennials will seek out and buy brands that support a cause that aligns with their values. When you analyze brands they prefer -- Nike, Target, Gap -- each is strongly connected with a social purpose. The purchase then makes the buyer feel better about him or herself.
While Apple shows up as a Millennial favorite -- though not quite as prized as Nike or Target -- research shows that it's losing ground with the generation overall. Why? Is there a possible connection between Apple's controversial practices of blocking charitable-donation apps, and its issues with worker relations and taxes?
Millennials want a personal connection. Millennials don't want to be spoken to; they demand to be spoken with. They engage with brands that allow them to make personal connections. Nike is a global brand; its message is universal. You may see advertising in different countries and languages, but you'll always feel as if Nike is speaking directly to you. According to our research, millennials name Nike as their top affinity brand.
What about brands that are launching? "Scandal," a relatively new show on ABC, can attribute much of its success to a grassroots social-media effort by the show's creator and stars, who are tweeting about the show regularly. During any given show's airing, Twitter lights up with "Scandal" references. The show is regularly at the top of the 18-34 demo. Twitter has become such an integral part of the "Scandal" experience that the show's viewers eschew the DVR for live viewing, so they can participate in real time and avoid the dreaded plot spoiler.
Both Nike and Scandal have taken what usually is a formal, organized outreach and made it feel organic -- natural, spontaneous and personal.
Millennials embrace disruption. There's no better recent example of successful disruption than the launch of Jay Z's latest album, "Magna Carta Holy Grail." While the launch has been littered with complaints of data-mining tricks in the creation of the album's app and some of the weaker music reviews of Jay's career, there is no doubt that Millennials have rewarded the artist's attempt at something different.
Jay Z's disruption began with the exclusive launch of the album to Samsung subscribers and continued with release of "Picasso Baby" as a "performance art film" on HBO. The video features Jay-Z continuously performing the song at NYC's Pace Gallery to a participating audience of both art-world luminaries and, I'm assuming, well-connected "regular" people. The disruption has paid off, with Jay Z remaining atop the Billboard charts (which are dominated by Millennial purchases) for several weeks and adding one more notch to his record of most number-one albums by a solo artist.
Brands that are successful at embracing disruption benefit from having their fans readily share their message with peers. Take Michael with DollarShaveClub.com. He's offering cheap razors with no frills for a tiny monthly charge. In the razor category, major brands were focused on features and benefits. This message doesn't exactly cozy up to the status quo and it's making waves with millennials.
Millennials accept difference. Ask yourself if, as happened recently in Tennessee, a girl with Down syndrome ever would have been voted prom queen in your high school. If you are older than 35, probably not. Millennials are a generation raised to accept differences.
It's why brands like Dove are winning with millennials, while brands like Abercrombie & Fitch are faltering. While the old adage "sex sells" can ring true for any generation, it's in its stance on personal confidence and acceptance that A&F falters. As this generation continues to mature, brands that portray a message of negativity and body-image shaming will look more and more archaic.
At the start of Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty, some critics felt it seemed false for a beauty brand to promote acceptance of superficial flaws. By facing this challenge head-on and offering a solution embedded in the brand, Dove is able to inspire confidence in its audience. Almost a decade later, studies show that Dove continues to create messages that are social-media and Millennial darlings.
Millennials expect a dialogue. With millennials, the days of pushing a brand message only through storytelling are over. Brands must embrace a two-way dialog in the form of story-doing, which means giving consumers the opportunity to co-create products, services (or ideas if you are starting a movement); the experiences by which the products/services/ideas are delivered and enjoyed; and the marketing and social-media messages.
Story-doers promote their message by demonstrating the "why" behind the idea not just the "what." A perfect example is the optical company Warby Parker. It approached the issue of expensive eyeglasses with a simple solution. The purpose, as expressed on the company's website was to offer a cheaper high quality alternative in an industry "controlled by a few large companies that have kept prices artificially high, reaping huge profits from consumers who have no other options." Purchaser get to do good: For each pair of glasses purchased, one pair is donated to someone in need. Millennials are responding by sharing with their peers and pushing the brand into record sales that show no sign of slowing.
At the end of the day, story-doers understand that consumers acting as participants, who feel better about themselves when they support a brand and share with their peers, are the most influential and passionate consumers.