Demystifying the millennial marketing challenge

Social media has created the perception that millennials’ values and interests vary wildly from previous generations. In fact, many are very much the same. They just talk about them differently.

Different ways of communicating with millennials.

Each time a new generation starts aging into adulthood, starting families, building careers, opening businesses and having real influence in their communities, marketers find themselves asking the same question they’ve asked about each generation before — “What do they care about, and why?” The difference between the millennial generation and those prior is that, thanks to social media, millennials tell us, unabashedly, the answer to both of those questions and many more.

The characterization of millennials as a mystery always leaves us scratching our heads because the millennial generation is the first to really be able to tell marketers what they care about without asking for anything in return. They curate their social media accounts with the imagery they want to be associated with, follow the people they idolize and talk about the lifestyles they aspire to have. Millennials want to be seen for what they believe in, who they are, and who they hope to become. And they’re completely open about it.

Many find it difficult to relate with or market to millennials because their identities and communication styles have been shaped by a culture defined by social media — a culture trained to document the moment rather than to live in it — but in our minds that leads to less mystery, not more.

We do a LOT of primary and secondary research for clients to understand the audiences we’re communicating with, and the work we did with Macy's had a real impact on the success strategy we created. This research-based approach allows us to really understand the target audiences before we start writing messages or ideating campaigns, and we’ve discovered a lot about millennials.

9 things to know when marketing to millennials:

  1. 50% of millennials were born in the 80’s. Believe it or not, over 50% of the millennial generation remembers pagers, telephones, phone booths and life pre-internet (or at least pre-social media and pre-texting). It’s easy to group millennials into a hashtag social media selfie soup, but, having been born from 1981-1996, LOTS of millennials spent the better part of their childhood without social media. They spent it with Windows 3.1 computers, the introduction of the internet and ‘tuning in’ rather than streaming. Many didn’t even have cell phones until college, so it’s important to speak to the group as a whole rather than focusing on the subset that grew up with cellphones and social media accounts from a young age.
  2. Millennials are focused on language. Social media often characterizes millennials as being primarily interested in superficial pursuits, but Pew Research Center shares that, “Today’s young adults are much better educated than their grandparents.” And beyond being educated, they’re questioning. They don’t take marketing at face value like prior generations. They read labels and wonder what they mean. Which is why words like “natural” in product branding have come under such scrutiny in recent years. To millennials, language matters.
  3. Millennials are purpose-driven. Even if they sometimes ‘do it for the gram,’ they’re committed to causes and want to live in a world where companies care. They don’t want to have to seek out causes or research products. They just want companies to go ahead and do the right thing so they can feel good about how they’re spending their money without having to spend a ton of time doing research. According to Forbes, “Millennials have the highest expectations for brands to take a stand on values.”
  4. Millennials are open-minded. Families look different today than they did 30 years ago and millennials respect marketing that represent reality. Millennials themselves (just like prior generations) are a diverse group of people, but unlike many generations prior, millennials are actually talking about and celebrating that diversity. Simply, they want to see themselves represented in the media.
  5. Millennials are obsessed with presentation. Even though millennials’ definition of beauty is expansive and includes lots of different identities, styles, body types and ages, they still aspire to be the most (fill in the blank) of whatever category they define themselves by. You may be familiar with the adjective extra. The Urban Dictionary defines ‘extra’ as ‘way too much’ or ‘excessive dramatize behavior’ and while the majority of millennials don’t want to be called ‘extra’ they often want to be … almost. So if they do yoga, by golly they probably have a yoga-centric Instagram account in addition to their ‘real’ everyday life account. If they have a pet, well, their pet probably has an account of their own, too. This might seem ‘extra’ to some, but to millennials, it’s just part of life. It’s part of their identity-shaping and value-forming process. Which is good news for marketers, this means it’s really easy to learn what they care about and test messages they respond to.
  6. Millennials crave authenticity. Financial Times says that, “(millennial) trust in politicians and institutions is low. For big brands, it all means increasing pressure, as this generation of consumers seeks ‘authenticity’.” Millennials would rather know what a brand is working on and where they’re headed (even if that means revealing pain points and talking about areas for improvement) than be sold marketing fluff that feels good but lacks substance.
  7. Millennials want backstage access. Millennials don’t just want to see the final product. They want to see the process. Show them musicians practicing, athletes warming up, students studying together, designers brainstorming, and employees at work. This insatiable desire for ‘access’ is why social media influencers so prolifically produce content. Their fans want to see everything — the morning routine, the trip to the coffee shop, the first date, and the outfit of the day (OOTD — yes, there’s an acronym for that!) and this doesn’t stop with influencers. Brands that show what’s happening in behind-the-scenes ‘stories,’ ‘lives,’ and ‘snaps,’ build trust.
  8. Millennials want more, more, more. There’s a reason Netflix binges have become a part of everyday life. Once a millennial is tapped into something, they tend to want more of it all the time. And since they’re likely to wait longer to have families, move out of the house, or really zero in on a career, they’re also likely to have the time on their hands for Pinterest and YouTube rabbit holes. Brands that really want to keep their millennial audiences engaged need to start feeding them constant content. Because looking away means losing them.
  9. Millennials practice brand loyalty. Speaking of ‘looking away,’ while millennials make up one of the most brand-loyal generations, they’ll leave you in a heartbeat if they unexpectedly discover your brand’s values doesn’t align with their own.

The millennial generation is made up of people who did and didn’t grow up with social media, but all millennials want information, meaning, and diversity. They want to see and they want to be seen. They want insider access, constant engagement, and they want to stick with brands once they find a product or service they like, but their brand loyalty is only as good as the company’s commitments. The best part about what we’ve learned is that while millennials demand the above, almost everybody responds to it.

Are you feeling stuck when it comes to marketing to your millennial audiences? Partner with a branding expert — see what Sanger & Eby can do for you. In the meantime, visit our Millennial Marketing Checklist to make sure your next campaign checks all the boxes.