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The Pitfalls of Being Millennial-Friendly

Millennials are changing the way brands do business. Why? Because there are a lot of them – so many, in fact, that Whole Foods is planning to open a chain of grocery stores aimed just at them. By 2025, these 80 million Americans are on track to make up three quarters of the US workforce. But is it wise to follow in Whole Foods’ footsteps and make your brand too millennial-friendly? Here are some of the dangers of pandering to millennials, and how you can walk the fine line between commercially relevant and generationally embarassing.

The Costly Mistake of Misunderstanding A Generation – A Study Of The Stalling Motor Industry

Let’s start with a case example. Darren Ross, a executive at a college marketing agency, recently wrote how Millennials Don’t Care About Owning Cars, And Car Manufacturers Can’t Figure Out Why. Apparently increasingly less younger people are concerned with buying a new car, or even learning to drive at all, and it’s making more than a few people nervous. Why? Because despite billions spend on R&D and marketing, the millennials aren’t even shifting their gaze from their smartphone screens.

But maybe the fault isn’t theirs, but in brands not understanding the consumer desires of this generation. As Ross puts it, the thing that ‘auto manufacturers, along with much of corporate America are missing here is that the vehicles to freedom and personal identity have changed for this generation.’ Instead of being free to hang out with friends, millennials need a device and the internet instead of a new car and a license.

The takeaway is simple: it doesn’t matter how much you try to sell your product to a millennial, if they don’t want it – if it’s not relevant – they just won’t buy it. So don’t sacrifice your current market share to chase another if your product doesn’t fit the skinny-legged mold.

Marketeering – A New Ball Game

The rules of the marketeer’s game have definitely changed. Marketing to millennials isn’t like traditional marketing. Jason Dorsey, of the Center for Generational Kinetics thinks that it’s because millennials have ‘grown up being advertised to more than any previous generation and with more choices for products and services than ever before.’ They’ve come of age with more marketing forums and ways to buy, rent, share and pay for products than who’ve come before them, forcing the marketplace to continually evolve to better attract millennial interest.

There’s no better proof than the business world around us, brimming with new tech, crowdfunding and corporate hipster revivals. There’s been the ‘Helveticazation’ of the MTV logo. Thrift stores like Goodwill and The Salvation Army are being remodelled, and even being built from new, to capture the millennial generation. Even Colonel Sanders hasn’t escaped a makeover –on TV played by Saturday Night Live alum Darrell Hammond and online as an Atari-styled 8-bit, baby-bouncing, courtroom-brawling video game character.

The Boston Consulting Group calls the basis for this brave new world the reciprocity principle – marketing led by desired and expected mutual relationships between millennials and brands – and apparently it’s changing the face of marketing forever.

Chloe Mason Gray, content manager at Sprinklr, examined the results of a SDL’s millennial survey and found that five out of six millennials expected their social media marketing experience to be reciprocal. ‘In other words,’ she said, ‘they want something in return, such as discounts, free perks, and better customer service’.

The message is clear: if you want to attract millennials to your brand, you need to give them something back. Meaghan Moraes calls it Inbound Marketing, and it works by businesses ‘improving their customers’ lives with informative content’ – e-books, instructional videos, blog posts and more. And the principle hasn’t changed, because it’s about thought leadership and proving to your market that your brand and product are industry-leading.

So give, and give freely, and it will come back to you.

Don’t Be Too Nice

Really, marketing is just like dating. It’s a high-stakes game about portraying the most attractive version of your brand. And just like dating, it’s dangerous for a brand to be too nice to people. If your marketing strategy gives millennials exactly what they want too quickly, they’ll perceive your brand as too easily attained, and they’ll want something else instead.

Why? Because Millennials will see your products as replaceable and your brand as weak and easily dominated. Isha Singla, an expert in consumer behaviour, thinks that when something is too easy to get, it risks losing the very quality that gives it value. In short: if you make your brand too accessible and too challenge-free, you risk devaluing it.

So how do you balance good marketing, brand integrity and such tricky consumer needs?

Isha stepped it out like this:

  1. Don’t stop being nice entirely, but instead be selectively
  2. Increase your brand value by investing in your brand. Consider the success of Apple – their secret, according to Isha, is a little proud: “[Apple] doesn’t focus on making its devices cheaper or readily available; rather, it focuses on making their products better and premium. They make their customers proud.”
  3. Put your focus on gaining customers through your product strategy, not your marketing. Create products that people want, not advertisements for ones they don’t.
  4. Believe in the value of your brand. And if your customers choose someone else, don’t chase them. Just let them go.

And just like dating, it’s about working on yourself and building a company based around ethics, goals, and designing products that consumers should want. Be proud, be strong, and lead your target market instead of chasing them.

Millennials: They’re Nothing Alike

Yes, there might be 80 million millennials, but like the rest of society, they’re not all alike. But from this common age, too many brands assume that these 80 million consumers are identical and build strategies to market to millennials, not to the groups that form them.

But the Boston Consulting Group’s study did much to dispute this, finding six diverse segments:

  1. The Hip-ennial: they’re aware, informed and want a better world.
  2. The Millennial Mom: She’s wealthy, confident and digitally savvy.
  3. The Anti-Millennial: they’re locally focused, conservative and unimpressed by sustainability.
  4. The Gadget Guru: male-dominated tech-heads who own every device and believe this is the best decade of human history.
  5. The Clean and Green Millennial: they’re impressionable, green and love to contribute online content, for a cause.
  6. The Old School Millennial: Less online than the rest, they’re cautious consumers and believe in charity.

Maybe, according to Kyle Montero, the ‘constant exposure to various beliefs and habits on the internet has produced a generation of extremely diverse individuals’. But whatever the cause, it’s clear that a one-size-fits-all approach to positioning your brand to appeal to millennials isn’t going to work.

So how can your brand get it right?

Simple. By appealing to your target audience with good marketing, but in way that’s informed by the habits of modern consumers. Remember, you don’t need to win them all, just the ones who want your product.

Don’t Patronise Them By Faking It

According to Jessica Beeli, an economic writer and student, millennials are skeptical bunch when it comes to parting with their money, and she should know because she’s one of them. Why? Because they’ve grown through a time when their baby-booming parents gave to get-rich-quick schemes and spent big on high risk stock trading, only to lose it all in the GFC.

And now’s a good time to be empathetic, not only for the good of your brand’s marketing, but for our economy’s future success. ‘Millennials are inheriting a completely twisted economy,’ says social science researcher Kelly Bell. A third have moved back in with their parents, and despite working full time their minimum wage jobs can’t put a dent in their student loans. And to make them angrier, these wages haven’t kept pace with the economy’s recovery.

Really, it’s no wonder that they’re skeptical of everything that big business tells them. So when it comes to forming your millennial marketing strategy, it must be done well, or not at all. According to Charles Botts III, an inspirational speaker, if your marketing strategy is disingenuous or superficial it’s as much at risk of failure as if you’ve not marketed to millennials at all. Because for connected millennials, transparent information is only a few clicks away. And these digital natives, as termed by Diane Wang, ‘don’t want to be disappointed by brands they trust’.

So how can you win them over?

  1. Don’t market just to them – they’ll feel like a deer in the headlights, and suspect some kind of trap. Instead, market to the world. After all, everyone’s online.
  2. Tell your story – have a positive cause, a passion, or a driving reason to do whatever it is that you do. Let empathy and connectedness carry your message.
  3. Be a good brand – give to charity, crowdfund something, and embrace green business. You’ll do some good for the world, and give a little credence to your message.
  4. Be humble – the days of the arrogant playboy are over becuase as much as we love Dan Bilzerian, we love to hate him more.
  5. Be transparent – don’t sugarcoat the facts or try to hide them, because coming clean and being sorry is better than being caught out.

Are You Risking Your Reputation?

Making your brand too millennial-friendly is a risky business venture for a target market who are naturally risk-adverse. Matt Heller, editor of The G Brief, believes that Whole Foods risks damaging its reputation by turning away from the tried and tested grocery model. And yes, while there’s a lot to gain if it works, there is much to be lost should the wants of a notoriously difficult to please generation be unmet.

As Mike Mallazzo puts it, ‘when trying to market to millennials, great brands often abandon the product and messaging virtues that make them great’. And failing can be costly – just look how badly the Republican Party got it. So if the Grand Old Party can mess up marketing to millennials, how can you ensure that your brand gets it right?

Easily – by not doing it at all. Take a leaf out of their risk-adverse book, and instead of marketing well to millennials, just market well. And while you might miss out on Whole Food’s organic and gluten-free niche, at least your brand’s sound marketing strategy won’t fall out of flat-capped fashion.

So What Does This All Mean?

The way we do business has changed, but humanity has changed with it, and it’s not the millennials fault. We’re in a new commercial age driven by information, connectedness and corporate morality. So instead of trying to change your brand to appeal to the millennials, change it to appeal to the new world. Be good, be informed, and be real.