Marketing to Millennials

May 1, 2017  |  By Isaac Maltzer  |  

2017 has been a great year for learning the do’s and don’ts of marketing to the generation with the largest buying power since the baby boomers took hold over 50 years ago. But let’s face it, millennials can be challenging to read. One minute they’re avid supporters of a brand, but at a moment’s notice it turns.

Today, communication is faster than ever. Single opinions can quickly become group opinions and group opinions can decide the future of many brands. Let’s take a look at some of the companies that have tried to reach this coveted audience on their level, and what we can take away from their efforts.

Starting with the DON’Ts.


No attempt at appealing to millennials was more egregious than Pepsi’s dead-on-arrival “Live For Now” spot. On the surface, it looked like everything was there: take one of social media’s biggest celebrities with a near unparalleled following, plop her in the middle of an empowering and diverse march for peace, and release it solely online, where it will be impossible for millennials to miss. Sounds like a home run, right?


Wrong! The cringe-worthy spot was eviscerated immediately with viewers running the gamut of labeling it ‘shameless product placement’ all the way to down-right damaging to the Black Lives Matter movement.  It came off as a spot that was aimed at capturing an audience, but was never tested in front of the very audience it wanted to speak to. The internet exploded for a couple days, and the ad was quickly pulled and apologized for. But what’s the takeaway here?

The takeaway is that not all advertising can follow a formulaic structure anymore. Millennials are quick to see through and dismiss materials that they see as a flagrant promotion. With so much clutter out there these days, marketers are lucky if they even catch their attention in the first place with such material. Each of the components mentioned previously all could have been winners if delivered the right way, but mashing them all together into one clunky “super-ad” was not the way to go. The end result was so far removed from the reality millennials see on their newsfeeds every day, it never stood a chance. Lesson here? Be authentic, test your creative, and stay away from controversial topics if you’re not going to represent them accurately.

Fyre Festival

This one is a little bit trickier. To those of you that don’t know, Fyre Festival was an event marketed as a once-in-a-lifetime musical experience on the Islands of the Exumas, in the Bahamas. Promotions for this event were exclusively digital and targeted at millennials with more expendable income. The complicated part here is that this event was marketed well. Too well. Some tickets for this event were sold for as high as $250,000! So what’s the problem? Sounds like this festival could be a future case study for successful promotion to millennials.





Again, wrong!

The problem here was that the marketing was good but the event was, in all aspects, a fraud. Excited festival goers arrived on the island to discover they were not being treated to the paradise they signed up for. What was originally marketed as luxury villas were actual FEMA refugee tents. What was supposed to be gourmet dining turned out to be Styrofoam plates of bread, cheese slices, and lettuce. Musical artists promised on the lineup cancelled days before the event. There were not enough accommodations on the island to provide for the number of attendees showing up and flights in needed to be cancelled. The US Embassy eventually needed to step in to help get people off the island. What a disaster! Lots of takeaways from this one, so get that pen and notepad ready.

The first lesson here is nothing new. Don’t promote what you can’t provide. There are endless examples of this, but Fyre Festival is the latest and greatest. The second takeaway is a more concentrated look at influencer marketing. This event was promoted largely on Instagram and through some notable Instagram influencers such as Emily Ratajkowski and Kendall Jenner. Celebrities were even included in the sales pitch, with pricier ticket options offered which included access to the celebrity and artist VIP areas. Deceptive advertising has always plagued the reputation of the marketing industry as a whole. This is just a picturesque example of the evolution of deceptive advertising in the digital age. There’s good and bad things going on here. The good is that influencer marketing and celebrity endorsements still draw large crowds and can be extremely effective for marketing to millennials. The bad is, just like everything else, they can be used for deceptive means and should always be used carefully and responsibly. The total fallout from this event is still developing but instead of acting as a success story of marketing to millennials, it will act as a cautionary one.

Enough of that now. On to the DO’s

Heineken Worlds Apart


Everywhere Pepsi’s “Live For Now” spot failed, this spot succeeded. Heineken took very timely and controversial issues and instead of submerging them in pop-culture, took the authentic route. They brought in real people, with real opinions to talk with each other. What starts as small talk soon escalates into weighty issues about their differences in ideologies. And the product placement was perfect. Whereas Pepsi thought it would be a good idea to have Kendall Jenner handing a can of Pepsi to a police officer and effectively ending a social revolution with a soda, Heineken presented their product as a believable tool for unity. When the subjects in Heineken’s spot learned of each others’ differences, they had the option of ending the conversation there, or sitting down with a beer and talking about it. Brilliant! The ad struck a positive chord not just because it included social issues, but because it felt real. It also promoted the important message that differences can be resolved if we have the courage to sit down and talk about them. The ad is currently sitting at over 7 million views with attitudes towards it almost exclusively positive. (golf clap)

Squatty Potty

This spot is older but deserves a mention. This is a great example of a good product marketed very well to millennials. To be fair, this spot wasn’t the only thing they had going for them. Squatty Potty’s journey began on Shark Tank, and became a popular product on Amazon with very strong reviews. But this spot is responsible for making it go viral. No explanation for this ad will do it justice. It just needs to be watched.


So, what are the takeaways?

The first and greatest is that you don’t need to take your brand so seriously! Squatty Potty was very aware that their product was involved with a process that can easily be made fun of. So, they removed the possibility of it being used against them and poked fun at themselves first. “Trolling” is quite possibly one of the millennial generation’s greatest talents. There is no group that is quicker to creatively dismantle and bombard brands that they view as untrustworthy than this elusive audience. Because who doesn’t love a good laugh? But in this scenario, Squatty Potty sidestepped the Trolls and mocked themselves (in a surprisingly informative way) before millennials ever had the chance to take control of the conversation. The rest is internet history. The video went viral and now has over 30 million views on YouTube, countless millions more on social media and sales growth to match.

The second takeaway is a reinforcement of the benefits of producing digital spots. All four examples mentioned included either video spots or social media video content developed specifically for online viewing. Producing standard 15’s or 30’s for cable/ TV viewing still have their place, but for millennial attention, you’re better off catching them on their phones. Not only are you reaching them in their most frequently used space, but you also remove the restrictions in both time and content that come with broadcast advertising. Additionally, if you really want to make an impact with millennials, you need to give them content that they can watch, re-watch, comment, like and share.

Key Takeaways

Marketing to millennials is not rocket science. But it is a social science. It takes research, observation, experimentation, and testing to be done right. For a successful campaign, here are some tips to keep in mind. First, don’t get attached to ideas too early. We’ve all been there. You have that “Eureka” moment and the ad makes itself. Or so you think. But as more and more of the details get fleshed out, it starts to lose its flare. What was originally such a groundbreaking idea in your head starts to get muddled and lost. If you find yourself at this point, walk away or go back to the drawing board. However painful that process is, it will be exponentially easier than dealing with any sort of PR fiasco later.

Second, get an impartial millennial in the room to give you some real input from time to time! We often don’t realize the faults in our ideas until someone else brings them up. Then we don’t know how we ever missed them. Get this input early, but take it with a grain of salt. Not all input is good input and millennials love to give their opinions on things. Run it by several others to see if there is any consensus on specific areas to improve. But most importantly, have fun with it! Believe it or not, people can usually tell if the team behind the end production had their hearts in it or not. And isn’t that where the best stuff comes from anyway? Passion will never go out of style and when it’s put on display in a relatable way, it can do wonders.

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