For decades we’ve been researching the largest generation to hit our lifetime. Millennials are a broad range of consumers that Nielsen has identified as being born between 1977 and 1995. Despite being under the microscope for so long, many brands have failed to interpret and use the tomes of research in relevant ways for this demographic and for their businesses. In the place of meaningful insights, businesses are developing marketing strategies based on broad and largely unsophisticated millennial ‘trends’ while ignoring their own respective essences. Putting it simply, instead of selling themselves brands are selling the millennial mannequin.
Millennial research is telling brands the things we’ve all heard a million times over. Millennials are independent and individualistic thinkers, tech savvy, entitled, experience-driven, are an empowered generation, socially attuned to the world around them, increasingly global, and of course we all love selfies. Companies who then try to attract the general mass market are developing brand strategies that talk to this mannequin who, in theory represents 81.1 million people in the United States alone, but in reality represents no one. There is of course an argument for stereotyping: to blanket the response in order to engage the largest possible segment. However, the dilution has gone so far that brands are no longer making sense. Many brands are ‘millenniwashing’ themselves so much they lose their points of difference and in turn, their value.
American Eagle is the latest example of this. Its current campaign #WeAllCan has clearly jumped on the empowerment/individual/social/[insert millennial research buzzword here] train. Of course, there’s a hashtag in there because, millennial. The problem with appealing to such a broad idea is that the campaign lacks a point. It gives consumers no reason to remember the brand or tells us its point of view on inclusivity – which is what the campaign is about. It dilutes the brand, trying desperately to be a catalyst of inclusive experiences among young people, but falling flat with little sense of self or identity. American Eagle has done well recently to turn its sales around and avoid the teenager trap – but too many more campaigns like this and they might see a return to the tweeny-bopper corner.
Tru by Hilton is another recent offender that has built an entire business for millennials. Unfortunately, it appears less as a distinctive offer, and something of a nervous response to threats like Airbnb’s global dominance and Marriot’s recent acquisition of Starwood. Tru stands as a brand that is hyper-connected, affordable, on 24/7, creative and even has a name that looks young because it’s not spelt correctly. Tru might enable Hilton to compete with Starwood’s Aloft, or Accor’s Jo&Joe but by so blatantly attempting to imitate the millennial mannequin, Tru loses its authenticity and its pull among millennial consumers who love new competitors like Airbnb not necessarily because of its name, its user experience, and definitely not its logo – but for its very reason for being.
We see it happening on smaller scales also. Coke’s Selfie Bottleassumes that millennials want to be snapped every time they drink its product. Hashtags are suffocating everything from fast food to law enforcement. Recipes, news reports, and people’s lives are squeezed into snap-story style pieces because someone, somewhere wanted to create a quick and dirty campaign for millennials. But surely, this is how marketing has always been done? As a response to the market? Sure, but when engaging with the least trusting generation and existing in a world where – I hate to say it – ‘disruption’ is around every corner, brands cannot simply meet the research at the cross-roads and be on their merry way. The only way forward is to go deeper and build a brand on the back of common truths and bespoke creativity.
Research needs to be focused less on traditional age cohorts and more about common truths between a company and its target market. Brands that adopt this perspective on research have found success. Coca-Cola’s “Share a Coke” initiative cleverly found that people were wary of big brands becoming too impersonal – so Coca-Cola replaced its name with the names of me and you and picked up several Cannes Lions along the way. In the U.S. alone Coca-Cola saw a 2% jump in sales directly after the campaign was launched. Patagonia’s incredibly strong campaigns which support the environment see sales soar to over USD$400 million a year because the people who explore the outdoors also generally care about the environment. Equinox has had success tapping into what millennials don’t do well – commitment – and used it as a basis for its powerful campaigns. Dollar Shave Club has succeeded with cutthroat authenticity and humour because both of its founders and its target market were fed up with overpriced razors – and both appreciate deadpan humour. The message here is that finding an authentic bridge between one’s own identity and that of one’s customers is a powerful way to not only drive purchase but loyalty and advocacy as well.
All of these examples are successful with millennials but are also successful with non-millennials which begs the question: how useful is millennial-wide research? It’s not nuanced enough to drive distinction and it’s not broad enough to capture those that care about the same things as millennials, but were born outside the cohort. Brands that focus on the common truths between their own company and the target they want to reach will always have success over brands that ‘milleniwash’ their communications in order to check some millennial marketing box.
If there’s one thing that millennials value, it’s authenticity – and that’s the crux of the problem for American Eagle, Tru, and others: on the journey to tap into this prescribed and generalised identity we’ve heard so much about, they’ve forgotten their own along the way.