Want to Reach Millennials? Look to Your Past

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Millennials get a lot of attention for their general nonchalance about authority and institutions, and their re-invention of, well, nearly everything from politics to fashion. But in spite of their role as the generation that’s next on deck to shape the future, Millennials are giving Boomers who still won’t shut up about Woodstock a run for their money in the nostalgia department.

While every generation goes through a nostalgia phase, Millennials are taking it to a new level.  Social media is filled with nostalgic content for people who are barely out of childhood themselves, from Buzzfeed listicles revisiting pogs and Beanie Babies to YouTube supercuts of 90s cartoons, this generation has embraced nostalgia in a big way. And importantly, in keeping with their earnest spirit (as opposed to my more cynical cohort), it’s irony-free.

Why all this warm-hearted affection for the past?  As a consumer researcher who spends the majority of my time talking to this age group, I can definitively answer that it comforts them and relieves their stress. (I can hear your eyes rolling, but who doesn’t feel a little surge of happiness when reminded of some sugary food or cartoon from the halcyon days of your childhood?). It’s sort of a combination of escapism and entertainment for them.  They have trouble finding good jobs, the pressure to present their most attractive selves on social media is a time-suck, and instead of enjoying all the conveniences the digital age was supposed to bring, they’re overwhelmed by choices. As one 23-year-old recently shared while describing why he still loves Twizzlers and uses them as a straw: “it’s nice to just remember when you didn’t have all the pressure of a job and studying and student loans. It helps you just chill and go back there for a second and feel like a kid again.”

This trend towards nostalgia presents a great opportunity for brands that are looking to increase their relevancy amongst this age group as Millennials gravitate towards brands they loved as children from candy to cereal; reboots of movies like Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to music of MTV’s ‘Total Request Live.’ A perfect example: a teen in one of our studies told me last week about how she loves “early Britney.” Or witness Bernie Sanders’ choice of music for his anthem ad that features Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” which came out in 1968 but clearly is striking a nerve with the Millennials with whom he’s connecting so strongly.

These brands become touchstones of delight for Millennials almost as punctuation as they explore the world and develop their own tastes and preferences. Witness the popular trend we are seeing on our mobile ethno tool, LookLook™, about sugar cereals like Lucky Charms being used as cocktail garnishes. Or when my former boss from The Coca-Cola Company told me that the company was bringing back SURGE, a soft drink we created back in the early 1990s, I was delighted but pretty sure it would be a campy celebration of the over-the-top prototype of an energy drink (which didn’t exist yet) that had featured crazy Puck from MTV’s ‘The Real World’ in its early advertising. But no! Three Millennial guys who remembered SURGE from their childhood organized a movement to bring it back, and sure enough, Coca-Cola gave in and has re-introduced it online, and now they are putting it back into stores.  As the company says on its website: “The ‘90’s are calling, and they want their favorite citrus-flavored soda back.”

This doesn’t mean, of course, that brands should assume their products are still relevant, just because they’ve been around a long time.  Millennials have different values than the generations that came before them and they demand more from brands, whether it’s environmental or social responsibility, ethical sourcing or all the rest of the trends that are shaking up the worlds of food and retail and other spheres of commerce.

But the products are just the medium for the message. Figuring out how to evolve your product to keep up with changing tastes and preferences is the easy part.  The brand is the message, and more often than not, if it is a brand with a history, there is an opportunity to convey it in a way that is naturally more powerful in the eyes of Millennials.  If brands can credibly evoke images of the past – because whether it was ten or fifty years ago, these newly minted adults seem to find security and comfort in that sense of authenticity.  Apparently they believe that experiencing what other decades have had to offer adds something valuable to the anxiety-ridden one into which they have been launched.

In spite of all their worries, studies indicate that Millennials are remarkably optimistic about their own futures.  So all of this embracing of nostalgia should mean they will hold on to the brands that have successfully leveraged their heritage into evolutions they choose to embrace.

SPARK IDEAS is a consumer insights consultancy that challenges traditional market research through creativity and intellect. 

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