What Brands Must Understand When Speaking to Millennials


by Carly Reeves,
with contributions by Josh Duke

In early April, Pepsi posted a controversial ad featuring Kendall Jenner walking through a protest to give a police officer a soda. The negative response was immediate, with Twitter users calling the ad “tone-deaf,” “insensitive,” and “exploitative.” Within 24 hours, the ad was taken down and an apology from PepsiCo was issued. What went wrong is part of a larger issue of advertisers and marketers missing the mark when it comes to millennials, what they want, who they are, and the culture millennials exist in today.

The Millennial generation, or Generation Y, is the largest generation in US history and is made up of adults born between the years 1982 and 2000. They are the first generation of digital natives and have had access to computers, smartphones, and the internet through most of their lives. Gen-Y also represents $1 trillion dollars of buying power in the market, making them a dominant force in the economy.

Millennials entered a vastly different economic climate than their Gen X and Baby Boomer predecessors. US News and World Report reports that millennials are the first generation in US history to enter adulthood in “worse economic shape than their parents.” More millennials live at home (22%) than any other generation since World War II ended; however, according to surveys conducted by NDN and TD Bank, millennials believe in the importance of home ownership. This division between reality and wants might be fueled by slow wage growth. According to the San Francisco Federal Reserve, since 2009 college graduates’ wages have grown 60% slower than the rest of the population.

Need for Usefulness

The need for usefulness and improvement of daily life often is confused for easy convenience. Because of this, millennials are quickly stereotyped as lazy for wanting solutions to make life more streamlined. Apps that can provide fast food delivery and ridesharing are popular not because millennials are lazy, but because they value apps and services that will improve their daily lives.

Information Accessibility and Consumption

Millennials use their smartphones for gaining information more than any other generation before them. When smartphones aren’t in use, they prefer to use a laptop over a desktop. Blog articles still reign as the most consumed piece of digital information. While Facebook is popular, millennials are much more likely to consume and post content on Twitter than Baby Boomers (70% more likely, according to Contently)

Social Awareness

Connectedness and information accessibility means millennials are more likely to be cognizant of the current cultural climate. Almost 75% of millennials believe climate change is happening, 80% support gay rights, and almost two-thirds support the Black Lives Matter movement. This is also evident in their buying habits. Nine in ten Millennials are more likely to purchase a product if it supports a cause they believe in (Sustainable Brands). The opposite is also true – when Uber failed to quickly suspend surge pricing during the immigration ban protests, the #DeleteUber movement saw 200,000 accounts deleted. Brands leveraging social awareness in campaigns must be keenly aware of messaging. As evidenced by the Pepsi misstep, brands not willing to better understand millennial values will quickly see themselves facing backlash.

Diversity and Representation

Millennials represent a culturally diverse population of the company, and expect to be represented positively in the media they consume. POC (Persons of Color) and LGBT millennials want to see themselves represented positively and driving the narrative, rather than sidelined to serve their white counterparts. Advertisers and marketers should consider underrepresented segments, assessing each separately to avoid sweeping generalizations. Representation should also be evident in all steps of the creative process. Brands must hire on or consult with diverse creative teams specializing in those markets to create authentic messaging that avoids pandering.

Understanding both millennials and the current cultural climate is paramount when attempting any direct outreach. Failing to do so can result in negative backlash, which could permanently damage any brand.

Carly Reeves

Carly Reeves is the vice president for digital advertising agency 2930 Creative. Based in Dallas, the agency specializes in creating insightful content aimed at millennials and underserved markets.




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