Changing Faces:

Millenial marketing and corporations

Rachel Helman

July 10th, 2018



It seems everyday headlines run across the screen announcing either the introduction of a new tactic used by firms to attract millennials or the collapse of another market by that same generation. Millennial marketing was particularly visible last month, as firms attempt to use gay pride month to generate profits. They slapped the rainbow on Big Macs, social media logos and even trains. Corporations are desperate to attract the attention -- and wallets -- of millennials, defined loosely as the generation born between the 1980’s and late 1990’s. Little wonder, as “Generation Y” will make up 30% of US retail expenditures by 2020 (Statistica), and already make up the largest generational group in the workforce. Companies cannot afford to ignore millennials, both as consumers and employees, particularly as this generation differs from older generations in fundamental ways. But is it even possible to market towards a group of over 70 million diverse individuals in the US alone? And if so, are traditional marketing techniques even effective on Generation Y? How can a company possibly attract loyalty in an increasingly transparent world?


The power of millennials to influence markets cannot be overstated. The Millennial generation is the largest in US history, and while an enormously diverse group, the population is marked by certain characteristics that make unique. The first generation to which technology is the norm, not the exception, millennials use tech to find information, buy products and interact with the world in a very different way than previous generations. A Pew Research Center report found that the most often cited characteristic marking millennials as unique is technology use (24%). Tolerance and liberal beliefs also hold a place on the Pew list of characteristics. 51% of millennials say they support gay rights, in contrast to 37% and 33% for Generation X and the Baby Boomers, respectively. Further corporate sustainability is important as 40% of millennials believe their generation is environmentally conscious (Statistica). In general millennials seem to value a sense of ethical commitment and social responsibility on the part of companies. Millennials are also marked by distrust of the world around them, with consistently falling levels of social trust (Pew).


Companies are facing a challenge, now. Millennials make up 35% of the labor market and possess incredible buying power. As a whole, the generation relies less on brand loyalty than factors like price, and only one in three expect their jobs duration to be over 5 years. In order to succeed in the Millennial World, firms must make products more attractive, markets more accessible and workplaces more welcoming.


Marketers use a number of methods to attract Gen Y to their products. Millennials are known for an appreciation of tolerance, often preferring goods that appear to support positive agendas. By attaching a rainbow to products, companies can increase sales and possibly increase brand loyalty, despite not actively supporting the LGBTQA+ community itself. Similarly, companies that fund pride celebrations, like Macy’s and Coca-Cola, try to attach to their name an aura of tolerance that millennials find attractive.


Millennials increasingly make purchasing decisions based on measures of a company's social responsibility.

Another example is the green movement. Millennials are more environmentally conscious than previous generations, and firms that frame themselves as “green” are more likely to attract attention. According to California Green Solutions, about 50% of millennials responded in a poll that a company’s policy on the environment affected their choice to shop there, and 47% reported they would be willing to spend more on “green” products.


Naturally, one of the biggest components of millennial marketing is technology. Online shopping has become increasingly common, as have apps -- for example, Nordstrom has an app for smartphones has continued to drive sales despite falling numbers of visits to its stores. that this author has spent a distressingly large amount of time -- and cash -- on. Technology has a firm hold on millennials, and marketers have learned to use that to their advantage. The factors that grab Gen Y’s interest, such as the presence of graphics and personalization in websites, can be manipulated and used to attract and keep attention. This is particularly important in a generation that does not value brand loyalty nearly as much as prior generations (Smith, 2012). Such factors are reflected, for example, in the popularity of Uber, which has utilized technology, aesthetically pleasing graphics and knowledge of millennials’ distaste for drunk driving, to revolutionize the cab industry. Firms that use their online presence to interact with millennials can hope to maintain relationships with customers as the generation becomes increasingly powerful in the markets.


In the labor market, millennial marketing is just as vital. Millennials have different expectations of their workplace than previous generations, and as the largest group in the labor market at 35%, recruiting and retaining millennials is vital. Beyond presenting a positive image by appearing progressive and modern, a number of firms have turned to technology in order to both streamline processes and make millennials feel more at home. Retail giant Walmart, for example, has integrated technology into the workplace by creating an app that allows workers to complete tasks, such as section work, that may previously have taken painstaking hours on paper or in person. Such programs not only make companies more efficient, they play directly into the skill sets and preferences of millennials.


Abandoned storefronts are becoming increasingly common across the nation.

Source: RetailByRyan95, Flickr

It is possible that so-called millennial marketing is a waste of time. Any group as large as the millennial generation must surely be just as diverse internally than as when compared to other groups, like Gen X or the Boomers. Marketing to a select age group is difficult, if not impossible, without some level of differentiation between income and lifestyle. Additionally, it is possible -- even probable -- that some markets are simply not going to attract millennials, regardless of how determined marketers are. A generation burdened by astronomical levels of debt from student loans is unlikely to be capable, or willing, to buy the same quantities of luxury goods compared to their predecessors. Regardless of how savvy a marketing department is, changing trends are likely to bring about the decay of many old staples.  Big physical department stores like Sears and Toys-R-US are already being replaced as consumers turn to online shopping, and millennials are unlikely to be dissuaded.


The world of millennial marketing is vast. Simply entering the phrase into a search engine generates countless, often conflicting, articles on how to frame Generation Y. Many of these articles are patently amusing, telling earnest tales of millennials looking for high-interest rates on savings accounts, transparency and privacy from banks -- failing to note that all prior generations have valued the same. Other articles look at small, unrepresentative samples while still others jump to conclusions based on limited exposure to “millennial culture.” Yet beyond these articles lies a very real, very pressing issue: The Boomers are running out of power. And the new generation in town is notably different. Firms must rise to the challenge of changing preferences and demographics or be left in the dust of the fast-paced, hyper-connected, cyber-literate Gen Y.


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