5 Mistakes You're Making Marketing to Millennials

“Millennial,” the all too familiar buzzword that strikes fear into the hearts of every silver-haired executive. The prodigal child who refuses to be reached by the marketing marvels of the Mad Men era. But what exactly are Millennials, and why are countless blogs, books, and seminars dedicated to deciphering them?


A Millennial is, by definition, anyone born between the early 80s and early 2000s. That’s all it is! So, why all the commotion?  Because, there are currently 80 million Millennials in the U.S. – nearly one-fourth of the total population. And, with an annual buying power of $200 billion, they are the most lucrative market. Not only are Millennials redefining consumer behavior, they are influencing their Baby Boomer parents, and setting the pace for the next wave of consumers: Gen Z.


So, without further ado, here are 5 key mistakes to avoid, so you don’t go the way of “Chillary Clinton”.

fail marketing to millennials hillary clinton mistake


1. The Clumsy Ethnographer

fail marketing to millennials

Ethnography is the study of a culture via participant-observation. And while Jane Goodall was incredibly successful with chimpanzees, the same cannot be said of an aging CMO wearing a flat-brim and gold chains. Seriously, who does HR Block think they’re fooling by dropping a Jay Z remix on a commercial about filing taxes?

If you want to speak to Millennials, you need to learn their language.

Take a page out of one of Gen-Y’s most beloved brands, Taco Bell. TBell execs recently launched the “Millennial Word of the Week” initiative to better understand their loyal fan base. Each week, a group of employees in their 20s sends an email educating the company of new words and phrases such as “on fleek” and “lit”. The words are then displayed throughout the headquarters. And if you’re reading this post scratching your head saying ‘this is preposterous, those are not words!’ I highly suggest visiting Urban Dictionary.


2. Over Generalizing

Close your eyes, picture a “Millennial.” What do you see? Is it a white girl in her 20s texting “OMG” and taking duck-face selfies? Or perhaps a young man with ear gauges and tattoos riding his bicycle in an effort to ‘be green.’  Marketers often fall into this trap of picturing Millennials as a single, homogenous group with similar interests and habits. But, as previously stated, Millennials are simply a group of people who’s birthdate falls in a not-definite age bracket.

millennials diversity marketing

Think about it this way: what do a 19-year-old college student in Louisiana, a 33-year-old mother in Connecticut, and a 25-year-old car mechanic in Los Angeles have in common? Probably not very much in terms of consumer behavior and needs, but they still all fall under the “Millennial” umbrella.


Over 40% of Millennials are non-white, and about a quarter of them speak a language other than English at home.


Attempting to market to all of Gen-Y is a futile waste of time and resources. Instead, focus on your target demographic.


3. Disservicing Your Brand for the Sake of Attention


A recent study by The McCarthy Group found that only 1% of Millennials are swayed by traditional advertisements, and a whopping 84% don’t trust them. They value content and authenticity above all else, and they’re going to blogs, forums, and friends to research products before buying. So, instead of advertising at Millennials, inform and educate them about your product and appeal to the sources they do trust (i.e. friends, news sources, company sites). By providing educational content, your brand becomes more credible and trustworthy.


Take for example the credit-monitoring service Credit Karma. They have arguably some of the worst, low-budget commercials on the air right now. Their commercials are irrelevant to the service and focus on poorly executed humor to get viewer attention instead of earning customer trust.


Ironically, this is one of the only truly free (aka not a scam) credit-monitoring sites on the market. And in true Millennial fashion, I became a Credit Karma user, not because of their commercials, but after doing extensive online research and evaluating the company for myself.


4. Being Flashy Instead of Factual

Too many companies are relying on insubstantial, attention-grabbing advertisements. With over 60% of Millennials having a Bachelor’s Degree, they are America’s most educated generation. They are raised to question what they’re told and to seek knowledge and validity. 


While a flashy advertisement may get their attention, you need to prove your product to get their business. How are you appealing to their ethos, logos, and pathos?


To illustrate the difference between flashy and factual -ineffective vs. effective- let’s compare two ad campaigns, both promoting the cessation of smoking. The first is TheTruth.com, a campaign funded by the American Legacy Foundation.  This is how I imagine their marketing meetings:


BIG WIG: we need a commercial that’ll appeal to the young folks. What are the kids into nowadays?

EXECUTIVES: Tattoos! Skrillex! Bling-Bling!

BIG WIG: Great, let’s run with it. They’re going to eat this up!

INTERN: why don’t we just tell them about the dangers of smoking….?

(Executives throw head back and laugh heartily)

BIG WIG: Teens don’t care about cancer; they care about memes!

advertising fail marketing to millennials mistake catmageddon

Their commercials are flashy, loud, and void of any real incentives to quit smoking. Most recently, TheTruth gave us “Catmageddon.” A campaign aimed at animal lovers to stop smoking in order to reduce the risk of cat lung cancer. The ad featured flashing neon colors, hashtags, viral cat videos, and was of course set to an obnoxious and unnecessary EDM track.


TheTruth’s desperate attempt at appealing to Millennials comes off as an insulting parody of their culture. Sure, I like cats, YouTube, and dance music, but what does that have to do with cigarettes, who is funding these commercials, and why should I listen to them?

good advertising marketing to millennials cdc stop smoking

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Stop Smoking campaign by the CDC. Millennials are 44% more likely to trust experts, and the CDC is a respected organization that uses its established authority to warn viewers the real dangers of smoking. Their ads are simple, straightforward, and impactful.

They are successful because they appeal to viewers on a personal, human level- not as a target market with a stereotypical list of interests.



5. Assuming Millennials are Disloyal, Trendy, and Irrational

In classic “back in my day” style, Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers are notoriously quick to assume younger generations lack a sense of loyalty or ethical fortitude. They see Millennials as a selfie-obsessed liability flittering from one trend to the next. When in actuality, 60% of Millennials claim they are often or always loyal to brands that they currently purchase.


Millennials (like anyone else) seek out products and services to solve a problem or fulfill a need.


The difference between earlier generations and Gen-Y isn’t fad-driven-disloyalty, it’s that new products and technology are constantly being developed. Millennials stay up to date with these advancements, actively seeking out new and improved products. Marketers often mistake this with unfounded unpredictability.


The best-known case of this behavior is the Millennial mass exodus from Facebook. Millennials were using Facebook as a platform to connect with friends and openly post about their lives to a peer audience. Then *cue the Jaws soundtrack* their inboxes were flooded with friend requests from Grandparents, bosses, and Aunt Donnas. Suddenly Facebook wasn’t a safe haven for party planning as feeds became inundated with baby pictures and political posts from that kid you haven’t talked to since high school. So of course Facebook lost more than 6 million of its teen-24 year-old users in only three years. They fled to sites like Twitter and Instagram that continued to meet their need for parent-free social networking. And for some reason this boggled the minds of executives everywhere!

Facebook social media usage millennials infographic generation users



The Gatsby days of drinking Manhattans and designing billboards are gone, and if you’re not marketing to Millennials, you’re missing out on a massive market.

Millennials are educated, plugged-in, and revolutionizing consumer behavior. They are a diverse group with equally diverse needs and sub-cultures.

If you want their business, you need to learn how to communicate with them and stay ahead of new technology. Because, while Millennials don’t arbitrarily abandon products, they will move on if a better one comes along.

If you make Millennials aware of your product, they will decide for themselves whether or not it is worthy or necessary of their patronage. The key is knowing how to get into their inner circle of decision makers .