Millions of pages have been written about Millennial consumers: how important they are, how special, how they are different from other generations and how companies should target them in the most effective way. If you’re looking for the magic recipe to win with Millennials, I’m sorry to disappoint you, because there is no easy solution to all of these conundrums. But with some thinking, common sense and experience I’m sure you can make your brand work also with Millennials.

First of all, let’s start busting some myths:

  • Millennials are special: I agree that Millennials are different from other generations, but arguably any young generation is different from an older generation.

Let me explain. Who are Millennials? Different sources may tell you slightly different ages that define our Millennials population. Broadly speaking, Millennials are people who were born from the early 80’s to the mid 90’s (most sources say the range is 1981 to 1996). The precise year doesn’t matter, because the range is relatively broad (anyone between 22 and 37 years old), so arguably we can say that ‘Millennials’ is just a sophisticated way to identify ‘young people that are not teenagers’. Are we expecting young people to have purchase behaviors that are the same as older generations? I doubt it, so maybe Millennials are not that special, they’re just young.

  • Millennials are different from previous young generations: that’s correct, but isn’t it normal that purchase behaviors of young generations change as the world around them changes? Being 30 years old now is very different from what it was in the 70’s, because back then there were no smart phones and the world was much less globalized.  So maybe it’s not that Millennials are so different from their previous young counterparts, it’s that the world today is very different.
  • Millennials behave all the same way: I’m sorry, I don’t believe this.

The life of a fresh graduate that is looking for a job is quite different from the one of a parent who needs to juggle young children and a career. So there is no recipe for ALL Millennials, because like all generations, every age group and life stage is unique.

Saying this, it doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be any tweaking of brand communication to Millennials: I believe that most of the basic rules for effective communication still hold true also with a Millennials audience. Here is an overview of the key areas to consider:

  • Be relevant: a brand needs to drive relevance in a specific consumption occasion in order to be considered by the target audience. Being out there and shouting its share of voice is not enough for any brand to grab consumers’ attention if the brand is not solving an issue that consumers have.

For example, in China on Snickers we had a very successful campaign focused on Chinese New Year. This is the time of the year when the biggest ‘migration’ on Earth happens, around 700M Chinese are estimated to travel across the country to reach their families for the festivities. We had the ambition of making Snickers the N.1 snack choice for Chinese travelers, building on the insight that Chinese New Year journey can be very crowded and frustrating; if you’re not equipped for snacking during your trip, you will feel more tired and angry, thus making your travel experience even worse. And that’s when Snickers becomes relevant, because ‘you’re not you when you travel hungry’. We built a partnership with Eastern Airline (one of the Top 3 airlines in China) where we launched the first ‘Hunger-free’ airline with Snickers communication on the aircraft (we even had ‘hunger safety announcements’ from the cabin crew). We also partnered with a travel app to make sure that we capture consumers all along their journey, starting from their booking process and following them across their route with relevant communication on bus shelters, train stations and other public transportation. In a nutshell, we understood the consumer insight that enabled us to make the brand relevant in a consumption occasion that no other brand fully owns.

Was this campaign focused only on Millennials? No, it wasn’t. Of course many young consumers travelled during that time, but the concept and the idea didn’t need to be tailored to them; on the contrary, communication channels were tailored to Millennials (see also the third point below). What matters is relevance: if you want to specifically target Millennials, develop insights that make your brand relevant to them (ask yourself “what problem are you going to solve for them”). You’ll realize that what is relevant to solve a need for Millennials is also relevant for the rest of the population and viceversa.

  • Stand for something (relevant): a brand can stand out if it has some character and having a character means standing for something. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the brand should have an opinion on everything that happens out there, but taking a position on a cause or on some current affairs is usually appreciated by Millennials. Young people tend to engage more with brands that actively try to participate and drive discussion on specific topics, even if that can be polarizing. An example is what many brands do in the area of cause related marketing: if genuine (and that’s a big IF), promoting a cause can help drive brand equity with the whole population, but disproportionally with Millennials. On M&Ms in the US we supported ‘Red Nose Day’, a partnership to help America come together and raise money to ensure children in need are safe, healthy and educated, all of it delivered with a smile. This campaign raised more than 1M $ to help kids and it made M&Ms be part of the Millennials conversation in a way that is relevant to the brand (as M&Ms is all about fun). Of course there are many other examples, like the recent controversy on Nike selecting Colin Kaepernick as the new face for their global campaign. For sure the choice is polarizing and it’s too early to tell if the outcome for the brand is positive or not, but at least Nike has dared to stand for something. Which is always a good start.
  • Communicate effectively in a genuine (and relevant) way: Millennials tend to pay more attention to brand authenticity and that’s why it’s always wise to tone down the old school selling techniques (they don’t want a sales pitch…) and act more like a human, where a two-way conversation means that the brand needs to also listen to what consumers are saying (vs telling them what they should do). Concretely, that means choosing the right tone of voice of a brand campaign and also leveraging media channels that are not one-way only (TV, print, outdoor), but much more interactive (like digital and especially social media). Authenticity and genuine conversations can also be conveyed via influencers: on M&Ms in the Middle East for example, we collaborated with some influencers like Sherif Fayed last year to drive the brand association with movies and to do it in a way which is relevant to Millennials. What is key in this case is being genuine: an influencer that is not authentic will most likely be as ineffective as a non performing TV commercial.

To conclude, I believe that most of the basic rules of brand advertising and brand equity boosting still hold true for Millennials; what has changed is that some aspects of it have gained more importance (like standing for something) and media channels to engage with them have evolved over time. But if a brand is not relevant in the first place, the right cause or the right channels won’t be able to fix the more fundamental issue of relevance. Whether it’s with Millennials or not.