By Marie Griffin
Lynn Blashford, marketing VP at hamburger restaurant chain White Castle, doesn't target customers according to their age. Nonetheless, Blashford is keenly aware of millennials' craving for authenticity. "They have an appreciation for nostalgia when the story is authentic, and that works to our advantage because we have a heritage that goes back 98 years," she says.
Blashford says that authenticity is not the sole driver for millennial consumers, "but if they're choosing between two things in the same category, it's more of a substantiating factor that helps make their decision feel good, which is that emotional connection that every brand is looking for."
White Castle's new Impossible Slider, which rolled out at all 377 locations in September 2018, is one of those general-market products that has a particular appeal to millennials, aligning with their concern for their own health and the environmental impact of raising animals for food. The slider patty is sourced from Impossible Foods, which created "meat from plants with the same flavor, aroma, and nutrition" as ground beef.
The Impossible Slider campaign plays into millennials' penchant for authenticity, transparency, and integrity. Although all these terms have been used to characterize millennials — and are therefore familiar to most marketers — authenticity is the linchpin to reaching this heavily scrutinized generation, according to one research firm.
"Authenticity is not just one attribute of many that millennials desire or demand," writes Jean McDonnell, director of innovation research and strategy at Sylver Consulting. "It has taken on the status of an ethos for an aspirational way of living that defines this generation."
Based on its proprietary research, Sylver posits that there is a hierarchy of five qualities that make up authenticity. The concepts of true/real and genuine/sincere are "core driver qualities," while being unique/original, exhibiting humanness, and having integrity/grit "act as support elements to complete the fuller meaning of the construct."
Dan Gliatta, chief growth officer and co-founder of Cargo, a marketing and advertising agency that has studied millennial small business owners, adds: "Millennials put a high value on trust, and that trust is born from authenticity. They want to see fairness, honesty, and integrity, and they've become jaded because they don't see most companies living up to their high standards of 'realness.'"
Millennials don't place a lot of trust in brands, says Norty Cohen, CEO and founder of integrated marketing agency Moosylvania, which has surveyed millennials about their favorite brands for six years running. "We asked them how they adopt brands and where they learn about them," he says. "They are two and a half times more likely to adopt a brand based on what their friends and family are saying as compared to all advertising combined, including television, Facebook, and YouTube."
That doesn't mean that millennials don't form relationships with brands, Cohen notes, but they do it from the perspective of "choosing to participate." Marketers need to form communities around their brands, he says, adding, "when they do, the need to pay for connectivity in the form of advertising is reduced dramatically."
Real World Scenarios
Pew Research Center defines millennials as those born between 1982 and 1997. While some marketers view millennials as a distinct customer segment, others are reluctant to single them out. Instead, the customer values they embrace are increasingly millennial values.
For example, although not targeting millennials specifically, Chipotle Mexican Grill relied on one of the generation's core concepts when it launched its "For Real" integrated marketing campaign in fall 2018. New management, including CMO Chris Brandt, wanted to reignite the brand after it struggled to get beyond highly publicized food safety incidents.
The "Chipotle for Real" campaign was Brandt's first chance to address the market in a unique way — as a celebration of the brand's heritage of using fresh, natural ingredients to make its food from scratch in every Chipotle outlet.
The campaign emphasized "real principles and 'real' as a way of acting in the world," Brandt says. "For brands to connect with today's consumer, they need to have customers both buy their product and buy into their brand values. Buying a Chipotle burrito means you are contributing to the company's purpose of 'cultivating a better world,' supporting local growers, sustainable business practices, and much more."
"The image of the millennial that the media and many marketers are stuck on has not kept up with this generation."
— Jason Dorsey, president of The Center for Generational Kinetics
Costco, the warehouse club giant, doesn't market specifically to millennials, either, because "our goal is to bring an exceptional shopping experience to members of all ages and generations," the company said in a statement. Yet, the retailer has a value system that matches millennial preferences. "We've learned that all members appreciate our business model and trust us to provide outstanding value and service," the statement added. "In addition, members are increasingly recognizing our ongoing focus on organic items, and our unwavering commitment to do the right thing."
Future/Proof, in contrast, was founded by and for millennials in 2011. Brad Schultz, a co-founder and CMO at Future/Proof, says that millennials "want to have an emotional connection with a brand, to understand what it stands for." In the case of Future/Proof, previously called BeatBox Beverage, that means "we want people to think of our brand as friend they would would invite to a party," Schultz says.
BeatBox started in Austin, Texas, after its young founders saw a void in the market for the kind of drink they were making for themselves — out of vodka and Crystal Light — and taking to music festivals and other outdoor events in empty "upcycled" wine boxes. The entrepreneurs formulated their own fruit-flavored beverages — Pink Lemonade, Blue Razzberry, and Fruit Punch — with a type of wine "that tastes like a spirit" as the alcohol base. They kept the "bag-in-a-box" packaging, and the brightly colored 5-liter boxes were decorated to look like boomboxes, inspiring the brand's name.
After manufacturing, packaging, and selling the products themselves, the founders got a chance to pitch their company on Shark Tank in 2014 and landed a $1 million investment from billionaire Mark Cuban. After weathering a little turbulence, BeatBox really took off when the punch was packaged in 500mL portable, resealable, and recyclable Tetra Paks. "In each Tetra Pak, there are 3.4 servings of 11 percent alcohol. That's the equivalent of four light beers," Schultz says. He adds that millennials like the idea of getting the same effect with less volume, a concept the company gets across with the hashtag #PartyMath.
Because millennials grew up with the web, "we know what's healthy and what's not, so we're always looking for ways to optimize ourselves," Schultz says. "Alcohol has a lot of calories, so we'll balance that out by making a few switches in other things we consume." He points out that the growth in hard seltzer is "just insane" because it is low in calories and sugar, and he adds that Future/Proof is expanding into the category with its new Brizzy brand of seltzer cocktails.
Economically Bifurcated Generation
The stereotype of student debt-ridden millennials returning to live with their parents after college is well known. On the other side of the ledger — and barely recognized — are millennial households with three or more people, which are earning more than any previous household in their age group in the past 50 years, Pew found. Such demos are key for marketers who want to reach millennials, particularly among financial services companies and retailers.
In 2017, the median adjusted income for a household headed by a millennial (aged 22 to 37) was $69,000. "That is a higher figure than for nearly every other year on record, apart from around 2000, when households headed by people ages 22 to 37 earned about the same amount," according to Pew. More than half (55 percent) of those households were composed of a married couple or cohabitating partners.
It's also important for marketers to note that women in the workforce are responsible for the rise in millennial household incomes, primarily because they are earning more than their predecessors. Median earnings of women in millennial households working full time for a full year were $39,000 in 2017. In comparison, the mean annual income for a gen X working woman in 2000 was $37,100. Meanwhile, 17 million millennial women have given birth to at least one child, and the vast majority of babies being born in the U.S. today have millennial mothers.
Brand marketers targeting millennials need to keep in mind that the millennials are an economically bifurcated generation, says Jason Dorsey, president of The Center for Generational Kinetics, an Austin, Texas-based research and consulting firm focused on millennials and gen Zers. "In our qualitative work, we've seen that this generation is split into two very different mindsets," he says. "One part feels they have things together. They've got a job, they're self-reliant, they're making progress toward their goals. The other part feels like they're struggling, like they're spinning their wheels and drowning in student loan debt."
No wonder. Millennials with student loans are spending about one-fifth of their take-home pay on those payments, according to a TD Bank survey of people ages 18 to 39 who had paid off or were still repaying student loan debt. As a result, respondents were putting off buying a home (36 percent), delaying having kids (26 percent), and putting marriage on the back burner (21 percent), the survey found.
Noting that the average age of a millennial is 32, Dorsey says marketers need to think of them as 30-somethings, not 20-somethings. "The image of the millennial that the media and many marketers are stuck on has not kept up with this generation," he says. "If that doesn't change, they're going to miss out on the millennials who have all the money."