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The unprecedented potential of Millennial marketers

The unprecedented potential of Millennial marketers Carol Phillips

Millennials have embraced digital communications and made them an essential part of their work, social, and personal lives. Rapid growth in media use and the simultaneous move away from traditional media has created a digital perfect storm for the advertising and marketing industry. Marketers are learning to navigate these new, choppy waters as they implement unfamiliar tools for building and sustaining brand connections with empowered Generation Y consumers. 

Gen Y currently makes up 35 percent of the workforce, a number expected to grow to 47 percent by 2014. Its influence as a consumer group is already being felt in the automotive, education, technology, and food and beverage categories. Soon these consumers will be the primary market for everything from diapers to travel. Nearly all are already of driving age and within a few years the majority will be over 21.

It's practically a truism that Millennials love brands but reject advertising or marketing. But is this true? Actually, it depends how you ask the question. Talk to them as I do, in research projects or the classroom, about their favorite sports team, athletic shoe, website, or gadget and they often come alive. I haven't met a young adult who doesn't love talking about the new Kindle ads or the Coca-Cola Happiness Machine viral video. They understand the meaning of brands even as they say brands don't matter to them. Here's how Jason Potteiger put it in a recent blog post:

"We are fluent in brands. We know the symbols, their messages, and the communities associated with them. We speak a language of brands; we can easily construct other and larger meanings through the combination and layering of brands. (e.g. Someone wearing a Red Sox hat, Converse shoes, North Face jacket, Starbucks coffee -- add or subtract any element here and their brand equation or association map changes, and so does my understanding of them)."

Some Millennials are leaning into marketing, rather than away from it, and finding they are being embraced by an industry that desperately needs their input. Ironically, the uniqueness of their subculture and the difficulty in reaching Gen Y consumers has created unprecedented opportunities for entry-level marketers.

We laughed last spring when the word "twintern" appeared to describe a new kind of content manager. Now Gen Y interns, digital strategists, content creators, and community managers are regularly being tapped to help shape experimental programs designed to reach their peers.

After all, who knows better how to reach a Millennial than another Millennial? The reality is it's nearly impossible to create an effective program without including them in the process. These "super consumers" are the future of our profession and they are already changing the way marketing is being practiced. 

Last week I asked some of these super-consumer Gen Y marketers what they think of the marketing profession and their role in it. Everyone I spoke with is part of our Millennial Marketing market research community. Most work full time in digital agencies, PR firms, or brand marketing companies. Others are interns, undergrad marketing students, or grad students.

Here's what we wanted to know:

  • Are Millennials being listened to by marketers adequately?

  • What developments or tools for reaching Millennials do you think are being undervalued?

  • What would you change about the way companies are trying to reach Millennials?

To my surprise, and contrary to the negative articles about Gen Y in the workplace, Gen Y marketers feel pretty comfortable with their roles. It appears that marketing may be unusually receptive to this generation because it needs them more than other industries. Over half said they are listened to "most of the time." Several said that being a member of Gen Y actually gives them even more of an opportunity to get an audience for their ideas.

Anne: "I actually feel more empowered being a Gen Y marketer. And being more able to understand Gen Y, that gives us an advantage. Plus, being more fluent in emerging marketing tools."

Kelsey: "I completely agree with Anne. Being a millennial is an advantage. For me, I don't know what's been tried before or what's failed before. I can think of a new idea, flesh it out, and be given the go ahead."

Jonathan: "I think they're getting a fair shake, it's essential to learn how to incorporate social media and the new ways Millennials are consuming info."

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When asked what one thing they would most like to tell their boss, the participants said they would urge their manager to take more chances and push harder for creative ideas. They also would emphasize the extreme importance of personalization when talking to Gen Y. 

Jonathan: "I think certain people realize the game has changed. They get it. They know things are different out there. Others, not so much. They don't see the advantages to making a change."

Anne: "You have to cater to the self-involvement of Gen Y-ers, customize everything. If they feel they're being marketed to as a mass, they're out."

Susan: "Even a company like adidas -- they have an in-store device called "mi adidas" that lets you customize shoes. That's something I like -- because I can talk about how I created the shoe when I get a compliment."

Derek: "I think the emphasis in marketing to the individual is a key part in marketing to millennials. Giving personal attention to each person, as generic as it may be, is probably one of the best ways to make millennial feel important. As I am writing this, I currently have three ads targeted directly at me. I love music, I'm mildly philanthropic, and I'm starting a business within the next few months and have been doing research via Google on possible routes to do this. The top 3 ads to the right of this box are for -- you guessed it! -- the three things listed above."

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Gen Y super consumers think there is too much emphasis on the latest, shiniest new techniques at the expense of brand building and messaging. Here are some snippets from the conversation:

"I still refuse to do Foursquare. I see the value for businesses, but as a consumer, I don't see the value and it seems incredibly invasive."

"Yeah, it has the potential to be overdone again; it has to come back to added value for the brand. It's silly to "do Foursquare" just for the sake of doing it, without any thought to its effect on the brand."

"Agreed; there needs to be a strategy behind what you're doing. If it's merely to get eyeballs or be funny, what's the point?"

"I agree that people are jumping onto the newest, greatest things, generally without a strategy, but I think that everyone is confused and hearing conflicting arguments. They hear Gen Y wants this or is using this, and so they think that is the way to get them. So they leap first and try to learn to swim later."

"If your message doesn't capture the audience, even if you're in the right place at the right time, then what's the point? Your message needs to not only gain the audience's attention, but it also needs to motivate them to actually do something."

Two new technologies that were singled out as having the potential to really make a difference, however, are QR codes and mobile applications. In contrast, viral videos were not considered being worth the time and attention being paid to them.

McKenzie: "I don't think that it's the best form of marketing, to be honest."

Desiree: "I must say what BBC did with Ford Fiesta was great. Although it was not a direct marketing attempt, I wanted to buy a Fiesta after I watched the show. At the present time Viral branding passes the brand idea to masses, but it is losing its effectiveness (just like news traveling on the grapevine)."

Of course it isn't all a marketing love fest. Some in our community call for greater transparency within marketing organizations both up and down the line. This wasn't an entirely self-serving line of thinking. These Gen Y marketers are concerned that top management could lose touch with how the world is changing:

"I think a lot of today's problems with companies are the structure in place and the lack of transparency from top to bottom and left to right. For a person to communicate with a person in upper management, one must go up the chain of command and jump through multiple loops and loop holes in order to get one's thought to be even ignored, let alone listened to."

"A lot of organizations still incorporate vertical structures and it definitely hinders what can truly get done. I'm not saying you don't need structure and I'm not trying to discredit what upper management is capable of but the current VP or director doesn't always know or understand the new gam; they are players of the old game"

If these young Millennial marketers represent the future of our profession, we have a bright future ahead of us.

Carol Phillips is president of Brand Amplitude, and the voice behind the blog, MillennialMarketing.com.

On Twitter? Follow Phillips at @carol_phillips. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Brand research and consumer insights for clients. Teach Marketing and Brand Strategy at University of Notre Dame. Expertise in Millennial marketing and Gen Y research.

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