By now, one thing should be perfectly clear: Millennials are not monolithic. Individuals of specific generations are undeniably individuals -- separate from others and unique in wants and needs. In fact, according to The Boston Consulting Group, U.S. Millennials comprise six diverse segments. The Anti-Millennial, for example, is locally minded, conservative, and does not spend more on green products. Moreover, Millennials comprise the first population of "digital natives," a cohort connected by its interaction with digital technology from an early age. The constant exposure to various beliefs and habits on the internet has produced a generation of extremely diverse individuals. Consequently, a one-size-fits-all marketing approach to this generation falls short, which Eric Anderson makes clear in the article, "The 5 myths of marketing to Millennials."
At the same time, Millennials share a number of characteristics, which creates an excellent opportunity for advertisers. Let's be honest -- marketing is made easier (and more effective?) when groups of people can be compartmentalized according to birth years. As detailed in some unmatched research by the ad agency Barkley and a recent book written by Jeff Fromm and Christie Garton, Millennial consumers more or less value social networking, demand transparency and authenticity, are active (not passive) consumers, exercise a high level of influence over others, and require much more from branded experiences.
However, this article will focus on the inverse of these qualities. The following brands have angered Millennials by disregarding some of the key characteristics they share. It's important to note that just because a brand is disliked does not mean that it's unsuccessful outside of Generation Y (or inside of the generation for that matter, as some Millennials love to purchase products from brands they hate). As a marketer, never forget that Millennials are not all alike. Developing an understanding of the subtle (and not so subtle) differences among these consumers is vital for success across the generation. With this is mind, let's take a look at some brands that can afford to make serious changes.
Yes, many Millennials hate Apple. Even those 20-somethings lined up in droves at Apple stores across the globe hate Apple. Despite continuously releasing ground-breaking products and repeatedly ranking as the world's top brand, Apple is constantly under fire from Millennials, which tends to happen when you're the "best." I have an iPhone, and if you're reading this in the U.S., there is a 19.8 percent chance you have an iPhone too. Despite this dominance, the company fails to address issues that are inhibiting wide-spread, genuine brand love (unless you're an Apple fanboy, and the company can do no wrong).
One of the tech giant's problems is failing to engage Millennial consumers in what Fromm and Garton refer to as the "participation economy." In their 2013 book, "Marketing to Millennials: Reaching the Largest and Most Influential Generation of Consumers Ever," the authors explain that Millennials want to "actively participate, co-create, and, most important, be included as partners in the brands they love."
The book continues, "In fact, one could argue that functional and emotional benefits alone will not be enough for your brand to thrive with this generation since Millennial brand fans feel they have a shared interest in the brand's success. Welcome to the participation economy" (pg. 8).
It's clear that Apple produces highly functional, user-friendly products, as evident in the high adoption rates of its devices. And the company certainly appeals to consumer emotion; take a look at one of Apple's most recent videos, which focuses much more on emotional impact than technical details:
But it takes more than functionality and emotional resonance to stay in the good graces of Millennials. Do young consumers feel like partners with Apple? No. Rather than creating an open network for consumers to contribute, Apple's proprietary operating system iOS has been criticized for trapping users in what the Electronic Frontier Foundation calls a "crystal palace." For instance, the only apps users can access are those found in Apple's App Store, which is the opposite of Google's open source Android system, which allows for customization and a more personalized experience. And personalization is high on a Millennial's wish list. Apple's CEO Tim Cook might have had this in mind when stating, "I think you will see us open up more in the future...But not to the degree that we put the customer at risk of having a bad experience."
But this invites the question: Does lack of customization create a bad user experience, even in the capable hands of Apple developers? For tech-savvy Millennials, I would argue it does. If Apple wants to gain Generation Y respect, the company should reevaluate its perceived belief that consumers pay the company to make decisions on their behalves, as this demographic is ready for cooperation -- a necessary ingredient in any healthy relationship.
This is an easy one. Electronic Arts has won the Consumerist poll for "Worst Company in America" for two years running. Is the distinction justified? No, considering the amount of personal wounds inflicted by other companies on the list. But it's clear that consumers are annoyed with the company -- even those that love its video games.
EA is included here because the majority of its unhappy customers are Millennials. The average age of video game players in the U.S. is 30, with 64 percent of gamers under the age of 35. Accordingly, understanding EA's mistakes and recognizing how the company plans to make amends is a great study in Millennial marketing. So, why does the game developer continue to piss off Generation Y?
Millennials demand transparency, honesty, and accountability from brands. As the founder and CTO of HubSpot Dharmesh Shah states, "Millennials disproportionately (at least to older generations) value transparency and access to information. They want to know a lot more about what's going on. They're skeptical of a company and its leaders when decisions -- and discussions -- take place behind closed doors."
EA has been criticized for a lack of transparency at the disastrous launch of its highly anticipated SimCity reboot. The iconic game, typically played as a solo experience offline, was released in March 2013 and required players to be online. However, EA was unprepared to deal with the amount of players online, and gamers faced error messages and disconnections. Many of them were unable to play the game for weeks until the issues were resolved.
For some gamers, the solution was simple: "Let people play SimCity's single-player mode offline, hence alleviating the server load, and maintain the always-on internet requirement for multiplayer. That would probably solve [the] debacle and give most people what they really wanted in the first place."
However, the general manager of Maxis, SimCity's developer, explained that "It wouldn't be possible to make the game offline without a significant amount of engineering work by our team." Furthermore, EA's COO at the time emphatically explained that the always-on requirement was not for DRM reasons, which no one believed. At the same time, some savvy players discovered how to play the game offline. Thus, not only were consumers angered by technical glitches, but also by EA's lack of transparency with regards to why it wasn't permitting offline play.
PR efforts like this have resulted in, as Paul Tassi writes in Forbes, a "public perception that EA is refusing to take responsibility for their own failures and mistreatment of their customers." And now, 10 months after its release, EA has announced that users will soon be able to play the single-player mode of SimCity offline, which is a step in the right direction but seems like a long time to address widespread consumer complaints.
Every brand makes technical mistakes, but dealing with those slip-ups in a responsible manner leads to Millennial loyalty. And it looks like EA is taking consumer complaints to heart, as the company's VP of EA Studios told Kotaku, "If we come at it from a consumer perspective and we do things that they tell us they want and we do that well, business will follow."
McDonald's and Walmart
These two brands get lumped together for similarly offending Millennials -- a generation that respects brands that align with their own social values and make ethically sensitive decisions. In a survey conducted by the Intelligence Group, 51 and 39 percent of Millennials in 2007 believed that "ethical practices" and "alignment with social causes" were "somewhat" to "very important" characteristics in a brand, respectively. In 2012, these two percentages had jumped to 71 and 61 percent, which is bad news for two companies without the best ethical and social track records.
Take McDonald's, for instance. Within the past year, multiple publications have pointed to the company's "Millennial problem." Specifically, an Ad Age article referred to an internal memo in which McDonald's expressed concern about not ranking among the demographics' top 10 restaurant chains. What was the Golden Arches' solution? The McWrap -- a healthier, customizable sandwich that BusinessWeek called a "salvo in the fresh wars: a high-profile attempt to get the attention of customers who have turned to fresher, seemingly healthier offerings from competitors."
Clearly, McDonald's is listening to the demand for healthier options, but public retreat from greasy burgers is not the problem. Until the fast-food chain backs its products up with ethical practices, releasing new sandwiches will not only fail to land the company a spot on Generation Y's favorite restaurants list, but it will also continue to make it an easy target for consumer criticism.
For instance, in 2013, McDonald's was the target of the year's most substantial labor movement, as the company employs hundreds of thousands of workers every year who earn just above minimum wage. According to a study conducted by the National Employment Law Project, "McDonald's employees rely more on public assistance programs than any other large fast-food company, with an estimated $1.2 billion in costs to the public." What's more, a McDonald's employee help site for managing resources garnered criticism for suggesting that returning holiday gifts is a good way to free up some cash, as covered by Business Insider: "You may want to also consider returning some of your unopened purchases that may not seem as appealing as they did."
In addition, Walmart angered Millennials in a similar fashion, taking major flak during the 2013 labor protests. According to 24/7 Wall St., "The company employs more workers who make less than $10 per hour than any company in America...Walmart sales associates, who are often part-time hourly employees, earn less than $9 an hour, on average. Further, only half of the store's employees approve of the CEO."
Millennials want to work, despite groundless claims to the contrary. Those who have come of age during the Great Recession are very concerned about making a decent living. Any company that inhibits its workers from doing so can be seen as a threat. And Millennials are not afraid to speak out against unethical practices, "turning up the heat against low wages" at other fast-food chains like Wendy's and KFC, and retailers like Victoria's Secret, as detailed in a recent article by CNN.
This is not to say that McDonald's and Walmart don't make valuable contributions to society. A quality product at an affordable price is just as important to Millennials as any other consumers. And the sheer amount of employees both companies hire should not be overlooked. However, Millennials are passionate consumers, and a company's perceived unethical practices serve as an easy rallying point for consumer hatred. Addressing these perception issues should be at the top of each brand's to-do list.
These brands represent a small segment of companies that have pissed off Millennials. Obviously, not all of Generation Y hates these brands, and Millennial discontent does not necessarily sink sales. But imagine how much more dominant these brands could be by better accounting for those characteristics that Millennials do share. Of course, doing so would lead to success across all generations, but connecting with the largest group of consumers in U.S. history is a sure way to establish long-term success.
Kyle Montero is a contributing editor at iMedia Connection.
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