From Pepsi to the BBC, companies have been mocked for their attempts to engage millennials. So why not try talking to them like they're normal people?by Mollie Goodfellow / April 5, 2018 / Leave a comment
They’re the problem child of each generation: the Young Ones. I’m sure when my parents were my age, their generation were considered a pain, much as us millennials are the target of choice now. They’re also a source of confusion for those trying to harness the age group as a demographic to sell or market to.
True, we may ingest information in different ways to generations before us. We much prefer to ingest our information via smartphone or tablet for example, rather than picking up a newspaper. In a report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in 2016, of the 18-24-year-olds surveyed, 28 per cent said that social media was their main source for news.
It is a good thing that people are hired to look into how companies can better angle themselves at appealing to younger people, it’s the way that is translated into reality that is the problem. Too often young people are treated as a caricature of themselves. Entitled, attached to smartphones, with attitudinal problems and a lack of interest in politics.
In this context, younger people can often be bundled up in cotton wool, not yet old enough to have refined palates, needing culture and products spoonfed lest the full-on adult experience overwhelms them. When I see the phrase “aimed at younger people” referring to the not quite teenager but not quite thirty-year-old demographic my response immediately whiplashes to the gif of Steve Buscemi holding a skateboard, asking “how do you do, fellow kids?”
Recently, the BBC announced a new commissioning editor for podcasts, who was hired with the aim of engaging younger listeners. I have to admit, I rolled my eyes. Alongside the article announcing the hire was a picture of said editor, Jason Phipps. I’m entirely sure Jason is a lovely, capable man who brings with him great experience—however, it’s the “engaging younger listeners” which tends to get my back up.
Often, when things are touted as being “aimed at young people,” young people are absent from any decision making. They aren’t hired to be gurus for aiming products at young people. Instead, there’s a preconceived notion of what it means to sell to young people that ends up being condescending and patronising.
While trying to cash in on young people’s involvement with civil rights and the Black Lives Matter movement, Pepsi was hugely criticised and ending up pulling an expensive ad campaign featuring Kendall Jenner. The official EU referendum remain campaign Stronger In tried to used hashtags in a bid to get youngsters to vote to stay. The ‘Chillin’, Meetin’, Tourin’ #Votin’ slogan was widely derided on social media by the young and old as a cliched look at the type of language young people use. KFC also came under fire for appropriating what some label the millennial food fad ‘clean-eating’ by mocking up a new burger made of cauliflower and kale.
“Stick hashtags on it” or “Put it on The Snapchat” don’t tend to cut the mustard, much in the way that most products purporting to be aimed at women often attract decision—see “Bic For Her” ballpoint pens, which became the jumping-off point for an entire Edinburgh Festival show by comedian Bridget Christie. Like women, young people are perfectly capable of engaging with “regular” products.
This should surprise no-one. After all, the dreaded “millennials” are rapidly becoming the demographic for everything from video streaming to skin care. These days what counts as ‘young people’ has changed drastically. In previous generations, by the time people were in their mid-20s, they may have owned their own homes and been financially stable. These days however people are living with their parents or in rented properties until they’re much older. They’re earning less as living costs are more expensive. Yet they may have more expendable income as the prospect of saving can seem futile. This means that while before ‘young people’ may once have referred to a slimmer demographic—18-24-year-olds, for example—in the age of the millennial, this age bracket extends further.
What’s more, young people aren’t dim. Despite the stereotype of “disengaged” millennials, the recent protests in America over gun control and protests in the UK over Brexit have shown that young people are more engaged than ever on political and social matters. When it comes to the media, then, it’s worth trusting their ability to engage with the news and politics. It’s easy enough to take into account clear differences in approach—millennials’ predilection for smartphones and tablets, for example.
However, you can leave out the preconceived stereotypes of what a certain demographic may be like, as often this can do more to put them off. For example, Activate—a Conservative movement that attempted to engage young people, in the same way Momentum have for Labour—came under much derision for their attempted use of memes. One meme in particular, which showed a picture of Corbyn and a picture of Star Wars’ Admiral Ackbar with the caption ‘It’s a trap!’, was mocked so intensely the group deleted it from Twitter.
Young people more than ever are savvier at telling when they’re being sold to. Looking at the rise of bloggers, for example, can show how trust in mainstream marketing and advertising, via television, for instance, is being diminished. Young people would rather look to “independent” sources to gauge whether they want to engage with a brand or product: the rise of beauty bloggers being an excellent example of this. Young women are keener to look at reviews from individuals then go by what traditional advertising or marketing is telling them. In previous years, where beauty brands might go to celebrities to help them advertise a new foundation or mascara, they’re looking to bloggers who come with their own audiences who trust what they’re saying is separate to what the companies want to sell. Beauty brands, in particular, seem to have taken to this well, with L’Oreal Paris introducing a “Beauty Squad” made up of prominent bloggers such as Lydia Millen and Emily Canham.
The thing is: there’s no magic bullet or potion or lotion on how to sell things to “young people”. There’s no foolproof approach to the incredible loose demographic of the young that will result in them being fans of what you’re selling. There are certainly ways to be clever in attempting to engage younger people—approaching them in their digital habitats, via social media or involving popular influencers. You could even try employing some young people. But if you’re creating a good product and marketing it well, millennials are likely to pick up on it regardless. The shocking news is that young people are, in fact just people, who like the same things that non-young people like.