5 Traits Brands Need to Know About Millennials

First, I must disclose that I am not a Millennial. I like to think I’ve helped shape them but they are neither me nor I them. If you are going to successfully build a brand relationship with the next biggest consumer group, you’d better start orchestrating your brand today to fit their needs, wants and desires.


Collectively, they spend about $300 billion annually on consumer discretionary goods. And in five years, they will make up 50% of the workforce. In 15 years, they take over at 75%. The Center for Generational Kinetics defines Generation Y–a.k.a. Millennials – as those born between 1977 and 1995, so today they’re 20- 38 years old.



Millennials are a technologically connected, diverse and tolerant generation. They have witnessed and experienced countless world-changing events that have shaped their lives, from acts of terrorism, catastrophic weather and environmental disasters, financial crashes, to international political upheavals – all brought to them in a media-saturated environment.


So what does this all mean? I went online to find out what research had been done on the next wave of globally-dominant consumers. I discovered this group has been researched to death. Everyone is trying to figure them out from every possible business and marketing angle.


After muddling through all the information and misinformation, and Wikipedia was no help, I came up with five traits or trends that brands need to be aware of if they want to build a relationship with Millennials. Here’s what I have discovered:


Like Me


They have lived most (or at least half) of their life with a cell/smartphone around them, staying connected 24/7 with friends and family. Their ability to consume digital content (emails, texts, tweets, video chats, websites, apps, videos and images) while at the same time producing their own digital content is admirable; but what is truly amazing is they do this sitting in meetings, visiting with friends, eating, running, walking and driving a car. They sleep with their cell phone on and ready. Three-quarters of Millennials are signed up to a social network site like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Snapchat, YouTube or Instagram, compared to only half of Generation Xers and less than a third of Boomers (Pew Research Center). They also account for about four in 10 digital video viewers. The Wall Street Journal reported that this is the first generation to also have tech savvy parents, who were always in contact with them via texting and online chat throughout the day. That’s me.


As they consume services, products, food, beverages and entertainment, they are sharing their experiences, good and bad, via social media as photojournalists, comedians, critics and just plain participants. Boston Consulting Group reports, “The vast majority of millennials report taking action on behalf of brands and sharing brand preferences in their social groups.”


The top three brands that have millions of Facebook fans are Coca-Cola (92 million), McDonalds (55 million, and Red Bull (43 million).


Social and online reviews have supercharged traditional word-of-mouth and some brands live and die from these reviews. Not only do they like to share but they like to feel informed and involved not just marketed to.


A great example is the fatal Kryptonite bike lock that was shown on YouTube being opened with a simple Bic pen. According to hotel booking Getaroom.com and ReviewPro, Millennials rely on user-generated peer reviews to help make their travel bookings. A survey by the market research firm Dimensional Research showed 90% of respondents said that positive online reviews influenced their buying decision. On the other hand, 86% said that negative reviews have a direct impact on shifting their purchase choices. One of Amazon’s cornerstones to its brand identity is its customer’s reviews. They even have a collection of the Funniest Reviews.


Alex Castellarnau at Dropbox, the popular file transfer service says “Millennials are a generation that wants to co-create the product, the brand, with you. Companies that understand this and figure out ways to engage in this co-creation relationship with millennials will have an edge.” Some brands that have figured this out is Uber, Airbnb, VICE, Red Bull Entertainment.


Me to We


Brother’s Craig and Marc Kielburger, both Millennials, made the “Me to We” famous with their international charity and youth movement called Free the Children. Their website describe their goal “to empower a generation to shift the world from me to we – through how we act, how we give, the choices we make on what to buy and what to wear, the media we consume and the experiences with which we choose to engage.”


In a survey done by the Intelligence Group, 44% of Millennials try to practice being green in their daily lives. “Millennials view social activism much more as it relates to their overall persona than the generations before them,” says Joe Kessler. “Our research indicates they are significantly engaged, but are less active in [individual] actions. [Their social activism] is insinuated in every aspect of their lives.”


Millennials have high expectations for brands to make the world a better place, like Toms shoes and Soapbox Soaps who have one-to-one giving models, or Starbucks with their C.A.F.E. sustainable coffee production practices, and even Ben & Jerry’s fair trade ingredients and farm sustainability program.


To read more about Millennials and social responsibility check out my article Six Reasons Why Brands Should Care.


Love Me


This is the generation that didn’t (or isn’t!) leave home soon. I should know. According to Pew Research (2014), hours spent parenting have increased for both fathers and mothers, tripling for fathers by 180% since 1985 and increasing by 60% for mothers. What this means is parents are spending more time with their kids because they want to and their kids reciprocate that feeling. But there is also an economic reality that they can’t afford to live on their own because of the high cost of living and the lack of affordable jobs. For some, it could be that leaving home means leaving the comforts they can’t afford today – a harsh reality.


Joeri Van den Bergh and Mattias Behrer authors of the book How Cool Brands Stay Hot: Branding to Generation Y, says that 85% of teens name one of their parents as their best friend, rather than naming a peer. And more than a third of millennials of all ages say they influence what products their parents buy, what shops and restaurants they visit, and what trips they take.


Top 10 Millennial Brands (PRNewsFoto/Moosylvania)

Top 10 Millennial Brands (PRNewsFoto/Moosylvania)


While they love to share they also trust the social online environment to show the world (quite literal) who they are – the good, the bad and the drunken. They share intimate details and show off where they are and where they are going. They see themselves as friends and pride themselves when they have thousands of Facebook friends or Twitter followers – or better yet, when they get hundreds of “likes” on one of their posts. They want to surround themselves with brands they believe are friends, like Nike, Apple, Samsung, Sony and Walmart (based of the 2015 study conducted by Moosylvania agency). This is a group that will adopt brands,” says Norty Cohen, founder and CEO of Moosylvania. “If you can create a friendship with these consumers, you really take it to the next level. They will go to great lengths to support you.”



It is no surprising that Nike is a top brand for Millennials. This is a brand that has embraced technology and done a great job utilizing social across all touch points and engagements with its Nike+ ecosystem. The Nike+ Running app allows users to sync and share their fitness goals and achievements with their social communities, but also helps to keep them motivated. Nike+ FuelBand’s integration with the Path social network takes things a step further by allowing Path users to map their progress against their daily activity goals.


Millennials want to be loved and appreciated as an individual customer and if they have a problem they want the brand to fix it. In a study conducted by Edelman over 70% of Millennials said they would come back to brands they love.

Discount Me


This is a generation that is entering the workforce during the most pronounced downturn since the Great Recession. At the darkest period unemployment rate for youth in USA was 13%. Other regions are still battling unseen rates of over 65% in Greece, 57% in Spain and 44% in Italy and 14.5% in Canada (with Ontario reaching 17%). Generally, they are more educated with over 60% of Millennials attending college compared to 46% of Boomers (1946 – 1964).


Millennials have been labeled “the cheapest generation” for their propensity to avoid large-scale purchases such as cars and houses. While this generation might be a price-conscious shopper, technology has allowed them to research every purchase, and has more options and pricing-models than ever before. Before they book a hotel online they generally check out at least 10 sites before booking, reading reviews on sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp, gauging price predictions on bing travel and Airwatchdog, then cross-referencing hotels between myriad online travel aggregators like Travelocity and Expedia.


In a survey conducted by Harris Interactive (2011) of Millennials over 77% participated in loyalty reward programs and 44% were willing to promote products or services through social media in exchange for rewards. Ipsos reported in a survey that 92% of Millennials said they use coupons either digital or paper ones. One of the favorite coupon websites for the latest deals is Groupon.


They can also see value in non-traditional business models such as Uber connecting riders to drivers replacing taxicab or Airbnb providing travelers with unique accommodations around the world replacing hotel chains. Other examples of disruptive marketing is the very popular Dollar Shave Club, a monthly subscription service for razors that rocketed to success with its “Our Blades Are F***ing Great” viral ad campaign starring 33-year-old founder Michael Dubin. Netflix has also changed the way movies and TV series are consumed. I spent five months consuming five years of Breaking Bad.


I read an interesting posting on LinkedIn recently that stated: “In 2015 Uber, the world’s largest taxi company owns no vehicles, Facebook the world’s most popular media owner creates no content, Alibaba, the most valuable retailer has no inventory, and Airbnb the world’s largest accommodation provider owns no real estate.” Scary times for some brands.


Humour Me


Millennials grew up on entertainment starting from the early days of VCRs watching the full library of Walt Disney movies over and over, and sneaking in the odd National Lampoons reel. Then there were the endless Jim Carrey movies and video games. They had instant access to be amazed and distracted. World-renowned game designer Jane McGonigal estimates that a 21-year-old has spent 10,000 hours gaming — about the same amount of time they spent in school from 5th to 12th grade.


Tanya Giles, the executive vice president of Strategic Insights and Research at Viacom Media Networks says comedy is intrinsically intertwined with Millennials identities. A study of 4,000 Millennials by Edelman research confirms that 80 percent of Millennials like to be entertained by advertising – that is, as long as the brand is current and the offering is appealing or relevant.


Procter & Gamble’s Old Spice has been around for 70 years. I remember buying the stuff for my dad for Christmas. I have always thought of the brand as an old man’s product. But that all changed when they launched one of the most successful rebrands to young men in 2010 with the “Old Spice Guy”. Their video “Mom Song” has had over 3 million views on YouTube.


Final Comment


No generation is a homogeneous group and like any customer we are all different in some way. The purpose for this article is to identify some key macro trends that have shaped the lives of Millennials, but you must not forget to serve the individual tree from the proverbial forest. That is what each Millennial wants is to be treated like: “me” – not a group we call Millennials!



Brands Need to Be Faster to Stay Alive

I don’t think anyone is surprised that the speed of life has consumers demanding instant gratification. In the past, if you wanted to watch a movie you had two choices: go to a movie theatre or sit down in front of your TV. But you were stuck with a small selection of maybe two to five movie choices. The next evolution was video stores – remember Blockbuster? You could select from the 100s of new releases or old favorites as long as you had a video player to view it. Then the next innovation was video-on-demand cable but the big game changer was Netflix who went from rent-by-mail to online – hundreds of movies anytime, anywhere for a low cost monthly fee. The selection process went from hours of planning down to minutes and seconds. It took 25 years for Blockbuster to go from one store to 9,000 locations and $800 million in late fees to bankruptcy. While in less than 15 years YouTube has users watching 6 billion hours of video each month and uploading 100 hours worth of video every minute and along the way has made many people famous.


Brands That Target The Heart

Love at First Sight

Most brands need to earn the customer’s love, over time. To speed up the courtship, a number of brands are trying to become more human-like. People choose their favorite brands with their hearts, not their heads. A real human story evokes emotion and is more powerful than any brand storytelling.

Carolin Dahlman says in her book, Love Branding, if you can learn to master your customers’ emotions and make them feel the love, you will earn more money. She explains that love is a two-way street and most brands fail to love their customer’s back. So what does that mean? It’s all about giving back what you get. I guess you can say it’s not a one-night-stand but a commitment – a long-term commitment.

Emotional Branding

No one knows this better than Procter & Gamble. Over the last 178 years P&G has been at the forefront creating powerful, emotional relationships between consumers and brands. They have been pioneers and leaders in embracing technology to build an emotional brand connection with their customers. Utilizing soap operas on the radio and early television, to award shows, to fast-growing web ventures.

P&G Global Brand Building Officer, Marc Pritchard emphasized the importance of one-to-one relationships in today’s always-connected, always-on digital environment. He said that brands need to be less focused on making money and instead place more emphasis on improving the lives of both existing and potential customers. He too thinks it’s important to give back to the customer.

P&G’s used the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games and the Paralympic Winter Games to thank moms through several highly emotional stories. There aren’t too many mothers who can’t relate to these stories.

P&G Pampers brand is another good example of how P&G is defined a higher purpose for their brand beyond the functional benefit of keeping babies dry. Pampers has leveraged the key consumer insight that moms—especially first time moms—are constantly looking to connect with others who are sharing similar experiences. Pampers created programs such as “Pampers Village” and “A Parent is Born” as forums for moms to connect, learn and discover. If you visit their Canadian Facebook page they have over 14,488,921 likes – pretty good for a dirty diaper discussion.

But is this love? Love is defined as an emotion of a strong attraction and personal attachment – the ultimate goal for any brand.



Love Potion

But it’s hard to argue with success, and no brand is more successful than Heinz Ketchup. A brand that has been around for over 139 years and still the bestselling brand of ketchup in the world with over 650 million bottles sold in 2012. So what is their love potion? Diane Levine, author on the blog Beneath the Brand, says their enduring success comes down to a few simple but brilliant relationship strategies:

  • Maintain a core (or at least an air) of consistency
  • Spice things up once in a while
  • Be considerate of your partner’s needs


At the end, she says it’s the little things that matter most.

In Romancing the Brand: How Brands Create Strong, intimate Relationships with Consumers, branding expert Tim Halloran argues that today’s effective marketer must foster a deep, committed, and emotionally connected relationship with their consumer base. They must keep the sparks alive in a long-term relationship rather than focus solely on the short-term, single purchase.


Better Lives

Building off of Diane Levine’s three strategies, Tim Halloran includes ‘Listen to your customers’ and ‘Strive to make your customers’ lives better’.

On the last point, Nike ‘Just do it’ is now more about ‘Help me just do it’. Nike+ has become an enabler to its customers and bringing them together in a virtual community to stay motivated and challenged. Nike’s success has to do with its focused use of athlete relationships and innovative brand experiences to inspire its customers to feel like athletes. Its products and technologies are always linked to values such as aspiration, achievement and status.

Tim Hortons has found its way into the hearts of Canadians not only through their coffee on every corner of every city and town of Canada but also through their social consciousness of understanding Canadians. From their support of the Canadian military to tapping into the Canadian passion for hockey, they have successfully used the Canadian brand to reinforce their own brand love.

Love Me

If you read this article out of context you would think that we were talking about the secrets for a successful marriage. In truth, what we are talking about here is a deep and emotional relationship between a customer and a brand. The interesting thing is that the historical brands figured this out a long time ago and just keep re-engineer how they engage and support their customers. The internet gives every brand the opportunity to engage with their customers on a one-to-one level but without the insights and relationship strategies to connect on an emotional level, there will never be any love.

If you want customers to love your brand make sure you give more than you take. Follow through on the little things, keep your promises, learn to apologize when you make a mistake or disappoint and spend time learning about what is important to them. But most importantly, your brand must be authentic and real to be loved.



Are You Good Enough to Be a Personal Brand?

Do human brands exist? If you are a celebrity or famous are you a brand by default? Not necessarily, I am talking about humans having the same effect on customers as product and service brands. David Ogilvy was one of the first to describe a brand as “the intangible sum of a product’s attributes.” A brand is really the perception that is held in the mind of customers about your product’s quality and attributes based on factual (design, colour, experience, consistency) and emotional (values, promise, leader, passion) characteristics. Sometimes defining a product brand is like describing a person.


name-tag my brand


Is this a person or a brand? Clean-cut but trendy, easy-going and likes to have fun, loves music and photography, comes across as friendly, bright, cool and very simple to get to know. Did I describe you or Apple?


Brands have personalities, they possess character and they can stand for something.


Celebrity Brands


The difference when you’re famous or a celebrity is about reach and frequency – having a widespread reputation and awareness. Being a human brand is about making a connection with your customer that they own. Their connection isn’t about you, its more about what you give them. Some celebrities turn into brands by using their fame and uniqueness by consciously packaging their image into a brand. Good examples are Oprah Winfrey and Paris Hilton.




In 1976, Oprah worked in Baltimore as co-anchor of the six o’clock news (WJZ-TV). By 2000, Oprah Winfrey had built a multimillionaire empire as the producer and host of ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show.’ Through that show, she built and refined her distinctive personal brand. A brand that now includes a book club, magazine, charitable foundation, and multimedia businesses, which also includes the Oprah Winfrey Network.


Well you might think that Paris Hilton may not look very smart. She took her humble beginning as a hotel heiress and socialite at the age of 22 started to build a brand as a media personality, a model, a recording artist, a book author, and an actress. Today, Paris Hilton has a billion dollar business with her own line of clothing and perfumes.


Human Brands


Don’t confuse celebrities who endorse product brands or act as a spokesperson for brands as human brands, most are just famous people sharing their awareness and winning trait. A number of these people are very successful athletes like Tiger Woods (Nike), David Beckham (H&M underwear) and Serena Williams (Wilson & Gatorade). Be careful when you saddle-up your brand to a celebrity. Remember Lance Armstrong and Nike or O.J. Simpson and Hertz. Even Tiger Woods was problematic, with his personal antics off the golf course.




Another easy way to become a human brand is by being the founder of a very strong corporate brand, such as Donald Trump with the Trump Organization, Richard Branson with the Virgin Group and Hugh Hefner with Playboy Enterprises. All three have very distinct and memorable personalities. Each is a living image of their company brand and brand values. Each of them has carefully crafted their unique brand image. Donald Trump, the successful hard-nosed businessman and leading Republican nominee, with his controversial viewpoint and long batch of hair. The fun and risk-taking Richard Branson with his long blond locks of hair, casual attire (never with a tie), and headline making stories of his latest attempt to break a world-record. But the most iconic of the three has to be Hugh Hefner who lived the Playboy brand in the Playboy mansion – always in his signature silk pajamas, robe and pipe, and his messy bedroom hair.


Can you be a human brand without being a celebrity or an owner of a successful business? History would tell us, yes – such as: Jesus Christ, Buddha, Muhammad, William Shakespeare, Mozart and Beethoven. They changed history and took civilization to a new depth. For some of us this might be too aspirational to try to build a similar brand.


Sustained Presence


Powerful human brands generally have sustained a presence over time. The underlining commonality in all the human brand examples shared is their power to influence. As Tom Peters explains, “one of the things that attracts us to certain brands is the power they project. As a consumer, you want to associate with brands whose powerful presence creates a halo effect that rubs off on you.”


With the introduction of digital mass and social media tools we all have the ability to influence via the internet. All you have to do is build a brand following based on the same principals of building a product brand. What will define success will be your ability to give your audience something of value that they will want to own – not just once but over time.


Managing Your Identity and Perception


Branding is the process of managing identity and perception. If you want to build a personal brand you must form a memorable presence through your physical persona combined with your digital manifestation (a book would also help to define who you are or how you think or writing a blog or an article on LinkedIn isn’t a bad idea).


To help you get started, here are some questions you need to answer:

  • What does your brand stand for?
  • What is your unique promise?
  • What qualities do you want linked to your brand?
  • What value do you bring to your audience?
  • Are you always consistent?
  • Can you tie your brand to a product or service brand?
  • What does your brand look like?
  • A strong personal brand is dependent on a strong narrative. In other words, what’s your story?


Walk The Talk


Remember, a personal brand is all about who you are and what you want to be known for. You can engineer any brand image you want through time and resources but to connect to your audience you must live it. You must walk your talk every day. I know this sounds daunting but controlling your professional reputation makes good sense for all of us. Our online image is our digital biography.


So who are you? Are you good enough to be a brand?



Using Sex to Build a Brand (and this article)

It’s a known fact that sex sells. But does it build lasting brands? If you ask Calvin Klein, he would say yes. Over a 2.5 billion dollar Calvin Klein business was built on provocative and sexual images over the last 40 years isn’t a bad example.(1)

For years, cars, beer, perfume and recently, deodorant and fast food have been sold to males through images of scantily-clad, perfectly sculptured woman. Tapping into the basic instincts of man – sex is a universal interest. Sexy images drive eye balls especially men’s who think about sex every 7 seconds! (2)

Sexual Content Get Noticed

“Advertisers use sex because it can be very effective,” said researcher Tom Reichert who conducted a study at University of Georgia on sexual advertising. (3) “Sex sells because it attracts attention. People are hard wired to notice sexually relevant information so ads with sexual content get noticed.”

“Some young men actually think Axe body spray will drive women crazy,” he said. “But, brand impressions are shaped by images in advertising, too. Arguable, Calvin Klein and Victoria’s Secret are not much different than Hanes, Jockey or Playtex, but perception studies show those brands are perceived as ‘sexy,’ and some customers want that.”

Clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch markets its sexual brand image to college-age adults but ends-up attracting many younger teens (including my kids). Not only do they show beautiful youth in their advertising, but they hire the best-looking, young people to model their clothes in the stores. They made sure the brand lives not only in the advertising but in the stores. I wish beer stores respected their brands the same way.

Scientists claim they have discovered exactly why sex sells – and it isn’t just because consumers think that if they buy the car they can get the girl. Researchers found seeing an attractive man or woman in provocative clothing and positions in advertising excites the areas of the brain that make us buy on impulse, bypassing the sections which control rational thought. Their study found that advertising using logical persuasion – simple, convincing facts – are less effective in making us buy than advertising using non-rational influence – feel good, stimulating images.(4) Did we really need research to tell us this?

The fact that using sex to sell in advertising has almost doubled in 30 years isn’t a big surprise. (3) But what was deemed sexy 30 years ago has changed drastically today where pornography is main stream in our culture.



Risky Business

Sex comes with many risks (including rashes and bumps in areas that we don’t want to talk about). Klein doesn’t apologize for pushing the envelope in what is deemed decent and what isn’t. “Sometimes people look at the advertising and resent it or feel threatened by what they see — but in the end, if the sales are good, the images must be OK,” Klein said. The fact is CK’s men’s underwear owns the underwear market ever since Mark Wahlberg wore nothing but.

Both Calvin Klein and Abercrombie & Fitch continue to walk the fine line between sexy and soft core porn. Consumer groups have launched boycott campaigns against both companies over the years and have successfully had campaigns removed from public viewing. To the point that the Virginia Beach police seized photos from an Abercrombie store that were deemed indecent.

The fact is beautiful airbrushed, naked people can help sell products and build a sexually compelling brand. Dove soap took a different approach by showcasing their products on naked, everyday, wholesome women, so maybe we’re not as superficial after all. They did get bad press when it was leaked that they digitally enhanced some of the women’s images to make them better looking. OK maybe we are superficial.


Eat It Up or Spit It Out?

It makes sense to use provocative sexy brand images that is closely associated to the product brands such as underwear, perfume and maybe alcohol but selling a hamburger is a stretch.


Hannah Ferguson’s and Paris Hilton’s hypersexual ad to sell Carl’s Jr. Texas BBQ Thickburger is an easy way to accomplish edginess and draw attention, but does it fulfill Carl’s Jr. brand promise and is it sustainable? I don’t think so.

Make sure you use this power wisely and don’t flaunt it unnecessarily or it could do more damage than good to your brand. Remember; over-promising can only lead to disappointment and negative feelings which aren’t brand builder. Using sex to sell a product that is unrelated to sex can be seen as a gimmick that cheapens both the image of the company and the product brand.

Your audience will always have the final say and they’ll tell you at the cash register. So provoke, shock and engage, because as long as your audience has given you permission, they’ll eat it up like a CoolWhip® bikini.


The title image was taken from a Body Shop ad to sell soap on a rope. For real.

(1) 1996 was the only sales figure I could find as the company was private until sold to Phillips Van Heusen Corp. in 2002.
(2) Kinsey Institute’s disputes this claim; they state that 54% of men think about sex every day or several times a day and 43% a few times per month or a few times per week.
(3) Magazine trends study finds increase in advertisements using sex, UGA Today online news, June 5, 2012, http://news.uga.edu/releases/article/magazine-trends-study-finds-increase-in-advertisements-using-sex/
(4) Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Economics, UCLA and George Washington University, research lead by Dr. Ian Cook, September, 2011 http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/buyer-beware-advertising-may-seduce-215473