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How Do You Market to Millennials?

Shaped by new technology and social attitudes, the millennial generation has a more interactive relationship with companies and brands—and growing economic power. Christine Barton, a senior partner at Boston Consulting Group, talks about how companies must shift their strategies to reach this cohort.


by Dylan Walsh

The habits and disposition of millennials have given rise to an endless fountain of opinion: they are collaborative and cooperative; they are tied to technology, infatuated with social media, infatuated with themselves. They are coddled and entitled and also highly educated, diverse, and open to change. Millennials are the best, or perhaps the worst, workers in history.

This generation, born between 1980 and 2000, is also quickly becoming the largest  in the U.S. labor force, and it is exerting new and powerful consumer pressures. In a conversation with Yale Insights, Christine Barton, a senior partner at Boston Consulting Group, said that millennials have a different relationship with brands and companies than the cohorts that preceded them; they are less loyal and expect more interaction and innovation. To reach them, companies increasingly need to “fundamentally shift” their products and their marketing.

“That shift will take place at different times because millennials are not the primary spend or the primary customers of every sector,” said Barton. Thus far, for example, millennials have had minimal impact in the world of business travel—a sector in which they aren’t (yet) the most important consumers. But retail banking is looking headlong at change: millennials have ranked banks as four out of the top ten most hated brands; one-third of millennials are open to switching financial institutions within the next 90 days and nearly half expect startups to overhaul the way that banks work.

In the food sector, too, “younger diners are seeking out fresher, healthier food and chains that offer customizable menu options for little more than the price of a combo meal,” according to the Wall Street Journal. This pressure is forcing fast food restaurants to alter their ingredient lists and strategies

For Barton, the growing influence of millennials means that companies need new ways to talk about their products and services. “If you think about the way that marketing used to work, it was much more of a linear relationship,” she said. Companies controlled the product and messaging; consumers evaluated and purchased what was available. “Today, it is much more of what I would describe as an ecosystem.” Marketing now is a two-way street through which customers and potential customers can actually change products, services, and brands.

Frito-Lay’s Crash the Super Bowl campaign, for instance, invites consumers to create their own advertisements, with one guaranteed to air during the Super Bowl. And when Hasbro found fans of My Little Pony designing their own models, the company embraced the enthusiasm and partnered with 3D print shop Shapeaways to establish an online marketplace: SuperFanArt.

“Fans are passionate about the things they love, and they are going to find creative ways to consume them,” said Blair Baumwell, head of communications at Shapeaways in an interview with Forbes. “Brands, like Hasbro, that realize this early on and proactively engage are going to flourish, and those that don’t will be left behind.”

As millennials continue to build their careers and their economic power, these changes will affect every part of the economy, notes Barton. “You see over time the sectors they are impacting,” she said. “You also see the sectors that see them coming and know that they have to foundationally change their product, or service, or value proposition—and they’re starting to prepare for that.”

Senior Partner, Boston Consulting Group