Brands' Challenge: Bridging Gap With Young People

April 12, 2006 | By Valerie Seckler

The Millennials’ penchant for individualism, along with the proliferation of generation-based marketing, are making it more difficult for brands to connect with youths and young adults.

More than 30 years ago, the Vietnam war was a polarizing issue, widening a generation gap between Baby Boomers and their parents, and creating some solid turf for marketers to claim in early, generation-based messages. The early Nineties brought a significant increase in generation-driven marketing, at that time focusing on Gen-Xers. So now, shouldn’t the stage be set for generational appeals to the latest wave of youths and young adults, the Millennials?

Author/generation expert William Strauss answers that question with a resounding no. Since the onslaught of marketing aimed at Xers, the pop culture landscape has changed, Strauss said. Along with fellow generation expert Neil Howe, Strauss authored “Millennials and the Pop Culture: Strategies for a New Generation of Consumers” (LifeCourse Associates, $49).

Today’s landscape is populated with teens and twentysomethings who are thinking more independently, changing their minds more frequently and partaking of media that are mobile and messages that are instant, making them a tough group to influence, Strauss said in an interview.

“Pop culture purveyors feel they’re [relating to] the styles and attitudes of the Millennials, but they’re expecting too much similarity [among them],” Strauss said of a generation he defines as those 23 and younger. At a time when marketers are willing participants in the country’s celebrity-drenched culture, Strauss and Howe write, “Today’s teenage consumers tell pollsters they are six times more likely to trust parents than pop celebrities on important issues.”

In fact, when asked in 2003 how important it is for the brands they use to have various attributes, only 7 percent cited celebrity advertising, 12th among 12 characteristics. “Something my parents wouldn’t like” ranked 11th, seen as important by 10 percent, while “worth the money spent” topped the list (86 percent) and high quality was second (83 percent).

A protective, close bond between parents and Millennial teens that evokes the Twenties and Thirties, teens’ collective upbeat attitudes and their desire to do things in groups reflect the value youths are placing on sharing, Strauss said. This plays out in different ways, from teens going to movies in big groups to their staging of large-scale musicals. It’s no coincidence that Disney’s “High School Musical” has recently been the country’s top-selling CD, for instance.

In such an environment, the portrayal of romance and wholesome fun are cards marketers ought to play if they expect to score with sizable numbers of tweens, teens and twentysomethings, Strauss advised. Images that could resonate, he said, range from teens and twentysomethings engaged in courtship rituals or making the grand gesture, to mixed-company partying and just having a good time. “The occasional adult in the picture would be good, too,” he added.

Polo Jeans, Original Zinc, Adidas, Dooney & Bourke, American Girl, J.C. Penney and Macy’s are brands Strauss believes are effectively building connections with Millennials, via the brands’ Web sites and ads in magazines like Teen Vogue and Elle Girl. He cited the Penney ads for “upbeat, confident, look-you-in-the-eye” models; Original Zinc, for “a bit of a pullback from the sexuality of the clothing,” and Polo Jeans’ G.I.V.E. campaign, his favorite, for showing “smartly dressed young women who do smart things, too.”

Fashion players proffering ad imagery that is less likely to hit a winning note with most Millennials, Strauss said, include Abercrombie & Fitch, Calvin Klein, Gucci and Christian Dior. Referring to recent ads from Gucci and Dior showing women Abercrombie & Fitch, Calvin Klein, Gucci and Christian Dior. Referring to recent ads from Gucci and Dior showing women behind sunglasses, looking slightly away, for example, Strauss said the images of “hyperaffluence at a distance” are contrary to the Millennials’ sensibilities. “Millennials don’t like to reveal much affluence, for the most part,” the author said. Affluent Millennials, he said, “don’t like to set themselves apart” from contemporaries or others who are not as well off.

Informed that Strauss sees an “emphasis on the physicality of models” in Abercrombie campaigns as unappealing to many Millennials, Sam Shahid, president and creative director at Shahid & Co., which counts A&F as a client, responded: “We don’t think in terms of appealing to a particular generation. It’s just about being fabulous, beautiful, healthy and optimistic.”

Much as the Millennials gravitate toward forming groups and share a sense of optimism about the future, Strauss anticipates they will increasingly rally around big brands rather than niche names. “Over the next few years, just as the raucous ‘20s morphed into the swing ‘30s, the edgy youth styles of the ‘90s will become just a memory,” Strauss and Howe predict in “Millennials and the Pop Culture.” Target and Wal-Mart, the authors note, already have “enjoyed post-9/11 boosts in teen buying,” while mass fads and a lower-profile commercial style are perceived by the duo as poised for a comeback.

These dynamics stand in contrast to Boomers’ and Xers’ continued inclination to push the edge. For instance, Strauss said, a recent Newsweek cover showed a nude, middle-aged woman as seen through reading glasses. “It’s hard to imagine something like that being done with collegians,” he said. “Having grown up with Howard Stern and Bill Clinton, their tendency is to pull back and create a sense of personal, physical decorum.”

“Baby Boomers always wanted to fashion something new, reinvent things, which informed the generation gap with their parents,” Strauss said. “Millennials have rejected the Boomers’ rejection.”

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