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Marketing 360® Blog

Marketing to Millennials: The Story, the Experience, and the Friend

Post By Scott Yoder | Content Marketing & SEO

How do you reach the millennial and future generations that are digital natives? Start thinking of your branding content as a friend who creates experiences and becomes part of the story.

For those of us who grew up exposed to traditional advertising, the idea of making “friends” with a brand is strange.  Yes, I buy things from Target and Home Depot.  I really like my Never Summer snowboard and Specialized mountain bike.  When it comes to sandals, I don’t even consider anything other than Chacos.

But friends?  How do you become friends with a brand?

The foible in this perspective is quick to see in today’s digital world.  In fact, I guess I’m “friends” with Red Bull.  I follow their Facebook posts and watch their outlandish stunt and sports videos as a regular part of my entertainment.

But, funny enough, I don’t drink Red Bull.  And I don’t really think of them as a friend.

But my Millennial age son and Gen Z daughter feel differently.  They engage (meaning buy from) brands that have a “personality” they can relate to.  They are influenced by brand messaging that they can experience rather than something that talks at them.

This experience mainly happens on mobile phones, which is the root of the changes we’ll discuss here.  Indeed, how these generations interact with friends – both brand and personnel – has changed because of mobile technology and social media.

So you want to sell to millennials.  How do you ask them to be friends?

To Like and Be Like

There are two ways we can think of what “like” means in the context of marketing to millennials.

The first is what we already alluded to – that they like and connect with the brand in a way that feels friendly.

For example, it seems three friends are sharing a drink together:

friend branding millinnels

We have Kylie, Luke…and Coke itself.  In this branding campaign, Coke basically interjected themselves into a friendly interaction.  They’re part of the group.  Get together and “open happiness”.

However, the more common way “like” fits into this context has to do with creating an affinity.  Millennials buy from brands that they see as a reflection of their personality.

Millennials choose brands that say something about who they are.  40% reported that they’d pay more for a brand that reflects the image they want to convey about themselves.

A great example of this the loyal Apple customers.  People don’t stand in line to get the latest iPhone because they desperately need the newest features.  They do it because having the latest, best iPhone says something about their personality.  They have the kind of vibrant life that calls for the newest, most robust model.

millennial marketing Red Bull is genius at this type of lifestyle marketing.   They create vast amounts of content that shows adventurous, athletic, daredevils – a reflection of a lifestyle we’d all like to take on to a certain degree.

social media management red bull

Red Bull spends millions of dollars a year promoting these stunts and events, none of which have anything directly to do with their product.

But millennials see something they want to associate with their own personalities.  To drink a Red Bull is to live the life of a high-energy risk taker.

I don’t want to walk that tightrope myself.  But I bet that guy would make an interesting friend.

Experiential Marketing

A popular hashtag with millennials is #yolo – you only live once.  They value experiences over just owning stuff.

One area where this change is pronounced is car ownership.  Millennials often delay buying a car, and they have a different attitude towards car ownership than previous generations.

Gone are the days when owning a car, the ultimate status symbol, meant freedom and maturity. For this generation, automobiles have become less of an aspirational purchase and more of a utilitarian one.

At the same time, millennials spending on experiences like attending events has grown dramatically.  As this generation comes into its own as a consumer power, spending on events like beer festivals, music concerts, and sporting events has increased.

This makes it even more clear why Red Bull sponsors so many stunt and extreme sporting events.  Marketers are finding ways to get millennials to experience their brand, like in the brilliant “Whopper Detour” campaign from Burger King:

Of huge importance for marketers is how experiences can be shared.  Millennials love to share experiences on social media, and when that experience involves a brand it amplifies the campaign’s reach.

All of this sharing drives FOMO (fear of missing out), which is an overwhelming feeling that if you skip an event or party, you’re missing the experience of a lifetime.  FOMO is almost epidemic with millennials because they see so much of what their friends are doing in news feeds and social media broadcasts.

Also, as the Burger King campaign shows, don’t underestimate the power of fun.  Their unusual campaign asked people to go to their competitor to download their app…the whole thing was a lot of effort.  But clearly, people were struck by the unusual approach – and had fun doing it.

All this serves to drive the experience economy.  From huge brand sponsored concerts to simple Snapchat geofilters, getting people to experience your brand – then share that experience – is powerful marketing.

The Power of User Generated Content

There is an ironic twist to millennial marketing.  With all these efforts to befriend them and become part of their experiences, they still don’t trust you.  You’re still a brand.

What they do trust is user generated content (UGC).  These are reviews, social comments, industry articles, and testimonials from other consumers.

Millennials love recommendations from friends, but what’s really different compared to previous generations is how much they trust the opinions of strangers.  In one study, 84% of millennials reported that UGC impacted their buying decision.  There are some products, including major electronics and hotels, that many millennials won’t buy without UGC.

This means you need to get UGC working for your brand.  You need service and product reviews, social media buzz, and YouTube videos.  Expect millennials to go on social seeking the advice of experienced consumers.  These shoppers actually trust anonymous but like-minded or expert sources more than the opinions of friends.

It’s also worth it to look into influencer marketing, where you get a recognized voice with a strong social media following to put your product into their story.

People might not trust what Fashion Nova says about its jeans, but they trust Kylie Jenner:

influencer marketing instagram


As of 2017, millennials and Gen Z are poised to become the biggest consumer market in the world.  They are the harbingers of what marketing and advertising will become.  We are moving irrevocably towards a customer-centric, lifestyle based marketing world heavily influenced by user generated content.

It’s a world serviced by mobile connectivity and one where instantaneous results are the expectation.

Brands must adjust from traditional marketing that speaks at people, attempting to control the conversation, to connection marketing that becomes a valuable part of the conversation.

The way we market to millennials now is the way we’ll market to everyone as digital natives become the main consumer base.

So let’s get out our phones, find ways to connect our stories, and stimulate mutually beneficial conversations.

It doesn’t matter if you’re brand or a consumer.  We’re all friends here.