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What everyone (else) needs to know about marketing to millennials

By Estelle Pin


Marketing to Millennials

The team at Sugarbird is dedicated to telling the powerful stories that allow our clients to engage deeply and meaningfully with their audiences. For us, it’s all about human-to-human communications. Whether our clients sell software or soft drinks, we use narrative to connect an idea to an emotion which inspires audiences – customers, employees, investors etc. – to act.


Stories are as old as time

We already know that this works well to target pretty much every audience: stories are not only the most memorable and persuasive way to plant your product in the minds of your consumer in modern day, they’ve existed in society as a way to instill values and interests since the dawn of human communication. While the oral traditions that housed the epic poems of Homer served to fill nights lit only by firelight, they also served to covertly express the ideals of each time; then, an emphasis on strength of mind and body, a focus on exploration, and even an endorsement of certain political or national affiliations (Greeks were clearly superior to all others…).

Later, the stories of Dickens and Wilde instilled values of aestheticism and post-industrial morality. Today, the story tellers aren’t just vetted published authors—they’re the friends on your Facebook feed, the contributors at online magazines like xoJane and HelloGiggles, even the Instagram food bloggers and amateur Vine celebrities like Thomas Sanders, whose 7-second stories have over 5 billion views, with 7.5 million subscribed followers.


Marketing to millennials - everyone is a storyteller

So real quick, let’s talk about this. Every time your friend posts a picture of their favorite breakfast at the mom and pop shop in town, they’re not only providing free traditional advertising, they’re creating a story within the context of their life: their daily routine becomes a part of your narrative paradigm.


Take for example your foodie Instagram friend. When her picture shows up on your feed, subconsciously your mind fills in the whole story: ‘my Hindu friend Sara took Mark, the cute engineer at her work, out to breakfast here and it looked so delicious— especially since they got to sit outside on that gorgeous sunny day last week’. When it comes to marketing in general, that works much better than a random picture of (an admittedly beautiful) lunch in a place you’ve never been with traditional advertisement text underneath it, randomly generated on your Facebook feed.


Besides the fact that 84 percent of millennials say user-generated content has at least some influence on what they buy, the previous statement also creates an image, an experience that the reader invests in. Because who doesn’t want that experience, the beautiful lunch with the object of your affection on a sunny day?


Marketing to millennials – storytelling

So, if stories are pervasive and an already well-established format for marketing—that we know works for everyone– why bother focusing especially on their effectiveness with millennials? Well, the truth is—because really, storytelling is the only thing that works here. Millennials are quickly outnumbering everyone else and while their purchasing power is an estimated 1.68 trillion dollars, conventional marketing not only fails to engage them—it alienates a generation that wants to feel involved and informed, not just marketed to. And let’s get something straight, storytelling as we’re using it here doesn’t mean your ‘once upon a time’, ‘beginning, middle, end’, ‘character growth’ model of storytelling. It means creating an image, a scene, a moment, that your customer sees, identifies with, and subconsciously pursues. While everyone wants the lunch scene with the friend, millennials are the generation that will look at your traditional advertising, the picture of lunch with advertising text underneath it, and think ‘that’s desperate, that’s cheap, that’s not me.”


While life-stage advertising has always worked for other generations, millennials don’t measure their lives or their success by life-stages. When you’re marketing to the first generation that doesn’t see owning a house or owning a car as a self-marketing accomplishment in and of itself, how do you convince them that the car has value, that the house has value? These aren’t things we had to do with other generations—baby boomers and gen-Xers already just knew that these things had value.


Marketing to millennials – the art of persuasion

The answer is storytelling and catering to an emphasis on experience. If your audience won’t agree with the basic premise that owning a house will be an accomplishment for them, you’re going to be more successful painting an experience. ‘It’s raining outside, and you’re sitting at your kitchen table. This house smells like you, like the laundry detergent your mom always used, that you use out of habit, that reaches every corner of your home on laundry days. The walls are the same blue you fell in love with in college but could never paint your studio apartment walls because it wasn’t yours. Tonight, you’re having guests for dinner, because you have a dining room for the first time in your life and these are the experiences you’ve been looking forward to.” That is why a millennial buys a house.

The Coca-Cola Company is an example of a company that has understood the need to change its approach. Polar bears and Santa Clause don’t sell name recognition like they used to. But if you look at advertising campaigns, like #shareacoke, or any of the ads that play before movies in your local movie theaters, animations of polar bears have been replaced with vignettes of beach-side bonfires and heartwarming moments of intimacy between father and son.


Small relatable stories like these make Coca-Cola essential to an experience, and when your coke tells you to “share a coke with Emily”, you become not only invested in the product, but invested in an experience that’s been painted in your mind.


While we are excited to share the benefits of storytelling as an effective marketing tool, the truth is that with millennials especially, there really isn’t any other choice. Conventional marketing goes as far as to alienate a generation that’s become skeptical of commodity culture, and brand recognition doesn’t do the work that it used to for well-established companies.

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