Millennial marketing: the dos and don’ts of connecting to the emoji generation

Savvy marketers understand that decoding the preferences of the illusive and lucrative millennial generation—those born between 1982-2000—is a key to success. But connecting to this demographic is not always so simple.

Millennials are the first digitally-native generation. They have been raised on technology—fed by social media and constantly armed with their smartphones. They are bright, intuitive and educated, and have little patience for shallow marketing techniques. When it comes to engaging with brands, they have a sharper eye and higher expectations than any generation before them. Millennials expect authenticity, quality and transparency from companies. They have little patience for marketing that feels invasive, phony, or outdated.

To help you win over this tough crowd, we surveyed our very own millennial workforce about their marketing preferences and compiled their responses into a handy list of Dos and Don’ts.

1. Don’t: Rely on cliches

Nobody likes cliches, but millennials are particularly turned off by unoriginal marketing techniques. Why? Millennials value originality and creativity more highly than Gen X’ers. Tired marketing ads are, quite honestly, offending their sensibilities. The worst offenders?

cliche pharmaceutical ad

  • Perfume ads: Soul baring stares, out-of-place ball gowns and aimless dreamy strolls aren’t convincing Millennials to invest in brand-name fragrances.
  • Pharmaceutical ads: Why do the people in the ads look so happy while the laundry list of serious side-effects is enumerated? The disconnect is jarring.
  • Weight loss ads: The before and after pictures—where the “after” looks like an Equinox instructor—aren’t fooling many millennials.
  • Yogurt ads: Yogurt marketing teams seem to believe that women are the only ones who eat yogurt. The gender split is unrealistic and reflects poorly on brands.

The list goes on to include ads that use conspicuous commercial actors and call them “real users,” ads that rely on cheesy jingle-like music, fabricated “happy family” around the dinner-table images, and the screaming faces accompanying hot sauce advertisements.

Instead: Dare to be original

Millennials can sniff out a cliche, so take the time to come up with an original concept. Not sure if you’re going down a road that’s already been well traveled? Test it before you run it!

Recognizing and avoiding clichés is a necessary first step, but coming up with a truly original marketing campaign is the real game changer. Millennials appreciate experimental approaches, so dare to be bold.

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This New Zealand anti-drunk driving commercial, for instance, subverts expectations skillfully. What could have been a potentially cliche rundown of the dangers of drunk-driving is instead a humorous, yet poignant, commentary that speaks directly to millennials.

2. Don’t: Keep your design stuck in the 90s

death to comic sans

As savvy digital content consumers, millennials are especially attuned to best and worst design practices. Expecting everything to be “on fleek,” millennials will not be impressed with your old-timey design. If you’re a Gen X’er, the 90s might feel recent to you, but to most millennials it is a lifetime ago.

There are too many examples of dated design to list here, but these are some of the most common, and the most awful:

  • Clipart images
  • Generic stock images
  • Blinking links
  • Old typography (put Times New Roman in timeout)
  • Extreme gradient backgrounds (think rainbows)
  • Microsoft Word clipart aesthetics

Instead: Invest in the graphic design of your brand

To attract millennials, it’s worth investing in the development of a design-centered brand. Graphic design can be a great tool to help you connect with them in a way that feels true to your values. And don’t be afraid to show your fun side; being on the safe side will not earn you any brownie points with millennials.

3. Don’t: be pushy or clickbait-y

Retargeting ad stalker

Millennials do not want to be stalked by brands or sold to aggressively. In fact, this 2014 survey reveals that 84 percent of millennials don’t trust traditional advertising: popups, calls and traditional ads. They want to trust and respect your brand before they can purchase from you. Think of it like building a relationship: aggressive sales methods will be counterproductive and cause millennial customers to disengage from your brand.

You may think that these methods are strong drivers of conversion, but they are very likely pushing people away:


  • Ads that follow the user into different channels. Although this method—known as “retargeting” or “remarketing”—can be effective, overdoing it can be perceived as stalkerish.
  • Ads that block the screen / the main content the user is trying to access—Google isn’t going to be happy with you if you do this!
  • Pop-ups that prevent the user from exiting a window.
  • Websites that try too hard to get your email by popping up the email capture too often.
  • Clickbait articles with sensational phrases like “You won’t believe what happened next!”

Instead: Engage through genuine, value-adding content

What would happen if you toned down the self-promotion and increased value and relevance of your content? Over the long term, this will establish you as a thought-leader, earning the trust and respect of your consumers, and transforming them into loyal customers.

Into the Gloss screenshot

Don’t simply sell; educate. Via Into the Gloss.

Take cue from Glossier, the online beauty products retailer that set themselves apart through cleanly designed product packaging and creative content marketing. Since the company was founded by beauty editors, they capitalize on their expertise by sharing insider knowledge of the industry on the Into the Gloss blog. Featuring fashionista interviews and expert tips, the blog keeps users on the site and often transforms them into customers through inspiration and expert support—a technique that is decidedly more effective than continually reminding them that their shopping cart is empty.

4. Don’t: Capitalize on unrelated social causes.

Millennials do care deeply about social responsibility—more so than any other demographic, according to a 2014 survey by the Nielsen Global Survey Group. If your brand is perceived as trying to capitalize on important issues in a disingenuous way, millennials will notice—and they’ll raise an eyebrow. So before you launch into a social campaign, make sure you’re not doing so out of a “bandwagon” effect, but that there’s serious commitment to the cause.

businessman holding a globe and lying

As a cautionary tale, consider Pepsi’s ad campaign featuring Kendall Jenner: the company attempted to capitalize on recent social movements that have been popular among millennials—including Black Lives Matter, Occupy and the Women’s March—to sell soda. Pepsi tried to put its “Live for Now” branding onto the protests by glamorizing them and making them seem like fun parties. This ended up trivializing the very real, very serious issues those movements represent, and led to a huge social backlash. And you know who uses social media? Millennials. This PR nightmare resulted in the commercial being pulled a few days later.

Instead: Make caring a core aspect of your business.

If you’re one of many companies that have discovered that social impact and profitability are not opposites, make an effort to have that shine through as a core part of your brand identity. Whether it is an environmental effort, philanthropy, ethical labor or volunteering practice, share your passions with your customers.

Toms and Warby Parker, for instance, donate one product to those in need for every one that is purchased. Other companies have social causes even more deeply ingrained into their business model. For instance, Managed by Q—an office services startup—is all about ethically employing workers from disadvantaged backgrounds and, in the process, being part of their economic empowerment.

Is your brand millennial savvy?

cheesy joke

We thought about telling you not to make dad jokes. Then we remembered that everyone loves dad jokes

If you’re determined to attract and engage millennials, be sure to give them some credit. They’re smart, well-educated, with increasing purchasing power, as well as digitally savvy and socially minded. It is by connecting with them with transparency and creativity, and offering them value-adding product, content and user experience that you will turn them into customers. And when you earn their trust, you can count on them to stick around.

What marketing techniques do you think are successful with millennials? Which are fails? Let us know in the comments!

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Author: Anada Lakra