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Marketing to Millennials: How to Capture Gen Y Consumers

Nicole Fallon

Generation Y — the segment of the population born in the 1980s and '90s — is more or less all grown up now. They're graduating college, entering the full-time workforce, renting and purchasing homes, and, perhaps most important, spending their disposable income.

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It's this last factor that makes Gen Yers such an attractive target to marketers. A 2013 article on Barron's found that the 86 million millennials in the U.S. account for $1.3 trillion of consumer spending — more than 20 percent of the nation's total — and that number will only rise as their careers and salaries advance.

But there's another important reason that brands are focusing so intently on pleasing Generation Y: their unprecedented influential power. Thanks to social media channels, which are largely populated by this generation, consumers and not traditional media outlets are becoming the primary source of information on products and services. [How to Use Social Media for Customer Service]

"Brands have to guard their images so carefully in today's environment because there is more transparency than ever before," said James Marshall Reilly, founder, and CEO of The Guild Agency, a speakers bureau and talent management firm. "News is instant, constant, and unfiltered, and the opinions of ordinary consumers have the potential to go viral. Couple that with the fact that millennials are very, very conscious of brand image—we want the brands we buy to reflect who we are as people. That makes our purchases very much an extension of our self-image and personal identity. And this provides a dichotomous opportunity and risk for companies to manage."

For brands that want to sell to Gen Y consumers, it's more important than ever to tap into the millennial mindset and meet them where they are. Here are three tips for marketing to this increasingly powerful group.

Be subtle and genuine

Because of the widespread use of social media to learn about products, Gen Yers are more likely to buy from a brand that was referred to them by a friend, rather than one they saw in an advertisement.

"Generation Y doesn't readily trust a marketer's effort to sell them anything," said Sarah Sladek, CEO of management firm XYZ University. "They value trust, which is why they frequently seek out the opinions of their peers and consult user-generated review sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp."

Because of the high premium on trust among millennials, Marty Brochstein, senior vice president of The International Licensing Industry Merchandisers' Association (LIMA), advised marketers to build genuine relationships with Gen-Y consumers, and not try to overtly sell.

"Use all the technological tools you have to establish those relationships with consumers as a way to build your brands," Brochstein told Business News Daily. "Use social media creatively to separate your message from the hundreds of other marketers trying to catch their attention, too."

Timing is everything

One of the most important things a brand can do to appeal to Gen Y is provide timely, relevant information about its products and services. It's important to remain conscious and aware of what's going on, especially on social media, so you can catch these consumers right as something is happening.

"Millennials have come to expect connectivity and instantaneousness in where they live, work and play," said Barry Lapides, a commercial real estate attorney with Berger Singerman law firm. "Convenience is important for them. Brands need to be timely with information and consistent with messages coming through different spectrums."

"In some respects, a small company has it easier than a large one, because it's inherently more agile, and can respond quickly to what's going on in the world," Brochstein added.

Think outside the advertising box

Today's consumers, especially tech-savvy Gen Yers, are inundated with advertisements on a daily basis. They see them on billboards and buildings, in public transit stations, on their Web browsers and mobile devices, and on their TVs. In an environment where there's an ad everywhere you turn, you have to get really creative to stand out.

"A few months ago, The Guild Agencydid a successful book launch campaign where we projected giant-sized "The Rise of Superman" graphics on the sides of buildings and bridges around NYC," Reilly said. "In many cases, people didn't even know that they were tweeting or talking about a book. They simply saw an image and an interesting tagline, which was enough to pique interest. We were getting press twice for the same product. Once for the campaign, and once with the actual book review or author interview. It's all about creating opportunities where opportunities didn't previously exist."

Reilly noted that successful advertising and marketing toward millennials involves communicating both the innovative product attributes and, often, the social causes that those products support, conveying deep personal identity validation. This involves noticeable, digital disruption in traditional spaces.

"When it comes to advertising and marketing to millennials, it's fairly straightforward," Reilly said. "Find your purpose, and then find your surface."

Image Credit: Generation Y accounts for more than 20 percent of total consumer spending in the U.S. / Credit: Generation Y image via Shutterstock
Nicole Fallon Member
Nicole received her Bachelor's degree in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University. She began freelancing for Business News Daily in 2010 and joined the team as a staff writer three years later. Nicole served as the site's managing editor until January 2018, and briefly ran's copy and production team. Follow her on Twitter.