Brand Marketers Reveal the Secrets to Connecting with Young Consumers

By ViacomCBS InSites Archives
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Here's a stat that should surprise any brand marketer or advertiser: 70 percent of young consumers still think that brands aren't getting authenticity right quite yet.

That stat, from Viacom Velocity's "Brands in Proximity" study, means that an increasingly valuable generation of consumers aren't able to trust brands the way that they want. These young audiences want brands to participate in ongoing cultural conversations to fill the void left by traditional institutions, such as the government and politicians. This dissatisfaction represents an opportunity for brands to build relationships with hard-to-reach 18- to 34-year-olds through authentic online personas.

There are promising signs that brands are on the right track, as demonstrated by the Cannes Lions panel "Youth Marketing: Building Relationships with Millennials & Gen Z," which I recently had the opportunity to moderate. I was joined on the panel by Ryan Anderson, vice president of global marketing at Marriott International; Gi-Gi Downs, managing director of planning and strategy at Edelman; Tim Leake, chief marketing officer at RPA; Jeff Tan, senior vice president and managing director of product and innovation at Dentsu Aegis Network USA; and Dooley Tombras, president of The Tombras Group. This talented group shared their insights on how to connect to and build relationships with young consumers in an increasingly mobile and fragmented media marketplace.

Part of the challenge is, as Leake said, that brands tend to act too "sleek" and "sophisticated" in their messaging — which doesn't always resonate with younger consumers, who expect a brand to act more human — flaws and all. (For people ages 18 to 34, brands are people and people are brands, as we found in our "Culture of Proximity" study.) Most importantly, as Leake added, the brand should "feel like a singular person, not like a conglomeration of many people making a groupthink decision."

And nothing creates and builds relationships between brands and younger consumers better than engaging in real life. "I found [it] to be incredibly valuable to spend three hours with 20-year-olds telling [me] what their dreams are for the future of [our] product," Anderson said when explaining a recent partnership with an institute of higher education focused on the hospitality industry.

Only brands with a solid foundation are going to be able to evolve and survive in categories that are facing disruption. These companies are usually able to see when things change — and when they don't. In both cases, they ought to be able to, as Anderson put it, connect with their audiences around "passion points," which create shared experiences.

"Young men are still experiencing the same things they did in the '90s," said Downs, explaining that marketers tend to "get trapped" by a notion of generational change, even when values and experiences remain the same.

Though the panel agreed with the notion of "unchanged connections," as Downs described it, generational values have evolved and shifted. For example, the luggage company Away has found marketing success by creating Instagrammable moments around sharing, which is something Gen Z values more than ownership or consumption. An example of a legacy brand authentically tapping on those fixed passion points — with a twist — is General Motors' peer-to-peer ride-sharing service. "These brands are starting to focus on the experience first, capitalizing on this whole trend, particularly with young people not buying, but renting, because for them it's all about the mobile and sharing economy," Tan said.

Sharing breeds collaboration, especially between brands. As Anderson indicated, these exchanges could be great opportunities for emerging brands "to borrow brand equity from a more established entity." When done correctly, he said, it's an excellent way to build awareness.

Experiential marketing is perfect for leveraging these types of partnerships and is especially appealing for consumers who are eager to share well-executed brand activations on social media. (Of note, according to "Culture of Proximity," almost 50 percent of millennials say social media walls relieve anxiety.) In that regard, the panel moved onto discussing how young audiences experience these types of live events.

Downs explained that while millennials were happy to snap a picture and post it on social media, Gen Z audiences tend to capture assets and put an original spin on the content. "They're growing up with tools that facilitate creativity. So, they're going to take part in your assets and redefine them to create their own stories," Downs mentioned.

This co-production of content between brands and their younger audiences presents one of the most significant opportunities with Gen Z. Growing up in a world of internet trolls, Gen Z is more reserved than millennials when it comes to expressing their opinions online. That's why when a brand reflects its own values, they do not hesitate to amplify and endorse that message.

The bond between "woke" brands and their younger audiences, allows for a closer relationship despite fragmentation. It's increasingly challenging to reach young cord-nevers who use ad-free content platforms and ad blockers, but this forces marketers to think more editorially than advertorially to make lasting connections.

The shrewdness these young audiences possess when it comes to media and technology can be a blessing in disguise for brands, as one of my panelists concluded. "This generation's understanding about what brands are and developing a personal brand is fascinating," Anderson said. He added that this is the ultimate passion point where brands and their younger audiences can connect.

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