When I speak to audiences of marketers and brand managers someone inevitably raises their hand and says to me, "You're a Millennial... How do I market to your generation?" I think the answer to this question seems very simple: You have to place Millennials within positions of power in your company. Every major company needs to understand the Millennials -- the biggest and most dynamic generation in American history -- and will need to work hard to gain Millennials' trust and loyalty. In order to get your consumer base to find your brand appealing, you have to exude the spirit of your consumer. It's almost impossible to exude that spirit without placing the actual target consumer at the heart of what you do. At General Motors, Millennials account for less than 15 percent of the company's employees. At Viacom, Millennials make up over half of the company. So it shouldn't be surprising that very few Millennials are buying cars and lots of Millennials are watching Viacom content. In fact, General Motors hired a unit of Viacom to help them figure out how to attract more Millennial consumers and employees.
For someone in this generation, it's very easy to see the difference between a campaign that was designed to appeal to Millennials and a campaign that authentically resonates with Millennials. A brand that imbues their company with the Millennial spirit through and through, will find much greater and consistent success in high-return campaigns to engage Millennial consumers. Today being authentic actually means you have to be naturally authentic. So make the Millennial consumer the manager, but not just with titular influence -- put them at the center of the strategy and the campaign. If it's for Millennials it should be by Millennials.
Millennials are the largest generation in history and they account for an ever increasing portion of total consumer spending as they enter the workforce in droves and begin making more and more money. As such, Millennials are increasingly moving from being primary players in the fashion, film, entertainment, and luxury goods sectors to dominating America's biggest and most important sectors: automobiles, housing, banking, and finance. And the need to market effectively to Millennials in these areas has never been greater. Car and homeownership rates among Millennials are lower than they have ever been for a youth demographic, as Millennials are questioning the relevance of these lifestage purchases in their ever transient, city-centric, mobile lives. For the last 50 years, the fact that young people would purchase cars and buy homes was assumed. Now these sectors have to come up with strategies to answer a question that this generation is asking. As opposed to asking "Should I buy a Ford or should I buy a Chevy?" Millennials are asking "Should I buy a car?" As these sectors try and figure out how to answer those questions, they should work closely with Millennials.
Millennials should have more places on corporate boards, they should be chief marketing officers, they should be in positions of decision making authority within brands. In a world of constant change and innovation, keeping up doesn't just demand figuring out new strategies for new platforms, it means disrupting the entire way your company does business.
This is undoubtedly a real challenge. But marketers who take up and accept it, may find that this generation's entrepreneurial spirit can create positive internal disruption overall which ultimately will help a company win much more than Millennial customers. People like Beth Comstock at GE and Sarah Robb O'Hagan at Gatorade, have served this kind of function at their respective companies with great success, and both companies made bold statements by being willing to hire disruptors -- and people who were much younger than most of their fellow senior executives -- and tasking them to come into behemoth companies and do just that. We should all allow ourselves to be disrupted on a regular basis, and if you want to do that, just hire a Millennial.
David D. Burstein is the author of Fast Future: How the Millennial Generation is Shaping Our World. He is also the founder and executive director of the youth voter engagement organization Generation18 and director of the documentary films, 18 in'08 and Up to Us about young voters in the 2008 and 2012 elections. Burstein is a contributor to Fast Company, and a regular consultant, speaker, and commentator on Millennials, youth issues, politics, and social change. He has been seen in a range of publications and media outlets, including CNN, ABC, NPR, The New York Times, and USA Today. He lives in New York City.