The New World of Advertising: The Traditional VS. The Millennial

How brands can best collaborate, interact, and "do good" with Millennial consumers, from a cultural perspective.

By Emily Morris, Director of Cultural Insights, TruthCo.

With the holidays fast approaching, it's more pressing than ever for advertisers to reach that all-important Millennial audience, whose desires and expectations of brands differ substantially from previous generations in several key ways, all of which are influenced greatly by the culture in which Millennials have been raised. From advertising's role in culture to the role of consumers to the ways in which brands "do good," there has been a notable cultural shift in this new world of advertising.

Traditionally, advertising's role in culture is to tell people how to live. Ads have worked by informing people of activities they didn't know they should be doing and causing them to establish new behaviors: "Have a break - Have a Kit-Kat!"

Millennial-minded ads, on the other hand, focus on creating feelings rather than behaviors: They tell people how to think. Appealing to Millennial values of learning and exploration, Millennial-minded ads often ask provocative questions and don't shy away from the resulting opinions.

A stalwart of example of one such campaign is Pantene's 2014 #ShineStrong campaign, which posed the question, "Why Are Women Always Apologizing?" Free of product facts and USPS, this ad also serves to embody a cultural shift in what ads are expected to consist of content-wise.

Much Millennial-minded advertising possesses a dissonance between the product and the experience delivered: the Pantene campaign, for example, is not focused on the ways the product delivers shiny hair but is instead focused on starting a conversation about the gendered use of language. Like much Millennial-minded advertising, it is so loosely related to product and brand that, were it not for the logo, it could literally be an ad for anything.

Millennial-minded ads focus less on touting a product's features and benefits and more on the ways brands can use their powerful positions to give them the "feels." One successful way to do this is to appeal to the dual Millennial values of belonging and connectivity by leaning into fan fervor and creating platforms and opportunities that allow consumers to connect and create communities.

"Share The Force," Target's initiative from this past summer stands as a successful example of this. The store created a website where fans could upload their favorite Star Wars memories and have them stored and mapped in a virtual galaxy; participants were then given unique coordinates with which to locate their memories in the galaxy. With minimal Target branding, this initiative understood a key part of Millennial desires: they crave interaction and personalization, not passivity.

Traditional advertising has assumed its consumers to be captive audiences, who sit back, rather than contribute. This mode of thinking, however, doesn't cut it with Millennials, who are a generation raised on - and rewarded for - participation. As such, the most successful Millennial-minded advertising treats the consumer as a collaborator.

The "Straight Outta (Somewhere)" meme, which went viral in August 2015, is a great example of this kind of advertising. Created by Beats by Dre to promote the N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton, the image generator based on the film's logo allowed people to fill in "Straight Outta ...". Advertisements such as this let go of the top-down narrative so familiar in brand-work and cede control to the fans, who crave a self-determination of experience. Ads such as this are preference-oriented and personalized, appealing to Millennial values of self-creation and inventiveness. They are as much about the fan's vision as they are the brand's.

In general, Millennials crave meaningful connections with brands.

They want brands to stand for something, and to Millennials that means more than just rainbow-fying a logo for a few hours after same-sex marriage becomes the law of the land. Mere gestures - no matter how noble -- are not enough: Millennials recognize when brands are simply aligning with popular sentiment and when they are actually stepping out on a limb and taking a stand.

REI did just this with its "Opt Outside" campaign, which closed its 143 brick-and-mortar stores this past Black Friday, giving its employees the day off and encouraging them to go outside. REI chose to change its internal structure to match its mission, proving they are actual values and not just empty rhetoric. The result? According to SimilarWeb, a 26 percent jump in online traffic on Black Friday.

Brands that go beyond surface level activism and actually practice what they preach - that put values above profits -- are the ones that most successfully appeal to Millennial values.

Emily Morris is the Director of Cultural Insights at TruthCo., who recently released its study, "The New World of Advertising" citing the cultural shifts in TV advertising. TruthCo. is a semiotic branding and cultural insights company that analyzes the current landscape to deliver actionable recommendations that keep entertainment brands and their offerings relevant. Connect with TruthCo. at or on Twitter @TeamTruthCo.