Sharalyn Orr
Executive Director
Frank N. Magid Associates

On Millennials: The Impact of Nickelodeon, Title IX and Soccer

Nickelodeon and Disney Channel. Title IX. American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO).

These seemingly unrelated things are actually closely connected. Unwittingly, they fundamentally changed the way marketers need to engage with consumers in 2014 and far beyond.

Herein lies the connection: the creation of Nickelodeon and Disney Channel, the implementation of Title IX and the expansion of AYSO are key societal factors that shaped the way Millennials, the largest cohort of consumers in American history, view the world. Numbered at 87 million and born from 1977 to 1996 (making them 18- to 37-year-olds in 2014), these all-important consumers are decidedly different than their predecessors.

Every marketer worth their paycheck knows Millennials are active users of social media and tend to quickly embrace new technology, but focusing on simplistic data points such as those misses their most impactful distinction from Gen Xers (born 1965 to 1976) and Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1964). Millennials have much greater expectations for brands (i.e. marketers) than their older cohorts. Millennials expect you to be relevant to them, be relatable to them and be authentic to who you are as a brand. Furthermore, they expect you to demonstrate all those things, or engage them, through superior storytelling.

These heightened expectations can be traced back to Nickelodeon/Disney, Title IX and AYSO. Understanding the gestation of those expectations – essentially understanding history – rather than simply reciting the expectations themselves, enables marketers to first comprehend the realities of today’s marketing musts and then anticipate the direction of tomorrow’s marketing needs.

Be Relevant

Millennials were the first generation of kids to have entire television networks devoted just to them. The creation of Nickelodeon in 1979 and the Disney Channel in 1983 paved the way for the Millennial “me” filter. Millennials didn’t have to wait for designated times such as the programming blocks on Saturday mornings or after school to find TV content that was specifically for them. Anytime they turned on the TV, it was there. They learned to view the world, particularly content, in terms of “is this for me?” or “how does this relate to me?”

The “me” filter manifests itself in the expectation of customization so common among Millennials today. An ability to customize has always been a driving factor in their technology purchases – even back in the early days of cell phones Millennials were the first to latch onto wallpapers and any sort of customizable element. Now they have that same expectation for things like their cable box – they expect it to understand their usage patterns and adapt to their preferences.

But beyond products and their capabilities, the “me” filter encompasses all aspects of marketing and branding. Millennials evaluate your brand, your positioning and your products based on how relevant it is to them. They expect you to understand them and then demonstrate that understanding within context. They expect you to find them where they already are and offer them something they inherently need or want.

Netflix is one of the best examples of a brand that truly understands its consumers and how consumers actually use its product. No one can dispute its success – particularly among young people. Most of its campaigns demonstrate relevance, but one stands out in particular. In 2013 Netflix ran a campaign depicting a couple watching a TV show together and reacting to a crazy plot twist. The man’s reaction was genuine, but the woman’s was obviously faked. She then confesses she had watched ahead on her phone on the train, on her laptop during lunch and with her tablet in bed after he went to sleep. It ended with a reminder for consumers to “watch responsibly.”

The ad oozes relevance. It centered around core viewing trends – setting aside a particular show to watch with a significant other and binging – while emphasizing its ability to seamlessly be anywhere you are (something Millennials consistently expect). What’s more, it was told in an engaging way through a completely relatable story.

Be Relatable

In 1972, Congress passed Title IX, which eventually leveled the playing field for boys and girls far beyond the world of sports. Millennials were the first generation of women to benefit from this amendment to Higher Education Act of 1965. This renewed focus on girls paved the way for a generation of empowered women, which simultaneously impacted a generation of boys. In many ways a gender success imbalance, that directly impacts consumerism, has been the result. Millennial women now outpace Millennial men not just in college enrollment, but attainment.(i)

The Condition of Education 2012, National Center for Education Statistics

This education disparity directly impacts the purchase power of Millennial men and women. The unemployment rate among Adult Millennials under the age of 30 with just a high school diploma is three times higher than college graduates (28 percent vs. 9 percent).(ii) Additionally, unmarried women without children aged 22 to 30 out-earn men of the same age and circumstances in 39 of the 50 biggest cities in the United States and equal their earnings in another eight.(iii)

Beyond purchase power, these gender dynamics directly impact the way purchase decisions are made. In married Millennial households, wives are more involved than their older cohorts in decisions about cars, investments and insurance and other matters that have been historically made by men(iv). At the same time, Millennial husbands are more involved than their older cohorts in matters that have historically been female territory – such as grocery shopping, preparing meals and shopping for children’s clothing and shoes. (v)

Considering the Millennial “me” filter, it’s clear that they will expect brands to reflect societal changes such as these – which notably aren’t changes to them. Rather, it’s the only reality they have ever known (something that will be increasingly true for Plurals, members of the Pluralist generation following Millennials).

Cheerios is doing an amazing job reflecting this new household dynamic with its recent #HowToDad campaign. In the campaign’s first two-minute video you see today’s dad competently and proudly managing the chaos of the morning routine. Arguably more importantly, he does it with finesse. Contrast that with the 2012 Huggies campaign that was met with outrage by moms and dads alike when it claimed their diapers could stand up to the “toughest test of all – dads.” The ad featured a lot of men bumbling around awkwardly with babies, toddlers and diapers. To be fair, the ad reflected the picture society had previously loved to paint of dads but the rejection of the campaign was so blatant (they had to quickly pull it and issue an apology statement) it was clear society had shifted. In an engaging story, Cheerios reflects that societal change, or reality for Millennial families, and is therefore inherently more relatable to them.

Be Authentic

1974 marked the start of a significant expansion of the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO), fueled primarily by Millennial children in the 80s and 90s. The significance for Millennials is more about the AYSO philosophy than the sport of soccer. In AYSO soccer, the focus is the team experience, not necessarily individual contributions. In many cases, scores weren’t kept and trophies were given to everyone. This fostered the development of a cohort perspective among Millennials.

Thinking in terms of the group led to the rise of peer influence. Their cohort perspective does not mean that trust in experts or peers is mutually exclusive among Millennials, rather that the role of peers cannot be understated. It also fosters an acceptance and encouragement of individuality. Millennials want to be themselves and expect everyone else, including brands, to do the same. This expectation translates to a need for brands to be authentic.

The key to a brand’s authenticity in the eyes of a Millennial is remembering that what you do is more important than what you say you do. In other words your actions are going to speak a lot louder than your words or your products. If you’re a luxury brand and try to emphasize value or price, that feels inauthentic – they know your brand is about the prestige and experience. They expect you to be true to who you are.

Additionally, authenticity for a brand is akin to the individuality Millennials respect and celebrate in their peers. Confident individuals self-evaluate and know their weaknesses and strengths and even own up to their mistakes. Confident and authentic brands do the same. The Gap logo redesign disaster of 2010 is an excellent example of demonstrating authenticity. When the general outcry over the new logo reached a fever pitch, Gap acknowledged the importance of the consumer feedback, apologized for the mistake and allowed fans of the brand to participate in the proverbial whiteboard brainstorm session for the next iteration of the logo.

Domino’s is also another example of a brand demonstrating authenticity. Its current ad campaign centers on the theme that “failure is an option.” It openly talks about failed ideas such as the cookie pizza before introducing a new product.

It is important for brands to understand Millennials aren’t holding them to a higher standard – they’re actually holding them to the same standard they expect of their peers. They think in terms of the group and value their peers. In their eyes, your brand is part of the group – it is their peer.

Expectations and Storytelling

Being relevant, relatable and authentic is really just the first step. Brands have to demonstrate that relevance, relatability and authenticity through exceptional storytelling. To a certain extent, storytelling has always been important for brands, but it has never been more critical than it is now and it will only continue to be more vital in the future. In many ways you can trace this back to Nickelodeon and Disney too.

Millennials have been actively marketed to their entire lives. For as long as they can remember, every time they turned on the TV there was powerful evidence of the world’s best storytellers pandering to them at all hours of the day and night. As such, they are savvy consumers and inherently understand a lot about marketing (we find in our research it’s often more than they even realize). Add in today’s complex media landscape (in which they deftly maneuver and thrive) and it becomes even more essential that brands create genuine connections with consumers. Otherwise you get lost in all the noise with the countless other brands clamoring for their attention. Outstanding storytelling is the key to genuine connection with Millennial consumer especially.

When brands truly hit a homerun with a compelling story that depicts relevance, relatability and authenticity, their product almost transcends itself. Suddenly your message becomes more about your story than your product. When that happens, CONGRATULATIONS! You have truly engaged your target Millennial audience. That’s when the dream trifecta happens. That’s usually when Millennials make a point to pay attention or seek you out, generally make purchases of your product and often tell their friends about you.

Now, that’s a place we all want to be.

Sharalyn Orr is executive director at Frank N. Magid Associates, specializing specializes in helping Fortune 500 companies use generational and life stage insights to guide brand evolution, form compelling sales narratives, fuel thought leadership efforts, enhance human resource initiatives and develop new business strategies. Prior to Magid, her career centered on creating event marketing plans to launch new products and reinforce top-rated brands, advocating the implementation of digital marketing strategies to strengthen existing traditional marketing campaigns and fulfilling frequent requests to be a brand spokesperson (both on television and in person) for her clients.

i National Center for Education Statistics, Condition of Education 2012 report
ii Magid Generational Strategies data, Multicultural
iii Analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data by Reach Advisors
iv Magid Generational Strategies data, Generations II
v Magid Generational Strategies data, Generations II

Next: On Millennials: Authenticity, Trust, Multimedia Content and Social are Key by Jake Horowitz, editor-in-chief and co-founder, Mic