Millennials prefer brands with purpose

Learn from a professional brand strategist how to develop and communicate your purpose to the Millennial Generation.

Dec 5, 2017 · 7 min read

A couple of years ago, “Cause Marketing” was on the rise. For years, marketers had used their support of causes to sell us stuff. And for the most part, it worked. Many of us, myself included, found ourselves regularly paying just a bit more for companies that supported our favourite charities.

We frequently “rounded up” our change to give a donation, and often we fluttered like moths to brands that intermittently displayed pink ribbons, yellow bracelets or red parentheses on their ads and packaging.

Macro trends and retail strategies all pointed to “cause” as a massive opportunity for marketers and the ad agencies that served them. I think this is what partly lead us to “cause-related marketing, sustainability and corporate social responsibility, which all are aimed not only at consumers but also at employees, policy makers, thought-leaders and Wall Street.” This whole “do good” thing gained traction. But was it a good thing?

For many of those who have devoted their lives to fighting against disease, social ills (poverty, homelessness, domestic abuse, racism, sexism) and the folly of the human race (peace, environment, human rights), the idea that cause marketing is becoming increasingly irrelevant must raise more than just ire. Corporate support is an irreplaceable pillar to their efforts, and there shouldn’t be any less corporate giving to these causes. But corporations shouldn’t rely on cause marketing to make a positive impact on their behalf.

Make them love you first

Now, ignore everything but the last two words: engage them.

In the last couple of years a major challenge has been for brands to understand the difference between rallying behind a cause and standing for a purpose. Brands often want to randomly pick a cause even if they don’t truly believe in it. Millennials however, will see right through that. I believe that the future for brands and agencies alike does not lie in cause. Instead, it is rooted in purpose. We need to evolve away from cause and toward purpose. The reason is simple; people and Millennials in particular aspire to brands which reflects a fundamental attitude, a profound reason for being, a positive change which they want to see in the world.

Millennials demand for corporate social responsibility

Let me explain: Cause marketing is, for the most part, against something. Purpose, on the other hand, tends to lean into support for something.

Many brands are against environmental pollution, but companies like Burt’s Bees, The Honest Company and Whole Foods could all have purposes saying something about helping people live a more natural and chemical-free life. A major retailer may sponsor against deforestation; Patagonia makes saving the environment as its corporate mission.

Cause marketing historically relies on corporate giving, whereas for many up-and-coming companies today, purpose lies at the heart of their entire business model. Business models centered on the “one-for-one” approach like Tom’s Shoes and Warby Parker are finding immense success with Millennials. (Warby Parker’s business model is “designed to make people happy.”) For purpose-led brands and businesses, the cause is already “baked in.”

An important differentiator to cause marketing is the authenticity of the message. And that differentiator is exactly what Millennials are searching out. Cause marketing tends to rely on “traditional” media to tell its story. Purpose-led campaigns, on the other hand, tend to use what we call “human-centric mediums” like social, digital and experiential. Optimizing these channels gets people and Millennials in particular to share, participate and act.

How to interact with Millennials

Adapt or disappear

Brands who fail to differentiate themselves with a unique and iconic purpose tend to fall into an inauthentic (or over-killed) approach to cause marketing. And therein lies the danger for massive social media backlash and cultural shaming because Millennials are an influential and rapidly growing consumer market with a lot of power. And they are aware of it.

Millennials are attracted to businesses that have the audacity to puff their chests out and show their true positive Purpose for all to see. Fortunately, the market is responding and there is already a lot of brands which are flexing their Purpose muscle and have adapted their business models and made sure they are able to bring Millennials on board.

Three examples of successful purpose brands

Chipotle has nailed Millennial marketing and is a great example. As a brand known for placing high value on fresh ingredients and offering a “build-your-own” burrito, bowl, or taco, Chipotle has created an interactive experience for its customers. The ingredients and experience are appealing to Millennials; plus, Chipotle figured out how to get its message out in a unique way. This casual food chain developed a fictional web series, “Farmed and Dangerous,” which featured a Millennial-aged sustainable farmer as the main character. In the comedy series, the farmer named Chip, battles a corrupt industrial food production company. The web series has its own website, which includes music, behind the scenes clips, and even show trivia.

Before the first episode aired, Chipotle released an iPhone game, “The Scarecrow,” and a short video with the same title. Both the game and video were centered on a scarecrow’s quest to replace processed food with wholesome food.

What Chipotle did right: Created an experience that Millennials could participate in and developed shareable content.


This publicly traded video streaming company has figured out how to continue to attract Millennials, despite the generation’s growing needs and lifestyle. Netflix keeps a close eye on Millennials and has used social media to attract and engage them. The company has extensively used Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms in their Millennial marketing efforts.

What Netflix did right: Recognised the evolving lifestyles of Millennials and changed with them.

COCA-COLA (this one may surprise you)

f you really want to win customers over, use their names. Coca-Cola utilised this approach in a powerful way with its “Share a Coke” campaign. What better way to increase sales than to make bottles personalised to customers? According to The Wall Street Journal, Coca-Cola’s soft-drinks sales in the U.S. went up 2% after launching this campaign. The campaign put 250 of the most popular names among teens and Millennials on 20-ounce bottles.

What Coca-Cola did right: Made its products personal and customizable.

Four key takeaways

Overwhelmed by content, options, marketing, and products, more Millennials are beginning to have a minimalist moment. They’re bringing a “less is more” mentality to their homes, closets, diets, and more; while trends like mindfulness and decluttering are beginning to pick up speed. Young consumers have always chosen experiences over products, but now they’re looking to let go of material goods and simplify their lives in even more ways. This desire for simplicity is impacting how and what they’re buying, and sparking new areas of interest.


Millennials are choosing the couch or café over a night at the club, and they prefer a glass of red wine to a pint. Partying hard has been a hallmark of youth for generations, but Millennials are less intent on pushing boundaries than they are living in the Netflix and chill zone. Understanding what young adults are considering a good time means changing the assumption that they are drinking (and posting about it) to excess.


More and more, people are putting their money where their hearts are. Millennials are the ones driving demand for more purpose driven brands. Younger adults are the most willing respondents to pay extra for sustainable goods — as employees, Millennials are also rewarding higher-purpose businesses with their notoriously fickle loyalty. Of company attributes given by Millennials who do plan to stick around, one of the most frequently cited is “a strong sense of purpose beyond financial success.”


Millennials have a very short span of attention, that’s why it’s important to engage them, and provide the best end-to-end customer experience that lasts forever. When so many products are cramming the market, it’s important to standout and make the buyers choose you. How? Millennials appreciate transparency, especially when being sold too. They are attracted to honest and authentic brands, and they love to engage with a brand’s marketing.

This being said, a huge mistake to avoid when it comes to understanding and marketing to Millennials is that they should not be viewed as one uniform group. Today, Millennials’ ages can range from 21 to 35. When developing marketing strategies, you as a marketer have to consider the stage of life of the Millennial and the impact their age has on his or her behavior.


Deloitte, Millennium Survey 2016

Nielsen, 2015 Global Corporate Sustainability Report

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