Marketers have lost their way by chasing culture instead of their own brand truths. Setting their brand compass to point directly at Millennials, too many CMOs are running around in circles and getting nowhere. Or more likely, they’re lying awake at night fretting about understanding Millennials. What do they want? What do they like? How can we appeal to them? What’s cool today? Frankly, these are all the wrong questions.
Marketers need to recalibrate and focus on understanding their own brand instead of pandering to Millennials (or any consumer, for that matter). Time and effort are better spent really understanding what their brand stands for, why they exist, and what they believe in beyond profits. (Special shout-out to Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why” philosophy.) It's simply flawed logic to make the consumer — even the holy-grail of all consumers, the Millennial — a brand's North star.
A brand’s true North should always be found in the brand’s DNA, what they are made of and why that’s special. Setting a brand’s direction on the most recent insight into the mercurial whims of a consumer or the latest media craze or the cultural zeitgeist of the moment is building a shaky brand foundation that will ultimately crumble. And it's especially ironic when marketers talk about the importance of authenticity, yet don't do the strategic work to articulate and celebrate their own brand truths.
To be fair, agencies are culpable in this. Not only are they guilty of pushing clients into a posture beyond the point of a brand's credibility, but often they project their own identity through their client's advertising. In many instances, the advertising comes to reflect the agency more than the brand.
I guess what it boils down to is that over-used, ever-present, adjective “authentic.” Brands that are true to themselves and not chasing cool are authentic. But, I suggest “authentic” be treated like the word “trust” — don't say it. Don’t write it into strategies. Don’t talk about it in meetings. Just be it. Just know who the brand is, and consistently behave in ways that reiterate the brand’s beliefs and purpose. That is how a brand exhibits confidence — and confidence is like an aphrodisiac in the marketplace. The minute marketers start strategizing about “How can we be seen as authentic to Millennials?,” you’ve lost the plot. The brand looks desperate and a lack of self-confidence starts to show.
There are brands out there that get it. Brands confident enough to be themselves and brave enough not to pander to anyone. Take Yeti as an example. The brand is unapologetically about the rugged outdoors in rural America where fishing, hunting, guns and dead animals are some of life’s simple pleasures. Yes, it helps that the products, from coolers to tumblers, are amazingly effective and built like a tank, but the rise of Yeti as a status symbol from San Francisco to Manhattan owes much of its success to the brand unapologetically being itself. Yeti doesn’t try to be cool. It just is cool because it doesn’t really care if you like them or not.
Other brands are waking up to this reality and realigning their brand compass to point more squarely at their own brand truth. Applebee’s recently admitted they lost their way when they tried too hard to attract Millennials. That mistake cost them dearly — shuttering over 100 stores and taking a financial stumble. So, they’re going back to their roots — reclaiming their position as the go-to place for Middle America on a Friday or Saturday night.
I admire the brand’s self-awareness and wish them success. I only think good things can come from a brand being true to itself. And, I hope more marketers do some soul-searching to make sure they haven’t steered too far off course in the pursuit of currying favor with Millennials. Millennials will come to you when they see that you’re confident enough to be yourself. It’s time to care a little bit less about appealing to Millennials, and care a little bit more about being true to your brand.