scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Generation Y a tough target for marketers

Millennials swimming in a sea of commercials

Anna Volain (center), 20, shopping for snacks at Shaw’s on Commonwealth Avenue with friends Liza Posner (left), 20, and Isabel Monteiro, 21.PAT GREENHOUSE/GLOBE STAFF

Anna Volain is an especially hard sell when it comes to sales pitches. The 20-year-old Boston University student has grown up in an unprecedented sea of advertising — delivered not just through print, radio, and television but by computers, hand-held devices, product placements in movies and television, and all sorts of social media.

But unfortunately for marketers, Volain and other millennials — generally defined as people born after 1980 — have also become skilled at finding ways to avoid the constant stream of advertising. They skip past ads, block them, or simply ignore the come-ons.

That has created major challenges for companies eager to build lifelong connections with these younger consumers, many of whom are on the verge of entering their prime income-earning years. Increasingly, advertising and marketing firms are tailoring ads to target millennials, hoping to get them to pay attention and to spend money.


“Not only do they not necessarily trust traditional advertising anymore, they don’t even see traditional advertising anymore,” said S. Adam Brasel, a marketing professor at Boston College. “Advertisers and marketers are desperately finding ways to communicate with this new generation, and we’re still fumbling around with it a little bit.”

Major corporations such as General Electric Co, Lindt, and Campbell Soup Co. are among those tailoring products to this age group.

For instance, marketing materials for GE’s Artistry series of low-end appliances featuring retro design touches, due out this fall, says it focuses on “the needs of today’s generation of millennials and their desire to uniquely express themselves.”

Lindt USA recently introduced a line of chocolates — they include Berry Affair and Coconut Love flavors — that are wrapped in vibrant packaging and are being promoted through social media.

And packaging for Campbell’s Go Soup, which comes in microwavable pouches with ingredients such as chickpeas, quinoa, and smoked Gouda, features photos of young people with thought bubbles. The sayings include cutesy snippets like “Make your momma proud” and “What’s kickin’?”


The idea is to hook millennials now and remain connected with them as they progress to bigger and more expensive products.

But marketing specialists and consumers like Volain question the effectiveness of that approach.

“My immediate reaction to targeted marketing is to picture a bunch of people sitting around in a room saying, ‘How can we get these people to buy these products?’ ” Volain said.

With that kind of skepticism in mind, General Electric handed creative control for its Artistry series to a 27-year-old in-house designer and tailored the products based on feedback from young consumers, said Brian McWaters, the company’s general manager for brand.

The designer focused on touch points — sleek handles and knobs and analog clocks on ranges, for example —that were determined to be appealing to millennials interesting in something different and stylish, on a budget. The entire suite of appliances — range, dishwasher, microwave, and refrigerator — retails for about $2,400.

“We specifically, in our design of the product, were thinking about millennials,” said McWaters.

Bridget Morse, a 25-year-old first-grade teacher in Lawrence, said she was intrigued by GE’s Artistry line. To her, it indicated the company was becoming more modern.

But she said she wasn’t as convinced by the Campbell’s campaign.

“It seemed like they were trying too hard,” she said. “In reality, people who are 25 are buying the cheap canned Campbell’s soup because that’s what we can afford.”


Rohit Deshpande, a marketing professor at Harvard Business School, is not surprised that millennials are resisting targeted advertising.

“Just because there’s a huge market doesn’t mean the market is welcoming your product,” Deshpande said. “Being told this is a millennial product, this is for you, is a little too obvious.”

Of course, this isn’t the first time companies have gone after a specific generation. Young baby boomers were targeted in marketing campaigns for everything from cars to clothes and appliances. Back then, however, there were fewer product choices, a limited number of TV and radio stations, and nothing close to the power and sweep of social media.

Today, said BC’s Brasel, “There’s eight million ways you can express your identity. Branding and products are still an important way to do that, but it’s not as important anymore.”

Taryn Luna can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @tarynluna.