Messaging On Fleek: How Top Brands Learn the Millennial Language

Like a lot of mid-20s millennials, all I seem to do these days is attend weddings. At a recent reception, the young bride and groom ditched the DJ/band expense in favor of an iPod. There was no “Shout” or “Electric Slide” or James Taylor. Instead, the playlist was a soundtrack to the last decade—and it was great.

All right, so maybe it wasn’t ideal for the non-millennials. Watching retirees swing dance to “All The Small Things” reminded me of the embarrassing disconnect some brands have with the millennial demographic. Smart companies know Generation Y represents a third of the American adult population, but understanding this diverse market is a rare challenge. In order to stay up to date and speak the millennial language, here are a few strategies successful marketers are using.

Talk Like a Taco

Over the last half decade, Taco Bell has pushed all its chips in for millennials. In fact, in 2014 the fast-food chain axed kids meals to help it become a more “Millennial edgy brand,” according to its CEO.

So how does a giant brand, with a distinct target on millennials, better understand the demographic? For one, Taco Bell is so dedicated to learning the language, that its headquarters has a “Millennial Word of the Week.” The terms are curated by a group of 20-something staffers and an email is sent out to the company. The words are also posted on video screens around the office.

Wild, right? Imagine getting a work email defining the phrase “on fleek” to mean “on point.” And then imagine your 41-year-old CEO, Brian Niccol, incorporating said language in a presentation to investors and analysts. Except Niccol, bless his heart, said “on cleek.” The next day his social media team told him he was close, presumably followed by “dat PowerPoint tho!”

Increasingly, other marketing teams are taking a Rosetta Stone crash course on millennial-speak. A study late last year looked at the use of “bae” and “fleek” by 14 major brands on Twitter. Across one month, more than 17,000 mentions featured one of those terms in posts about the brands. Taco Bell topped that list, with 4,800+ mentions of “bae/fleek,” good for 1 percent of their total mentions in that month.

That may not sound like much, but consider this: one in 100 fans are associating the Taco Bell brand with a word that isn’t even in the dictionary. For a word to make it into the Oxford English Dictionary, it must be in use for at least five years. A helpful exercise for millennial messaging is to ensure your vocabulary is concise, playful and not exclusively dictionary-age.

Crowdsource Content

Most millennials will tell you they respond better to their peers, not a hired hand, telling a brand’s story. A report by Crowdtap shows that information received by millennials through user-generated content is trusted 50 percent more than information from other media sources, including TV, newspapers and magazines. What’s more, millennials reported that this original content is 20 percent more influential on their purchase decisions than other media.

The challenge is transforming crowdsourced content into leads and sales, not just “likes.” This month, Forever 21 unveiled an innovative new campaign turning real-time Instagram photos into a live 24-hour, video event. The goal is a pure awareness drive. Meanwhile, a fellow millennial clothing retailer is succeeding with a similar campaign driven by a defined ROI.

Starting in early 2014, Urban Outfitters invited millennials to submit their own photos modeling the retailer’s clothes. The #UOonYou page features hundreds of user-supplied images—it’s essentially a collated Instagram feed, with one really cool feature: hovering over the image gives you the option to “Shop It.”

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Urban Outfitters has not only found a cheat code for free, targeted content, but that content also comes with a unique call-to-action. The best news for the retailer: One in five visitors to the crowdsourced microsite clicks on a “Shop It” button. It’s a digital marketer’s dream.

Subscribe to Trend Aggregators

Let’s be honest: We’re not all One Directioners with enough free time to follow hourly trending topics. Instead, a smart way to stay up-to-date on consumer behavior and market forecasting is to subscribe to a newsletter that aggregates relevant trends for you.

Cassandra Daily is an engaging, free e-newsletter featuring the day’s emergent social and cultural trends. The newsletter is backed by a millennial-focused consumer research company and features examples of brands converting recent trends into successful campaigns.

For a more global, analytical view of the biggest trends throughout the year, check out Trendwatching. This newsletter breaks down the month’s “One Big Unmissable Consumer Trend,” and past publications are available on the site for free. It doesn’t hurt that the reports are artfully prepared and easy to read.

Did you know 2015 is the first year more millennials use Instagram than Twitter? You can get fun and useful youth marketing insights like this from the free YPulse newsletter. Its daily news feed is bright and easily digestible—like a Buzzfeed for millennial data.

Hire a Millennial

In 2014, Fiat launched a campaign called “Endless Fun” that featured animated GIFs on the Fiat Official Tumblr. The young artists commissioned for this series were expert natives of the intended platform; Fiat wanted to reach people on Tumblr, so they hired people on Tumblr. The campaign was such a success online, Fiat turned the GIFs into television spots.

The most direct way to speak to millennials might just be to hire them to do the speaking. As we saw with Taco Bell’s vocabulary lessons, Gen Y staffers should help drive creative input, not just fact-check the end product.

Take for instance, Gap’s “Dress Normal” campaign last fall, which introduced a clean, monotone line of clothes—imagine wearing an iPhone ad. The blank-space approach was intended to represent “dressing the way you want to,” as if we were finally given permission! The big miss for millennial consumers was branding a simple look as “normal,” when in reality, the trend started as a subversion away from a flashy, popular aesthetic. If anything, this look represents the “un-normal,” an identity most millennials would prefer.

Gap desperately needed someone from its target demographic to throw their body in front of this campaign, preferably early in the ideation process. Remember: If the millennial voice isn’t loud enough to be heard within the company’s walls, it has no chance of being heard outside.

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Want to learn more about how to reach millennial audiences? Check out our new Content+ digital content hub. It’s #OnFleek…or something like that.

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