Whether they call them millennials, next gen buyers or digital natives, it seems there's nothing that brands won't do to reach those elusive 18-33 olds. Getting to a generation known to avoid television and to check a plethora of digital devices as many as 100 times a day is not easy. But at the Adweek and OMMA conferences held in NYC this week, executives from Wendy's, Chevrolet and Bud Light gave hard proof that taking risks to do so is paying off.
Instead of emphasizing TV advertising, as they formerly would have, more brands today are focusing on edgier, digital-first campaigns on YouTube, Facebook and other platforms, often poking fun at themselves in the process. A recent tongue-in-cheek campaign built around Wendy's new pretzel bacon cheeseburger, for example, was one of the most successful product launches in the company's history, according to Brandon Rhoten, vice president of digital and social media at Wendy's.
Launched in July, the campaign incorporated people's tweets about the product into a cheesy video series called #PretzelLoveSongs - sung by the likes of former Backstreet Boy, Nick Lachey, as well as several unknown actors who hammed it up "American Idol" style. The YouTube videos were launched in a series of posts on Facebook and only later as TV spots. "This is really different for our brand. We are a very traditional brand," says Rhoten.
But the sassy attitude won the hearts of younger viewers, paying off both in terms of people reached and burgers sold. Wendy's reached 83 million unique individuals on Facebook with the campaign, constituting a unique digital reach of 8.3 percent. The Facebook posts also saw 1.7 billion total impressions and the videos garnered more than 5 million views. And about 62 percent of those reached on Facebook were Millennials. "We were able to reach a huge chunk of potential new customers," Rhoten says.
Even more surprising was the effect on sales. Normally Rhoten says, publicity for a new product is kept muted to give franchisees at the chain time to learn how to optimally prepare it. But this time, Wendy's decided to start right away with online efforts on Twitter and Facebook.
"We started teasing the pretzel bacon burger online and got in front of people faster than expected. Sales started to ramp earlier than usual," Rhoten says.
Another company that has seen sales impacted by its focus on Millennials is Chevrolet. Annalisa Bluhm, Chevrolet communications manager at General Motors, told participants this week at the OMMA conference in NYC that sales of Chevy's Sonic, Spark and Cruze lines had jumped 230 percent from the second quarter of 2010 to the second quarter of this year due to these efforts.
Chevy has drastically changed its marketing methods over the past few years in an effort to shed its stodgy image—until recently, the average age of a Chevy buyer was 56—and position its subcompacts among young, college-oriented car buyers, who, the car company found, are largely brand agnostic.
"We knew we had to flip the script. We had to shock, be present and be compelling," says Bluhm. That also meant a turn away from traditional TV ads, which did not run for the first six months of the campaign. Instead, Sonic started with some attention-grabbing YouTube videos, such as a Bungee-jumping car or a car being shoved out of plane, some of which got half a million views. On the Chevy Facebook page, users could users could also hit "like" to move the car closer to jumping into a pool of water.
But as the company got more sophisticated with social media, it started to move beyond catchy stunts. One of its most successful efforts was its 2012 "Home for the Holidays" social campaign, in conjunction with engagement platform Dailybreak, which let users create and share digital holiday postcards for a chance to win a Chevy Cruze, Sonic, or Spark. The postcards, which played on research showing that family and connections are very important to millennials, demonstrated what each user would do with the car if they won. Users could then choose a photo and a filter as well as customizing the frame and caption.
Over the course of the campaign, users created some 6,484 postcards and spent an average of 12 minutes engaging with the experience. And although it wasn't mandatory, around 24 percent of participants filled in contact information so that they could be contacted by a Chevy sales representative. Bluhm says the key was not to push too hard, but to let people decide themselves if they wanted to be contacted. Chevy was also stunned by the heartfelt emotions expressed by some of the participants, Bluhm says, as well as by the fact that they sold four cars as a direct result of the campaign. "Our goal was to get our voice out there," says Bluhm. The winner, Destiny Espry, said she would give the car to her mother.
Bud Light doesn't have to freshen up its image like Chevy. But the brand has also come to the conclusion that its digital efforts on Facebook are paying off both in terms of sales and brand recognition, Lucas Herscovici, vice president, digital marketing, North America at Anheuser Busch, told AdWeek participants. A Facebook campaign run late last year measured by Nielsen, for example, was shown to have reached 23 million households, providing a 3.3 percent sales lift and a return on advertising spend of 6 to 1, which is superior to other advertising channels.
"This is good proof for us that the content we were creating was working and that it was driving sales," he says.
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Mary Lisbeth D'Amico is a freelance writer based in Jersey City who frequently covers digital marketing, social media, tech startups, and venture capital. She has contributed to a wide range of publications including The Wall Street Journal, Business Week, Red Herring, and Real Deals. Find her on Twitter at @mldamico.