Are digital-age tools creating more advertising-immune consumers?

Photo by KV Mithani

I heard this statement on NPR last night about millenials and brands in context to food products, but it seems to be the prevailing wisdom based on several articles like this one that indicate the millennial generation is less likely to be brand loyal than previous generations. Most analysts cite economics — that millennials generally can’t afford to be choosy right now and are therefore driven by price more than other considerations. But I have to wonder if something else is not at play. Is it possible that while the gurus of Web 2.0 have made gazillions promising advertisers that they can segment the market into digestible, predictable, accessible little data points, that the very tools they’ve built to achieve these goals also foster a consumer who is more immune to advertising and branding? I don’t know, but if we think about millennials as consumers, it’s entirely possible.

The first obvious reality about the next-gen consumer is that he’s media saturated to the point of ADD. It is well understood that this demographic consumes both entertainment and advertising in an asymmetrical, fragmentary way; and while many theories and experiments have emerged to “cut through the clutter,” as advertisers fervently hope, it’s entirely possible that the clutter is winning. In fact, the explosion of Web 2.0 applications and social media environments has fostered a marketplace that advertisers may wish, at least for some time, that they had not pursued. The bottom line when it comes to effective media buying is knowing where your consumer is (e.g. dutifully watching Seinfeld on Thursday at 8:00pm), and it’s tough to build a relationship between a consumer and a brand when that consumer is everywhere and nowhere at any given moment. It’s advertising according to Werner Heisenberg.

Also, thanks to the digital age, I personally believe millennials are gaining a media intelligence that is different from those of us born, say, in the early days of color television. Even the least sophisticated ten-year-old growing up with YouTube as the norm very likely has a meta-intelligence about the workings of communications that is both conscious and unconscious. If so, this makes her a much tougher nut to crack with traditional advertising and media tools. Plus, the new tools have the potential to dissociate the advertising from the brand even further than in pre-internet models.

Remember the “Where’s the Beef” campaign? Award winning. Funny. A cultural icon. And it didn’t move the needle on Wendy’s market-share one bit. Making entertaining ads that don’t translate into sales is a perennial challenge for advertisers; but now, the landscape is even more complicated with so many advertisers chasing the dream of “going viral.” On the one hand, we now have a market in which a TV spot for instance can be so entertaining that people will watch it on purpose and even share it through social media. “Cha ching,” thinks the media buyer. “That’s reaching more people for free!” But the same tools for this kind of diffusion can also disconnect the advertisement from the brand, spreading the message so far outside its intended targets that it can even result in a net loss. Just because something goes viral doesn’t mean it won’t invite comments like, “Great spot. Laughed my ass off. Worst product ever!” Because let’s face it, the Web brings out everyone’s inner troll at least a little.

Regardless, relationships take time, and this is just as true for consumer/brand relationships as it is for interpersonal ones. And one thing that cyber life and social media certainly does not foster is a greater investment of time into the messages, comments, memes, videos, news items, and mundane gibberish that updates every second of our lives. There is certainly opportunity within these models to build brand loyalty — P2P is a powerful way to market — but it’s entirely possible that businesses will have to work harder to offer real value in order to maintain relationships that can theoretically be broken with a single tweet. Brand identity alone may be losing some of its sheen for the next generation; and the marketing promises of Web 2.0 make me wonder if advertisers aren’t trying too hard to grasp every grain of sand.

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