Millennials (those born from early 1980s to early 2000s) are the generation coveted by many marketers, being teens to early 30s consumers with spending money and a willingness to part with it. Like any generation, millennials have some broad characteristics that marketers try to tap into with their messaging. But effective brand storytelling evolves just as generations do. Millennials, it turns out, reward brands for going above and beyond the traditional “giving back” to communities, which in turn affects the stories being told to reach them.
First, a look at traditional philanthropy.
Old School: Giving Back to Society
For decades, even centuries, American corporate images have been shaped by not only their products and profits, but by what they give back. Even as the railroad “robber barons” of the 19th century amassed enormous wealth, those like steel titan Andrew Carnegie came to be known at least as much for their contributions to charities and foundations (he famously had given away about 90% of his wealth, over $4 billion in 2014 value, by the time of his death in 1919).
Carnegie’s essay The Gospel of Wealth urged the wealthy to adopt likeminded charitable efforts. It made an impression. The now tried and true “Corporate Social Responsibility” (CSR) from years ago is still with us, and that’s a good thing (politics notwithstanding – a topic for another post). Nelson Rockefeller, J. Paul Getty, and others funneled millions from their industrial fortunes into grants for the arts and social development in the 20th century, and history commends their largesse. CSR still accounts for huge amounts of yearly donations and contributions from corporations large and small.
But today, while there’s no denying that philanthropy can be a powerful force for social good, it alone does not guarantee a compelling brand story. (Obviously, motivations for charity exist far beyond branding – but we’re just focusing on the storytelling implications here.)
Consider a few traditional examples:
1. Wells Fargo bank donated a commendable $315 million cash in 2012. But it’s hardly part of that company’s consumer story. Maybe because it doesn’t target millennials, or maybe because it feels it’s doing just fine without that story, period ($315 million represented just 1.3% of its 2011 pre-tax profits). At any rate, the company has been lauded for its generosity in terms of pure dollar amounts regardless of the causes supported. However, to consumers it is marketed as friendly, helpful, professional – but still just a big bank.
2. McDonald’s, certainly no stranger to the millennial audience, has long been involved in philanthropic efforts such as raising money for Ronald McDonald Houses for chronically ill children. While certainly benefiting from the PR (some would say unfairly exploiting it), it’s not a foremost talking point of McDonald’s advertising or social media storytelling. And that might be fine for McDonald’s, with its established consumer base and massive revenues and advertising budget. At the end of the day, it’s known as a fast-food joint with “billions and billions served.”
3. Ted Turner: What is he best known for? The media mogul who brought CNN to the world? His marriage to actress/activist Jane Fonda? Owner of the Atlanta Braves? His cleft chin? Not everyone may remember his huge charitable pledge to the United Nations: $1 billion in 1998. While an amazing gift to world development, this is not necessarily a big part of his personal brand story.
New Approach: Standing For a Social Cause
87% of millennials donated to a non-profit in 2013; and they turn to brands as outlets for social change (Millennial Marketing, 2014). This brings us to the new school of engaging with millennials: In order to affect consumer choice you can’t just support a cause; you must BE the cause.
This is where CSR has morphed into CSV: Corporate Social Value.
So what are brands doing to capture the socially conscious interest of millennials, enough to influence their buying decisions? Some newer brands have woven a movement into their very business model to craft a story so appealing it almost sells itself.
A flagship for this approach is TOMS Shoes.
With its One for One® model, TOMS donates a product to someone in need for every product purchased. Who can’t get behind providing shoes to the shoeless? Standing for change in poor communities here and abroad, it goes well beyond donating a big pot of cash to a faceless foundation. And boy, does it make for good TOMS brand stories on the website and touching video too. Now the One for One model is expanding beyond shoes, to coffee (clean water for each coffee purchase), and eyewear.
Of course, the better the storytelling, the more shareable the content. And thar’s the gold for content marketers: On social media (where millennials are truly native), clicks from shared content are five times more likely to result in a purchase (Voltier Digital, 2012).
Sustainable, natural farming is also a major theme in cause-based content marketing, as championed by Chipotle restaurants (notably free from any McDonald’s ownership as of 2006).
Chipotle rails against the food production machine in its artfully poignant video The Scarecrow. It’s a moving tale of a plucky survivor – ostensibly mirroring Chipotle’s own corporate journey to offer a rare sliver of organic freshness in a brutally processed world. Has it resonated? 13 million views (with 72K positive votes to 3K negative) suggest that it has.
(As a sidelight: Don’t miss out on the various Chipotle fan videos such as The Chipotle Loophole – a holy grail of digital marketing, when brand devotees distribute their own quality, authentic, and shareable content about their favorite brands for free.)
As more companies emerge to stand for something, rather than just give back with cash, it will be interesting to see how far corporate social value will affect how brands sell themselves. Will the bar continue to rise? Will millennials’ wallets ultimately drive more social good by demanding more corporate social value? Or is this more an evolution in the art of brand storytelling?
Perhaps an insight from Andrew Carnegie belongs here: “As I grow older, I pay less attention to what men say. I just watch what they do.”