Kristen Chung (BSBA '17) - UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School

Nostalgia is key to winning over millennials

Kristen Chung (BSBA '17) - UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School

Kristen Chung (BSBA ’17)

What’s one of the hottest buzz words in the marketing world? Millennial.

The age group representing today’s 18 to 34-year-olds has surpassed the Baby Boomer generation to become the largest age group in the U.S. According to the Brookings Institution, millennials account for more than $1 trillion in U.S. consumer spending and will make up 75 percent of the U.S. workforce by 2025.

And I am one of them.

Millennials like me grew up in a world of technology and choice – that’s why our shopping habits are unlike those of any other age group. With every email blast and ad that I see, it’s clear that marketers and advertisers are going to great lengths to get into my head, heart and wallet. Fast food chain Taco Bell even went as far as asking its 20-something employees to curate a “Millennial Word of the Day” so the company could better relate to the group. I’d say that’s dope! (Read: Awesome.)

Recently, companies have tried to connect with millennials through nostalgia marketing. Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) brought back its original spokesperson, Colonel Sanders, to revitalize the brand. But instead of depicting the Colonel as a warm grandfatherly figure, they introduced a cooler, edgier Colonel who resonates with millennials while rekindling the connection to the brand for consumers who remember KFC from their childhood.

I largely believe millennials are a sentimental group – that’s why we love to share Timehop and #TBT (Throwback Thursday) posts of photos from our childhood and other fond memories on social media. Leading brands are winning big by capitalizing on this trend and bringing back familiar favorites. Pokémon GO certainly piqued my interest and successfully got the large majority of my friends to walk around on their smartphones on a quest to “catch them all!”

One brand that nailed nostalgia marketing for me is Bath & Body Works. In a time when online retail dominates, many mall-based stores have struggled to stay relevant. To be honest, it takes a lot to motivate me to navigate the crowds in the mall – but the revival of retired scents from the ’90s harkened my inner 10-year-old to pay a visit to the store filled with wafts of flowery smells. I’ve found companies that stir up fond memories can inspire me to revisit a brand that I might have otherwise forgotten.

Though I aspire to work in the field of marketing post-graduation, I’m the first to admit that I am not a fan of being marketed to – and I think most millennials would agree. Brands I like the most have won me over by creating a compelling, authentic story and giving me a real reason to believe in their product or service.

As a consumer, it’s important to speak to me directly – but you don’t need to make it obvious that you employ a “Millennial Word of the Day.”

Lenovo has done a good job retargeting its marketing to millennials. Since splitting from IBM, Lenovo has transformed its stiff, less relatable image into a more fun, adventure-seeking brand personality. The company changed its logo to include imagery showing the brand “never stands still” and employs YouTube influencers to show – not tell – consumers like me how and why we should use their products. That’s what I think of when I see the Lenovo brand.

The most important insight I can share with brands is this: millennials want more than clever ad copy or a witty spokesperson. Nostalgia marketing does grab attention, but it’s a company’s ability to speak to me with authenticity and tell a story that ultimately wins my business. So don’t just sell me that taco or a $500 laptop – help me understand how your products and brand fit into my life and align with things that are important to me.

By Kristen Chung (BSBA ’17)

This post was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of UNC Business magazine, “Envisioning the future: How technology, demographics and consumer behavior will shape the exchange of ideas.” Download the download the UNC Business app for related articles and interactive content.