Marketing to Millennials™: Lessons from the Classroom

Principles of Marketing Text by Cengage’s Southwestern Publishing

The American standard song, “Getting to Know You” wisely says:

It’s a very ancient saying,
But a true and honest thought,
That if you become a teacher,
By your pupils you’ll be taught.


As a teacher I’ve been learning —
You’ll forgive me if I boast —
And I’ve now become an expert,
On the subject I like most.

Getting to know you.

Over eight years of teaching Principles Marketing to sophomores at University of Notre Dame, these words have proven their wisdom.

Early on, I realized students today are not younger versions of my 1974-self. I cringe now to think of the mistakes I made. My approach was Powerpoint-heavy and textbook-focused. I treated them like corporate executives at an off-site seminar. Students were bored. I was frustrated. My class evaluations were humbling.  Actually, that is an understatement. I was flattened for days after I read my first student evaluations.

How things have changed! Over the past 8 years, my teaching approach has become increasingly “Millennial-friendly”.

I still have a lot to learn but three weeks into what is charmingly referred to as “Spring Semester” at Notre Dame (Jan-May), I am tentatively thinking to myself, ‘By George, I think she’s got it!’ Here are some of the principles that are making Principles of Marketing a joy for both me and the students. (Below I’ll tell you how I think they apply to Marketing to Millennials.)

1. The right text.

Millennials are visually literate. It’s not just about the words, it’s about the way the words LOOK on the page. A poor, uninviting design is a turnoff, regardless of how inspired the content. This year I am using a text from Cengage Learning’s Southwest Publishing Group. This Principles of Marketing text is the best I’ve used yet for one reason: the students actually will read it.

The book is softcover, costs just $55 (including online resources), and is colorful and graphic. It looks like a magazine. Yet the content has not been compromised, just condensed.  Extra material has been moved online. There are flash cards, practice quizzes, cases and podcasts online as well. The text is not the only content, just a starting point.

2. Bite-sized learning.

In the past, my syllabus outlined two exams and a semester-long project, each about one fourth to a third of the total grade. Now I know better; Millennials need more frequent assignments and feedback to keep them focused.There is a lot of competition for their attention.  Like the rest of us, they sometimes have trouble managing their time.

Weekly case assignments, environmental scans, frequent quizzes, and tests help to keep them on track. No assignment or test is more than 10% of their grade. I even build in extra credit and ‘bye’ weeks.  This contributes to continous, rather than sporadic learning, and helps me keep a pulse on what’s working.

3. Participatory Class Time

The worst criticism I heard was that ‘class time was a waste of time, just read the book’. In an era when the best college lectures are often available online and in podcasts, professors have to work very hard to make class time matter. I ask myself when preparing for each class, ‘what can be uniquely delivered in person that can’t be provided any other way’?  The answer is interaction.

Nearly every 75-minute class includes break out time and heavy doses of discussion. Four entire class periods are devoted to student reports. Getting sophomores to talk isn’t always easy – they prefer to remain quiet. But weekly homework ensures they have something of value to share and ups participation.

4. Multi-media.

At Notre Dame, we are blessed with high-tech enabled classrooms and courseware. I incorporate DVD video material and Youtube videos into each class session. We maintain a class blog and make use of a protected class web site.  A library investigation project familiarizes students with the wealth of ‘non-Google-able’ material available through the library databases. Students are encouraged to use web-based team collaboration tools to complete their group assignments.

5. Relevance

Students need to see that what they are doing relates to their ‘real lives’. I work to incorporate discussions of real marketing dilemmas and innovations. Already we have discussed the Pepsi Refresh project, iPad, Microsoft, MTV, Cirque Du Soleil, MTV, Netflix, SuperBowl XLIV, Method, McDonalds and more. I have invited a panel of former students who work at Target, LL Bean, IBM, Snapple and other brand marketing firms to form a panel discussion group later this semester.

Teaching and marketing have a lot in common. Marketers must understand your target, have clear objectives and strategies for engagement, and a measurable outcome. My insights about what works in the classroom can be translated to marketing:

1. The Right Text: Is your story text-heavy or is visual design a cornerstone of your marketing approach?

2. Bite-Sized Learning: Are you serving the right message at the right time? What are the key take-aways? What feedback can you provide?

3. Participatory: What mechanisms are in place to engage your audience in a conversation?

4. Multi-Media: Are you using all the channels available to get your message across?

5. Relevance: Is your message current? Does your Gen Y target see how it is applicable to their world?

Whether you target them in the classroom, social media or some other venue, it’s critical to tailor your approach to Gen Y’s unique ways of learning and processing information. Getting to know you definitely pays off.