The Millennial Appeal of Google, Under Armour & Trader Joe’s

It would be hard to find three more different brands in three more diverse categories than Google, Under Armour and Trader Joe’s.  Yet each appeals strongly to Gen Y.

Google: According to blogger, Sam McRoberts, aka Samantics, Google is the ‘Millennial deity’. “While search engines in general have had a major impact, Google is very nearly the deity of Gen Y. They are dedicated to providing as much information and tools as possible, absolutely free. Sure, they charge for some things, but they have done more to bring down the cost of music, news, movies, games, and data in general than any other company.

Under Armour: Under Armour is the brand my students pick most consistently for their semester marketing projects.  According to Gen Y blogger, Greg Rollett,those that play (or played) high school sports, or college for that matter, know that the majority of players choose Under Armour as their performance wear.”

Trader Joe’s: Trader Joe’s was one of the 15 brands named by Outlaw Consulting’s trendsetter panel as being loved precisely because they do not fit the conventions of being hip. Like Napoleon Dynamite, it is an unapologetically “dorky alternative to cool”. Other brands that fit this description? In N’ Out Burger and Jet Blue.

What makes their appeal even more remarkable is that they have accomplished it by rejecting the usual trappings of big brand marketing.

None of these big brands has a significant advertising presence. All of them are famous for not behaving like, well, a ‘big brand’. What characteristics do these three brands share that can help marketers understand what gives a brand “Millennial Appeal”?

For starters, there are qualities all three are not!

  • They are not known for their overt sexiness. Is there anything less sexy than a search engine, a Hawaiian shirt or a hoodie?
  • They are not known for Apple-like bleeding edge design. Trader Joe’s signs and web site have a homely, handmade appearance. Google’s simple home page has been more or less the same since day one.
  • They do not have an irreverent attitude. None of these brands are known for their youthful sass.

In each case the foundation of the appeal lies more in who they are, and how they deliver value rather than what they do or their clever youthful take on marketing. Here are three qualities they all share:

1.  They Are All ‘Trailblazers’.

All three brands creatively tried to do something that had not been done before. And each continues to go its own way, with little acknowledgement that they even have competition. They are originals, with a one of a kind identity. Millennials resonate with this go-your-own-way individualism. They do not feel a need to respect tradition. Here’s Sam McRoberts again:

“We detest mindless tradition. If you want us to do something, you better have a very good reason, not to mention the good sense to get out of our way and let us innovate and improve the process…”just because” doesn’t work for us, and neither does inefficiency.We epitomize creativity.”

2. They All Exhibit a Low Key Style of Marketing

Google just ran its first television commercial in the 2010 Super Bowl. Until now, it has relied almost entirely on word of mouth to support its consumer-facing and largely free services.

Likewise Trader Joe’s does little advertising and sells nothing online. It’s web site is purely informational.

Under Armour relies heavily on product placement for publicity. Despite its presence on the athletic apparel at the Olympics, it is not running Olympics-themed advertising.

The absence of overt marketing serves to heighten credibility with Gen Y. According to Outlaw’s Strategic Analyst, Holly Brickley,”Generation Y trendsetters are more drawn to brands that speak to them in a straightforward and stripped-down way, use plain packaging, and avoid excess,and stripped-down way, use plain packaging, and avoid excess.”  Not shouting their message allows Gen Y to feel as if they discovered the brand on their own, enhancing their sense of ‘ownership’.  Discovery is a key part of the appeal of each of these brands.

3. They All Have Strong Gen Y ‘Lifestyle Relevance’

While each brand has a pedestrian side (sports apparel, non-branded groceries, search engine), each transcends its category and has come to symbolize a way of life and a system of values that resonates with Millennials. These brands’ values are strongly aligned with Millennial values of simplicity and appreciation for the ‘non-corporate’.

Google famously strives to ‘do no evil’.  Its services make life easier and more efficient, a core Gen Y value. What’s more, Google provides its services free of charge.

Trader Joe’s web site talks about itself as ‘your neighborhood grocery store. It emphasizes that its products are ‘unbranded’, ‘unconventional’ and ‘a shopping adventure’. It has a designated person in every store to handle charitable donations.

At Trader Joe’s, you won’t find a lot of branded items. Instead, you’ll find unconventional and interesting products in the Trader Joe’s label as well as everyday basics. We buy products we think are winners and that’ll find a following among our customers. Sometimes it’s a product we intend to stock as long as it sells well; and sometimes we buy a product which is in limited supply, sell through it, and you won’t find it again. It’s all part of the shopping adventure at Trader Joe’s.”

Under Armour relied on the authenticity of real players wearing its products from its earliest days. According to Business Week, Kevin Plank, UA’s young founder spent four years tireless pitching his product to college and NFL teams.

“We convinced these big tough football players to start wearing tight-fitting synthetic shirts, which was completely new and different,” he says. In addition to stars such as Jeff George, Jerry Rice, and Plank’s Maryland teammate Frank Wycheck, big names in other sports, such as pitcher Roger Clemens, became Under Armour fans. The pros’ acceptance brings Under Armour an authenticity that advertising alone can’t create.”

Other brands with similar bases for appeal among Millennials include Zappos, Jet Blue, In N’ Out Burger, Red Bull, Target, Vitamin Water, and more.  All of these brands rely less on advertising — network or viral — and more on their innate authenticity to connect with Gen Y.  They don’t do things ‘by the big brand book’ and ironically that is their secret to becoming big brands.

The lessons of these three brands? Becoming ‘big’ with Gen Y is more about restraint than overt action. By avoiding many of the trappings of a mainstream brand, they become mainstream. This may be the ultimate paradox of Millennial Marketing.