Reflections on “The Dream”, 50 Years On

US civil rights leader Martin Luther King,Jr.

An Editorial

One hundred years ago, most white Americans didn’t even challenge the notion that they were somehow biologically superior to the other races of the world. It was simply taken as a fact, in spite of mounting scientific evidence that it simply wasn’t true, much of this evidence coming from the pioneering work of Franz Boas (Memo to self: do an Awesome People in History on Franz Boas).

Fifty years ago, a crowd of 250,000 civil rights marchers listened to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver an ad-libbed speech that has come to be one of the most famous speeches in American history.

This year, in the video game BioShock: Infinite, the player’s main enemy is an army of racists. Think about what that says for a minute. Racism has gone from being accepted as “normal” to being so widely despised that it is a stock evil trait to make us hate fictional villains. If anything testifies to just how radically our society’s values have changed in the past century, this is it.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Everyone from CNN to Google to Fox News to NBC to President Obama have marked the occasion. And why not? Though only one minute and twenty seconds long, the refrain spoken on the Lincoln Memorial that day summarized what the Civil Rights Movement was all about in a way that every American, regardless of their background, could understand. It is impossible to know how many minds were swayed that day, but what can’t be denied is that the Civil Rights Act, the cornerstone of the end of legal discrimination in our country, was passed less than a year later.

Fifty years after this speech, America’s president is a man whose father was from Africa and whose mother was from Kansas. Yet it is also true that fifty years after this speech, Americans that are classified as black, Native American, Hispanic, or Pacific Islander are more likely to be below poverty than those classified as white or Asian, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Race may no longer be a barrier to success, but growing up in poverty in an urban ghetto, surrounded by crime and violence and having few opportunities to advance oneself, certainly is. While it is not impossible to escape the spiral of poverty, it is really difficult, far more difficult than many of us may realize. Many of you Cat Flaggers already know where I stand on issues like poverty and homelessness.

Dr. King may be most famous for combating racism, but many people forget that he also campaigned on behalf of the poor. He understood that after racial discrimination had been tacked, the next great barrier to equal opportunity for all was class discrimination and economic inequality. When I read “looking back” articles on how far we’ve come in trying to reach Dr. King’s dream, the areas we fall short always are economic in nature, and linked to the cycle of poverty. Only by addressing poverty effectively can we really create an America where everyone can achieve their dreams.

Unfortunately, tackling poverty is a far larger and far more complex problem than tackling racism. Poverty has always existed throughout humanity’s history, and it never has just one cause with a simple solution. Poverty is caused by many, many different factors, and they relate to each other in complex ways. No two people in poverty are in poverty for exactly the same reasons.

Just because it is difficult, however, doesn’t mean it is hopeless. Yes, tackling poverty will take a complex, multi-faceted approach that doesn’t try to find a single, simple solution but instead tries to attack the problem from many angles. Yes, this will be difficult to do. Yes, it will require the cooperation of federal and state governments and private charities, of both political parties, and of schools, teachers, and parents. And yes, we should still do it.

Cat Flag’s Guide to Understanding Millennials: Brands that Fail Utterly at “Getting” Us

Millennials image from CSU Long Beach

Two weeks ago, I talked about those brands whose marketing departments seem to “get” my generation. However, as I said in that article, there is no magic formula for reaching us. Marketing to ANY demographic is hard, and there are plenty of places where things can go horribly wrong.

Here are a few.

The Sci-Fi Channel. Oh, wait no… “Syfy”.

Really? Just... really?

Really? Just… really?

The Sci-Fi Channel was once a glorious place for those who, like me, had a “nerdy” bent. It brought us many of the glorious science fiction programs of the pastStar Trek, Doctor Who, Stargate, Farscape, Babylon 5, Quantum Leap, and more. They also were the final home of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and one of the few TV channels that aired anime in the United States when I was growing up. Many of the most iconic anime movies, miniseries, and TV shows of all time were introduced to American audiences on this channel. On top of that, the channel tried its hand at a number of its own TV series that achieved a huge following and critical acclaim, like Battlestar Galactica. This channel was a staple of my teenage and early college years, and I’m getting all nostalgic just thinking about it.

Then, after changing owners numerous times, the channel wound up in the hands of NBC Universal. At first, the new owners left it alone, as it pulled in pretty good ratings. Then, in 2006, NBC Universal began to try to broaden its appeal and become, I’m quoting the station’s president David Howe here, “less geeky”. Law & Order, pro wrestling, and reality shows started to appear in the station’s lineup, and anime was dropped entirely. To complete the betrayal, the station changed its name to “Syfy”.

The name change, according to Business Insider, was meant to attract my age group. Howe claimed “The thing that we got back from our 18-to-34 techno-savvy crowd, which is quite a lot of our audience, is actually this is how you’d text it… It made us feel much cooler, much more cutting-edge, much more hip.”

In fact, however, “syfy” is a slang term for syphilis. Not exactly demonstrating your hip understanding of the techno-savvy Millennial crowd, Mr. Howe.

If you ACTUALLY understood the Millennial crowd, you would have realized that these radical changes would not have improved your ratings at all. Which they haven’t. The decision to try to make your station “less geeky” could not have been timed any worse – geeky has taken over mainstream pop culture in a big way these past few years. Just look at the success of the Marvel movies, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and the entire video game industry. Now is not the time to alienate the “geeky”.

Which is exactly what Syfy has done. After earning a spot on TIME magazine’s “Top 10 Worst Corporate Name Changes”, the station has flooded its airwaves with dumb reality shows and even dumber “monster-of-the-week” movies, to the point where it has become a standing joke. To give you a firm grasp of how bad things have gone on that station, Syfy executives are currently planning to follow up the “success” of its movie Sharknado with Ghost Shark. I wish I were making that up.

The Sci-Fi Channel had an entire generation that grew up watching its programming, and who still carry plenty of nostalgic memories of turning on the TV on Saturday to watch Akira or Macross or Ghost in the Shell, or being able to turn on Star Trek on almost any day of the week when there was nothing else worthwhile to watch. At a time when the channel could have banked on the growing nerd presence in pop culture to become one of the most successful channels on TV, it instead chose to dumb down its programming and broadcast the same trash as everyone else. What a waste.

Abercrombie & Fitch

Abercrombie and Fitch models image from Bloomberg

This is a cautionary tale about how people change their tastes and ideas over time. When I was in middle school and high school, Abercrombie & Fitch was the pinnacle of “cool”. Everyone wanted to be wearing ridiculously overpriced T-shirts, jackets, and jeans that just so happened to have “A&F” printed on them. Today, the biggest thing you hear in the news about this company is that everybody is boycotting it. This must completely baffle the company’s executives, because they have changed precisely nothing between then and now.

Abercrombie is a clothing company that in 1997 decided to concentrate all of its efforts on the brand-spanking-new Millennial market that was just starting to emerge. The company poured all of its energy into being the “coolest” clothing line of them all. The key, they realized, was that “cool” was a very exclusive and elite status. Not everyone could be cool, but everyone wanted to be cool. The company carefully, methodically, and purposely re-engineered every last detail of their stores, advertising, and corporate culture to reek of “I’m too cool for you.”

The cashiers and customer service reps, now called “brand representatives”, were trained to be rude and obnoxious to customers. The in-store music was purposefully played too loud so that you couldn’t hear yourself think. Their advertising focused not on the product they were supposed to be selling, but how hot and sculpted their models were.

You do realize you are supposed to be an ad for CLOTHING, right?

You do realize you are supposed to be an ad for CLOTHING, right?

The goal was to make teens and young adults beg them for the right to wear their clothing. And it worked. For a while.

The problem for Abercrombie is that Millennials have grown up, and they have not. They have retained their “too cool for you” marketing strategy long after we graduated from high school and changed our conceptions of what is and is not cool, as young adults do when they mature. Now, at best the brand just looks obnoxious. However, things can and have gotten a whole lot worse.

For one thing, Abercrombie has been accused of racial discrimination in its hiring practices. In 2005, a lawsuit to that effect was settled out-of-court for $50 million. Not helping matters are the fact that they have made numerous T-shirts with offensive sayings and images that are often seen as racist or sexist. The latest controversy, however, has to do with the fact that A&F does not carry plus sizes. At all. People have noticed this for a long time, but a quote from the company’s CEO in a 2006 interview recently resurfaced and has sparked a firestorm. The quote: “Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people… A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.”

Ouch. Since that quote resurfaced, a massive backlash against the company for “anti-fat bias” has led to a huge boycott and an investigation by the French government on even more accusations of hiring discrimination. The company’s sales have been plummeting ever since.

Remember how we Millennials have become a generation that is all about activism and social responsibility? Well, one sure way to lose customers among my peers is to be perceived as an evil company that is willing to hurt people on the path to profit. You know, like discriminating against people for not being rich, white, suburban youths who exhibit “classic American beauty” (their words).

J.C. Penney

JC Penney ad image from Business Insider

Okay, okay, I promise this is the last time I’m going to harp on this subject. Cross my heart.

It’s just that I grew up with shopping at J.C. Penney; it was the one store we always visited when we went to the mall. It has hurt tremendously to watch what has become of this once-mighty store.

We all know the story: Ron Johnson, fresh from his successes building the Apple store and rebuilding Target, was hired to give a struggling J.C. Penney a much-needed makeover. What Johnson ended up doing was destroy the company almost completely in one year, to the point where I’m not sure they can make a comeback even with him and the large shareholder who hired him gone. The company has been backpedaling ever since, but it was struggling already to begin with, so just going back to the way things were before, apart from being impossible (you can’t just erase the past), won’t be a reasonable plan to build a future off of.

So, what can we learn from J.C. Penney’s disastrous example? First of all, you can’t retrain customers to shop differently. My previous column on the matter and this excellent video both explain what went wrong with Johnson’s radical new pricing model. Human beings think with emotions first and reason second. It feels great to buy something at 75% off, even if the store never actually intended to sell the item at full price. We like to game the system. We like to think that we used the store’s own rules to beat it at its own game. Messing with that formula, however well-intentioned, is going to fail because the formula has been crafted over the decades specifically to make the customers feel like they had a great shopping experience.

This, however, is really just the tip of the iceberg. The real problem with J.C. Penney’s “new model” was a one-two punch of stupid: it completely ditched its established customer base in the pursuit of Millennial customers, and then failed to attract those Millennial customers.

Let’s start with the established customer base. In my previous article on brands that seem to “get” Millennials, I brought up Kohl’s as an example of a company that seems to me to have succeeded at attracting Millennial customers. Having said that, it’s pretty clear that Kohl’s has not ditched older customers in order to focus on Millennials. Yes, Millennial-friendly brands and products are front and center in the aisles, but there are also plenty of brands and products for Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers, and other older customers. When I shop at my local Kohl’s, at least a third of the customers are not Millennials. My mom loves shopping at Kohl’s as much as I do. Kohl’s demonstrates that attracting younger customers does not mean you have to alienate your existing customer base, and it does pay to cater to older customers sometimes, too. Instead, J.C. Penney told its existing customers “we don’t want you here anymore”. People are perceptive enough to know when they are unwelcome, and millions of lifelong Penney customers got the message and took their business elsewhere.

This made it all the more imperative that J.C. Penney attract Millennial customers to replace their departing customer base, and they completely and utterly failed to do so. They may have filled their shelves with brands we like, and even added a whole new home decor section for us, but their new store layout with mini-boutiques dedicated to specific brands only turned us off. As I said in my first post on the subject: I don’t want to have to hunt through the whole store to find the cheapest dress slacks that fit me. What’s more, the brand-centric layout just looks like crass commercialism at its worst.

"BUY ARIZONA! BUY ARIZONA!"

“BUY ARIZONA! BUY ARIZONA!”

Then there were the gimmicks. Oh, the gimmicks. No cash registers? Where am I supposed to check out? Find an employee? Oh, wait, I can’t find an employee because your new super-casual dress code means employees are dressed exactly the same as the customers. And don’t get me started at how nakedly cynical and pandering the whole concept of a “Denim Bar” is. I’m shopping for jeans, Mr. Johnson, not asking for tech support on my iPhone.

In summary, J.C. Penney failed to attract Millennial customers because it changed too much, too fast, and because we could easily see that they were cynically trying to act “cool” and “hip” and nakedly pander to us in order to make us pay more than we would at Kohl’s for the same pair of shoes. It tried to make shopping for clothing feel like shopping for a new tech gadget. But we weren’t shopping for a new tech gadget. We were shopping for a hoodie sweatshirt.

Microsoft

Microsoft logo from App Advice

You would think that technology companies would have the easiest time in the world marketing to Millennial customers. All they would have to do is go, “Hey, look! We’ve got a cool new gadget! Come buy it!”

Microsoft has demonstrated that it isn’t that easy. Sure, Microsoft isn’t exactly hurting for Millennial customers. The Xbox came out of absolutely nowhere to become one of the “Big Three” gaming consoles. Smartphones using the Windows Phone operating system are now outselling BlackBerry devices. Having said that, for every Microsoft success story, there are plenty of missteps and failures.

People are switching from PCs to Macs in huge numbers, and Millennial customers are one of the biggest drivers of that trend. From my personal experience, it seems that the vast majority of my peers carry Macbooks around with them, and only a few carry a PC laptop. Why? Well, I don’t think there is an easy answer to that, but it is true that Macs have a reputation of being more reliable and less likely to crash than PCs do, something that the always-plugged-in generation would find appealing. Also, Apple does give discounts to college students, it does market more than just a product, but a suite of products tied together into a cohesive experience, it does make tech support super easy when there is a problem, and it does emphasize simple and ergonomic design, which many Millennials find a key feature in things they buy. In essence, by making everything in-house and tightly controlling any third-party software offerings, Apple is able to provide consistent quality to every customer. Microsoft makes the Windows operating system, the Office suite of basic necessities, and Internet Explorer, but it doesn’t manufacture its own desktop or laptop machines and it doesn’t tightly control what programs can and can’t run on its devices. This gives PCs more flexibility, sure, but at the cost of having more ways for things to go wrong. Most Millennials, apparently, are willing to give up flexibility for ease of use, at least when it comes to their desktops and laptops.

Of course, you can’t blame Microsoft for not trying. Last year, they completely overhauled Windows from the ground up. The resulting “Windows 8” is unlike any PC operating system before. Instead of starting on a classic computer screen, it opens on a “Start Screen” that looks, well, like the main screen on a mobile device:

Windows 8 Start Screen image from Wikipedia

This is completely intentional, as Windows 8 is meant for both PCs and tablets. This way, users have a consistent experience on all their devices – a step in Apple’s direction. Except, not really. See, Windows 8 is completely misguided. The consistent experience an Apple user gets from all his or her Apple devices is based on functionality – any music they buy on iTunes, for example, can be downloaded directly from iTunes to their iPhone, their Mac or PC, their iPad, and so on, and can be backed up by Apple’s iCloud service so they don’t lose it if their devices are stolen or damaged. This makes life more convenient for the user. Windows 8’s Start Screen works great on a tablet or any form of touchscreen, but when you try to use it on a traditional PC with a mouse it is cumbersome, un-intuitive, and hard to use. People are used to having one layout and set of controls for their mobile devices and a second layout and set of controls for their desktops and laptops. Trying to combine the two has created nothing but a confusing mess. This makes life more difficult for the user.

Of course, this isn’t the first time Microsoft failed in its attempts to replicate Apple’s success. Remember the Zune? That was supposed to be Microsoft’s answer to the success of the iPod. Today, Microsoft doesn’t even make Zune devices anymore, and is slowly phasing out its Zune software, re-branding what can be salvaged from it as Xbox Live services. The simple fact was that Zune was a naked attempt to chase some of the iPod’s coattails, and never really tried to stand out and tell consumers why they should buy it instead of the behemoth that all their friends had. Not only that, but many of the Zune’s features were designed not for the benefit of the consumer, but the record companies whose music would be playing on the Zune. For example, one of the Zune’s selling points was that users could share songs with each other wirelessly. Except the shared song could only be played three times before deleting itself.

Futurama meme from Quickmeme

Even that, however, pales in comparison to the wholesale consumer backlash and furor over the latest incarnation of the Xbox. Dubbed the “Xbox One”, the new device that was meant to carry Microsoft into the next generation of video game consoles instead led to a firestorm so intense, it forced Microsoft to make one of its most sudden complete policy reversals in its history. The problem, once again, had to do with putting third parties – in this case, video game developers – ahead of the consumer.

Like the music industry, the video game industry has been running scared of piracy for the past decade or so. There have been various measures taken to combat this problem, most of which are harmless to ordinary consumers, but some of which have caused any number of user headaches and problems. The Xbox One, however, boasted a huge list of restrictions and intrusive anti-piracy measures that made consumers feel like either they were being punished for the crimes of others, the companies were just being greedy, or both. Just look at a few of these “features”:

Uh, Microsoft, you want people to actually buy your console, right?

Uh, Microsoft, you want people to actually buy your console, right?

Yet Microsoft strode confidently in to every press conference and trade show presentation, acting like its consumers would just accept these restrictions because every other console maker was going to do the same thing. These were the necessary evils of 21st century video gaming, they assumed. They assumed wrong. Sony was also unveiling a new console of its own, the PlayStation 4, but their new console was basically just a PlayStation with better hardware, like all of their new consoles have been. The build-up to the launch of the PS4 could have been just a boring marketing drive that only Sony fans cared about, but instead they took advantage of Microsoft’s bungle to skewer them alive. Now the news wasn’t “boring PS4 press conference at E3”; the news was “The PS4 will let you play used games! And trade games with your friends! And play offline!”

This pulled the rug out from Microsoft’s feet. Xbox consumers, already angry at the company for introducing these harsh restrictions on the games they have already purchased, now saw that Microsoft’s policies were inexcusable. Microsoft, its tail between its legs, announced that it would remove some of the most objectionable measures. The console hasn’t even been released yet, and already it has been one of the biggest marketing disasters in Microsoft’s history. It just goes to show what happens when you don’t put the consumer first.

Are there any other marketing failures you can think of? Let me know in the comments!

Elysium Ends the Summer Blockbuster Season on a High!

Elysium image from Science Fiction

It’s good to have a pleasant surprise once in a while.

South African writer/director Neill Blomkamp was a nobody who worked on visual effects for TV shows like Stargate SG-1 and Dark Angel while occasionally making his own indie short films, until one day Peter Jackson, the man behind the Lord of the Rings movies, tapped him to direct his planned Halo movie. Halo fans, movie buffs, Peter Jackson groupies, and I all wondered who this unknown, unproven director was and speculated about how the film would turn out. In the end, it didn’t – the whole project blew apart spectacularly before any filming could even take place. However, there was a silver lining to that disaster. The attention that the doomed Halo film generated carried over when Blomkamp, with Peter Jackson’s backing, attempted his first feature-length film, District 9. Many who had been following the Halo movie fiasco, myself included, decided to check out this new movie to see what Blomkamp is capable of and speculate on how a Halo movie would have worked if it had ever been made. This guaranteed District 9 a surprisingly large audience and made it a box office success. Plus, District 9 turned out to be a pretty good movie, for all of that. Not great, not perfect, but a darn good freshman attempt by a new director.

Having said that, I did not have high hopes for Elysium, Blomkamp’s second feature-length action blockbuster. Yes, I knew the film stars Matt Damon, an actor I absolutely love, but I was certain that the movie as a whole would be unimpressive. I thought that District 9 was one of those lightning-in-a-bottle moments that couldn’t be replicated, and that Blomkamp just got lucky with that one. The trailers for the film gave me the impression that the wrong lessons had been learned from District 9‘s success, and the result would be poorly-executed message mongering. The film just didn’t appeal to me, but I agreed to go see it with my brother one evening anyway, more for an excuse to get out of the house than for any other reason.

Once again, I was surprised, and surprised in a good way.

"Everybody, I have an idea! Let's try to actually make a good movie!"

“Everybody, I have an idea! Let’s try to actually make a good movie!”

Elysium is actually a really, really good movie. Not only is it far better than I expected, not only is it far better than District 9, I am going to be so bold as to say it is by far the best put-together and most well-executed movie of the summer. It is gripping, tense, thrilling, exciting, emotional, and fun.

The movie takes place in the mid-22nd century, where the wealthy and powerful have all abandoned Earth and moved to a giant space station named Elysium, where they live lives of luxury in giant McMansions with massive patios and swimming pools, have robots that serve their every need, and have access to some sort of magic healing pod technology that can cure any disease, heal any injury, and give them virtual immortality. Meanwhile, the remaining 99% of humanity is stuck on an Earth that is polluted, diseased, impoverished, crime-riddled, and covered in nasty slums. Earth’s inhabitants also are surrounded by robots, but these robots are built to oppress and subjugate them instead of serve them. Everyone on Earth knows about Elysium and dream of one day making it up there, but Elysium’s “citizens”, as the film calls them, don’t so much as want an Earthling to breathe on them, and have built up massive defenses to prevent… (ugh, really, movie?) … “illegal immigration”.

Okay, so yes, the heavy-handed message mongering is still there. And just in case the audience still doesn’t get what the film is trying to say, the film shows that on Earth, the everyday language of the common people is Spanglish. *sigh*

However, things on Elysium are not nearly as idyllic as we are led to believe, as we are shown that behind the scenes, there is plenty of political backstabbing and conspiracies to be had, as our villain, Elysium’s Defense Secretary Delancourt (Jodie Foster), seeks to take power for herself. Down on Earth, we follow the story of Max de la Costa (Damon), a former car thief who was apparently some kind of underworld legend, but has reformed and is now trying to build an honest living working at the factory that builds the aforementioned robots. Then, one day, an industrial accident leaves him with only five days to live, unless, of course, he can get to one of those magic healing pods. In desperation, he turns to his old boss, a crime lord nicknamed “Spider” (Wagner Moura), who agrees to take Max to Elysium in return for one last job. This job, it turns out, brings Max and Spider straight into the middle of Delancourt’s schemes. Just in case this situation wasn’t complicated enough, two more rogue elements are brought into this dangerous mix – Frey (Alice Braga), a childhood friend of Max who wants to get to Elysium for her own reasons, and Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a mysterious Elysian sleeper agent and disgusting nutjob whose true motivations are unclear. Once the situation is set up, the rest of the movie is like a five-way chess match between these characters, as they each try to outsmart each other and get what they need, sometimes teaming up and sometimes betraying each other.

I know, I know. This all sounds like it could easily turn into an impossible-to-follow mess. I’ve certainly seen some other movies that tried to juggle this many eggs and completely fall apart. However, Elysium manages to pull it off, carefully judging when to pull a twist and using them only sparingly. The movie also makes every character’s motivations and actions believable. Yes, the film does have its blatant political angle, but it doesn’t linger on it for too long. Instead, the film uses the politics mostly as a tool to contextualize the action, so you feel the consequences that Max’s failure would entail, keeping you at the edge of your seat in rooting for him to succeed.

Making the action the focus instead of the politics and the conspiracies? What a concept!

Making the action the focus instead of the politics and the conspiracies? What a concept!

The visuals are really good, too; however, I just couldn’t shake the sense, while watching this movie, that it recycles the set, prop, and vehicle designs that Blomkamp had originally drawn up for the Halo movie. The resemblance was really uncanny sometimes:

Halo image from Electric Blue Skies

Elysium image from First Showing

I guess it’s better not to let things go to waste, and it didn’t ultimately distract from the story, but it did seem a little odd to me.

In any case, the movie is a really entertaining, well-put-together, fun summer blockbuster. If you can get past the message mongering, it is a real treat, and a great way to finish the summer movie season. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it.

Cat Flag’s Guide to Understanding Millennials: Brands that “Get It”

Millennials image from CSU Long Beach

When I first started this series about my generation, I mentioned the fact that Millennials are the largest generation in U.S. history. Naturally, our sheer numbers make us an irresistible target for many marketers, who try to make their brands appeal to our tastes and sensibilities. Right now, we are at that sweet spot from a marketing standpoint: we’re just old enough to make our own choices in the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the cars we drive, and so on, but we haven’t yet reached the point where we will tend to just buy the brands we are already familiar with and not be easily swayed to try new things.

Just a quick Google search will take you to hundreds of articles on “How to Market to Millennials”, like this one or this one. Of course, it isn’t really that easy to market to anybody. If there were one simple formula to follow to appeal to Millennial customers, the economy would be doing far better than it currently is. As it stands, it seems to fascinate me which brands seem to “get it” and which don’t. This week, I’m going to focus on four brands that have succeeded in capturing at least a big part of the Millennial market. This list is far from exhaustive, but I think each of the companies here provide a nice case study to examine.

Scion badge from Wikipedia

I actually don’t care for these cars. Cars that look like boxes just aren’t my style.

Seriously, just LOOK at how ugly that thing is.

Seriously, just LOOK at how ugly that thing is.

Having said that, I see Scion cars all the time when driving around the Cal Poly campus. This is no accident – the “Scion” brand was launched by Toyota in the United States specifically to capture the youth market. It has certainly succeeded at that, being the brand with the lowest average and median age of its customer base.

How did they do this? Partially, they did this by embracing new advertising and marketing techniques, such as advertising online, using social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to spread brand awareness, and even launching its own internet streaming radio service. They were really early pioneers in exploiting the technology-driven youth culture for viral marketing, a technique that many have since copied. Another big part of their success has been an emphasis on customization, as seen in this ad or this one. Scion cars have all manner of options where you can change this or that aspect of the car’s appearance. Each Scion can have the rims, pedals, dashboard, and so on tailored to match the customer’s idea of “cool”, playing on our fascination with super-suped-up and ultra-modified Fast & Furious-style cars that we can’t actually afford.

Having said all of that, though, Scion has run into a major problem since the recession hit: Millennials who aren’t buying cars. While Scion has gone from literally not existing to a major player in the market of young adults buying their first cars, the fact is that the bad economy, high unemployment, and the rising costs of college makes it hard for many Millennials to afford a new vehicle. While the brand has been making the most of the customer base it has, and has recently seen sales improve with the introduction of a new sports car called the FR-S, it will probably be some time before the brand can really take off. Which brings me to a far, far bigger success story…

Zipcar logo from Maryland Institute College of Art

The idea behind Zipcar is basically like a combination of a rental car, a taxi service, and Costco. People pay an annual fee to become a “member”, and then download an app on their smartphone that lets them reserve a car for a specified period of time, from a half-hour to 24 hours. They pay Zipcar for the amount of time they have reserved, and in return Zipcar pays for gas, maintenance, insurance, and parking. For somebody who isn’t able to afford a car, this is a brilliant and highly cost-effective alternative. For college students who struggle to pay the ever-rising costs of tuition and student loan debt, and can barely scrounge together the change for the college dorm laundromat, Zipcar could very well be the only reliable means of transportation they can afford. Plus, “carsharing”, as programs like Zipcar are known, is far more eco-friendly than everybody driving their own car, burning gas and clogging up the highways.

Is it any wonder, then, that Zipcar has taken off like a rocket in the past few years? It seems every few weeks, the company announces it is expanding into some new city. Even Cal Poly now has a Zipcar service. It posted its first sustained profit in 2011, and then its profits tripled last year. Its success has brought it to the attention of more traditional car-rental services; it has just been acquired by Avis this past year for $500 million. What can I say? This company found a way to plug a gap in the transportation marketplace that nobody even knew existed, and customers, especially young customers who can’t afford cars of their own yet, flocked to it like nobody’s business.

Speaking of saving money…

Kohl's storefront image from Business Week

I love Kohl’s. I think it is one of my favorite stores right now. Who can argue with a company that rewards customers just for shopping there by automatically giving them a gift certificate for a future purchase? In the area where I live, Kohl’s usually is the store with by far the best prices on the clothes I need, and is also one of the best places to shop for kitchenware. No major shopping trip in my house is complete without at least stopping in to check out what is on sale. For a generation that is generally broke more often than not, any money-saving is well appreciated. Study after study shows that we value getting the best value for the price.

It isn’t just the prices that attract me, though. Kohl’s also very clearly panders to my age group. The models in the pictures on their walls are mostly about my age, the music they play is the pop and rock songs that most of us listen to, and they carry many brands that cater to our tastes, such as Tony Hawk shoes, Rock&Republic jeans, and a brand new Jennifer Lopez-branded jewelry line. Normally, this sort of flagrant pandering would trigger my cynicism reflex, but somehow the store has managed to make these touches just subtle enough that it doesn’t come off as in-your-face. It’s a delicate balancing act, and it is far harder than Kohl’s makes it look, but they have managed to pull it off. I guess that’s how you wind up listed in the Fortune 500.

Now, I know what many of you are thinking: “You said Millennials are all about technology. Don’t you all buy everything online now?” I would have though that, too. However, a study that was recently conducted on those of my peers that now have children of their own found that Millennial parents actually prefer shopping at brick-and-mortar stores than online. Maybe raising small children makes young parents sometimes feel cooped up and want to get out of the house. In any case, Kohl’s also has a really good website for those who do shop online.

So far, the fact that we Millennials, for the most part, just don’t have that much money to spend has been a consistent theme in these case studies. One article I found even called us “The Cheapest Generation”. Having said that, being thrifty all the time takes work. Sometimes, we just want to spend an evening out with friends, and not have to worry about price so much. If we have saved up for an occasional treat, one thing we might do is go out to a restaurant to eat. Which brings me to what is possibly the most surprising entry on this list…

Chipotle Mexican Grill logo from Child(ish)

Eating at Chipotle is not cheap. At all. But, boy oh boy, their food is absolutely delicious. If you haven’t tried their barbacoa tacos with guacamole yet, you are missing out.

Not only is their food delicious, it is also fresh, healthy, and eco-friendly. They make their fresh guacamole and tortilla chips daily, their meat comes from humanely-raised animals that are not treated with hormones, and their veggies are all organic. If this all sounds like hippie-speak, well, it is. It is also the reason for all of those high prices.

Having said that, from my experience, Millennials have a much keener understanding than I have seen in any other generation that capitalism is a democracy where we vote with our dollars. We are urged to come out and support products we like or companies with business practices we want to see more of, and there are also apps you can use to find out what companies make what products so you can boycott those companies you don’t like.

Chipotle not only makes really, really good food, but it also taps into my generation’s “fix-the-world” mentality to make us feel good for eating their burritos. In this way, they have managed to become the most beloved restaurant among Millennials according to a study conducted by L.E.K. Consulting. Now that is some brilliant marketing at work.

Do you know of any other brands that have done a good job attracting Millennials? Do you disagree with the examples I chose? Let me know in comments below!