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.



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 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!

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