Why Aren’t There More Iconic Millennial Brands?

Is Colbert a brand icon for Gen Y?

Is Colbert a brand icon for Gen Y?

I was recently asked, “what question would I most want to ask Millennials?”

As a professional market researcher it’s easy to answer: my biggest question is how they relate to brands.

More specifically, I am curious why there aren’t more Millennial-specific ‘iconic’ brands? Gen Y likes pretty much the same brands everyone likes — Coca-Cola, Apple, Trader Joe’s, Nike, Vogue, Facebook, Google, Zappos, etc.

Brands are relationships. If Millennials are really different from the rest of us, shouldn’t they want, even demand, their owniconic  brands?

Let me first define what I mean by ‘brand icon’. Doug Holt’s terrific book, How Brands Become Icons, says brands are the consequence of successful ‘mythmaking’. Iconic brands are durable because their myths transcend prevailing fads and tap into something more enduring. But myths need to be updated. Brands that endure for decades find ways to make their myths relevant to the cultural conversations of the day. This is what is meant by successful ‘brand stewardship’.

Cultural icons are exemplary symbols that people accept as shorthand to represent important ideas. The crux of iconicity is that the person or the thing is widely regarded as the most compelling symbol of a set of ideas or values that a society deems important. Icons come to represent a particular kind of story — an identity myth — that their consumers use to address identity desires and anxieties. Icons have extraordinary value because they carry a heavy symbolic load for their most enthusiastic consumers. – Doug Holt, How Brands Become Icons

By this standard, very few brands, if any, qualify as ‘icons’ for Millennials.  The  commercial product brand closest to being an icon would probably be Apple.  Apple has managed with its brilliant PCGuy-MacGuy spots, experiential retail stores and astonishing history of relevant innovation to represent the values of the Millennial generation. Studies have shown most Millennials identify with Mac Guy. Today’s Wall Street Journal blog, Digits, features an article titled, “Apple’s Significant Store Strategy“. Apple is slated to open as many as 40 more stores this year. It just opened its fourth New York location and has been overwhelmed with applications to work there; nearly 10,000 people submitted applications for 220 positions. From the beginning Apple viewed stores and the Genius Bar as an extension of its brand strategy. Today their biggest problem is that they can’t build enough of them or big enough to satisfy the demand.

The only other brands I can think of that meet Holts’ qualification for iconic status for Gen Y are people brands.  Millennials famously projected their hopes and optimism onto Barack Obama (and his marriage with Michelle), which made him a generational icon.  Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert could easily become iconic, if they aren’t already.  A thoughtful brand channel post explains how Colbert has ‘mastered TV2.0’, involving his audiences in ‘stunts’ that increase their engagement with Brand Colbert. They call him a ‘branding genius’.

The Emmy- and Peabody-winning satirist, author of I Am America (And So Can You!), has a cult following for a reason. His blend of over-the-top caricature and pastiche is the sugar that makes the medicine go down. His biggest stunts — shaving his head while broadcasting from Iraq; running for president in his home state of South Carolina (“First to Secede. First to Succeed!”); his mock tribute to George Bush at the 2006 White House Correspondents dinner — are what reaches the wider audience. But what really makes Colbert popular, and wherein lies his branding genius, is that he is a master practitioner of TV 2.0: broadcasting that engages his own audience as participants in his stunts.

For example, using his show, Colbert motivated his “Colbert Nation” to swarm online polls and vote to rename a bridge in Hungary as The Stephen Colbert Bridge, or to name part of a NASA space module “Colbert.” (It was the toilet. Both were successful.)

He called on viewers to toy with Wikipedia, and launched a Star Wars green screen challenge in which his audience uploaded videos into which they had edited themselves, eventually enlisting George Lucas himself.

These stunts engage Colbert’s audience and makes them feel like they are a genuine part of the show. Each victory is lauded by Colbert on air, which embraces his audience. In the end, the audience feels as if it is a genuine part of the Colbert brand, which of course it is.

Colbert latest audience-engaging brand-expanding stunt? To sponsor the U.S. speed skating team. No joke. Colbert is pushing fans to donate online so that the United States speed skating team ends up wearing Colbert-branded uniforms during competition.

Brand marketers aspiring to be iconic Millennial brands could do well to study, Obama, Stewart and Colbert. These celebrities have endeared themselves by tapping into the zeitgeist of Millennial values and myths. 

This week, Miracle Whip brought attention to its ‘We-will-not be ignored’ Millennial-targeted campaign by smartly leveraging Colbert’s recent attacks (mayo should be slathered not slandered). Miracle Whip sent a funny letter to Colbert (“Mr. Colbert, we found your attacks a little harsh, occasionally funny and at times wholly inaccurate – our target is 18-35 not 34”)  and purchased commercial time on his show.

What brands do you think have the potential to be icons for Gen Y?  Why aren’t there more already?