Millennial Reach

With the last wave of baby boomers now in their 50s, consumer brands are turning to a younger, and more discerning, audience to drive awareness and profits.

When Matthew McConaughey began appearing in a series of television commercials for the 2015 Lincoln MKC, the luxury automaker saw an opportunity to ride the coattails of a popular actor who had just earned an Academy Award and Golden Globe for his portrayal of a cowboy in Dallas Buyers Club.

Although Lee Jelenic, Lincoln’s marketing communications manager, teased in the leadup to the commercials that McConaughey’s next work was with Lincoln, the automaker didn’t count on the reaction it got from Hollywood and the entertainment sector — in particular the parodies of the spot by Ellen DeGeneres on her talk show and from Jim Carrey on Saturday Night Live.

“That was pure gold,” says Mike Bernacchi, marketing professor at the University of Detroit Mercy in Detroit and publisher of Under
The Microscope, a marketing and business newsletter. “Parodies expand the communication marketplace with embellishment and enhancement. They’re irreplaceable building bricks. They never go anywhere but up, and they make a more solid structure. And here’s the key: They allow the discussion to continue. That’s the beauty of it.”

Jelenic and his social media team seized the opportunity. “It was huge for us,” he says. “We realized many people saw the skits before they saw the spot. So all the people that saw the spoof and thought it was great and were talking about what kind of car Jim Carrey was driving or spoofing Matthew, all that activity … we were saying, ‘Hey, here’s the work. You saw the jokes, you saw the parody. Here’s the work.’ ”

At the same time, Lincoln had a sense of humor about the response.

“The original spots, I don’t think they were trying to be funny,” says Erin Leedy, senior vice president at Market Strategies International, a market research consultancy in Livonia that generated the 2015 Michigan Social Media Brand Index in partnership with DBusiness.

“They were trying to be sincere. But then after the parodies started happening, some of the subsequent spots came out and they made it clear they were laughing with us a little bit, which I think made it even better. There was like a moxie about that: ‘Yeah, we know you think it’s funny, we kind of think it’s funny, too, and we’re just going to keep doing it. We’re in on the joke.’ ”

The bottom line? Lincoln has “been performing best-in-class in engagement across Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram for a long time as a brand,” Jelenic says. “After the parodies, we saw a significant change in our overall engagement and a willingness to further engage with our brand.”

Since he began pitching the MKC and the MKZ sedan about a year ago, the star of the 2011 movie The Lincoln Lawyer has helped boost the automaker’s sales by 8 percent through August, compared to the same period last year.


What’s more, Lincoln and McConaughey wanted to keep the conversation going. In September, their latest collaboration was unveiled for the redesigned 2016 Lincoln MKX, in a series of spots crafted by acclaimed Hollywood director Gus Van Sant.

While the Motor City and Hollywood have long paired their respective products and talents to drive sales and brand awareness, it’s no longer the only game in town.

Olivier François, chief marketing officer at FCA (Fiat Chrysler), and president and CEO of Fiat, says his experience in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a music producer and owner of a record label — called VF — had an immense impact on the ability of the automaker to connect with millennials (those born between 1982-2000).

“We have a series of cars — Dodge Dart, Fiat, Jeep Renegade,” François says. “All these cars are targeting the millennial customer. I need to sell these cars, and the old marketing approach isn’t a product formula to align your brand with millennials because they don’t want marketing. They want authentic, not forced or commercial. So I really wanted to create a social engagement with these cars.”

François’ solution was to set up partnerships with Warner Music Group, Universal Music Group, and Sony Music, enabling FCA to collaborate with the music world’s biggest recording stars, while also organically featuring the vehicles in music videos.
To say the partnership has been a success is a bit of an understatement.

The Chrysler brand most recently teamed up with Interscope Records for the official Red Band trailer for the film Straight Outta Compton, featuring Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. A partnership between Atlantic Records and Universal Pictures led to the Dodge Charger and Challenger being featured in the official music video See You Again for the movie Furious 7.

The video debuted globally in April and surged throughout the summer, amassing nearly 900 million views by Labor Day. The overall collaboration between FCA and New York and Hollywood’s top music labels rocketed the automaker’s presence in official YouTube videos to an astounding 2.5 billion views and climbing.

François is thrilled with the results, but not necessarily surprised. “When we started this activity of partnering with different music producers my objective was 1 billion views,” he says. “We start enormous, you know. We’re committed to finding ways to deliver more and pay less. We’re now at 2.5 billion views, so this is the viewing equivalent of 20 Super Bowl audiences — and the costs are extremely nominal.”


Ironically, it was a memorable commercial during the 2011 Super Bowl that catapulted François to notoriety. He convinced Detroit rapper Eminem to star in the acclaimed two-minute TV ad for the Chrysler 200, a spot that featured the city of Detroit more than the car and introduced the tagline, “Imported From Detroit.”

“I’m more a car guy than a music guy,” François asserts, “but I know about this industry. When you’re a car guy and you’re trying to get credibility with artists like this, you need to do incredible things. So, for instance, I will never push for my cars in a music video. I want the right level of exposure to be incredibly authentic. If it feels like a product placement, then it’s a lose-lose. That’s my religion. I would lose the coolness of the product.”

And for his target audience, coolness is everything.

“With the millennials you get a huge premium if you help them discover something they don’t already know,” François says. “If you just buy a chart-topper or you cut a big check and all you do is (tout) something famous that they already know, for them it’s already an old story. So the fruit I’m trying to grow here is coolness.”

More and more, consumer product companies are finding that social media is a platform with many parts, and what works for one
initiative may not work for another.

For example, Detroit-based Shinola moved up four spots in this year’s Market Strategies International social media index rankings by expanding the same strategy that marked the 2013 debut of its line of watches, bikes, leather goods, and journals. A men’s collection was added earlier this year, and a line for women is coming in 2016.

But it didn’t stop there.

“We’ve built our audience from the ground up, starting with social,” says Bridget Russo, Shinola’s chief marketing officer. “We started out on just a few channels, Facebook and Twitter, and we’ve really grown from there on Pinterest. Instagram’s been a huge audience for us, and is growing very quickly. That’s where we’re experiencing our highest growth in terms of audience.”

It’s all part of Shinola’s plan to parlay the authenticity and hard work ethic that resonates in the Motor City into something much bigger. “As far as Detroit is concerned, it’s always been part of our story, our DNA,” Russo says. “It continues to be part of our messaging and plays a big part in our content, but our intention was always to make this a global brand.”


To that end, new stores are being opened in fashionable settings like London, and Shinola products are now available online in nearly 20 countries. At the same time, the company has fine-tuned its social media strategy.

“Our engagement percentage, which we calculate in different ways for each of our platforms, is at an all-time high,” Russo says. “We’ve had a lot of people clicking and commenting on all our images. We also started working a lot more with social media influencers specifically, and that really expands us in ways that even paying methods can’t.

“So we’ll work with a photographer who has a lot of followers and is famous for taking really good social photography, and we give them complete creative freedom. We ask: ‘What inspires you?’ Let’s photograph the product in a different way than we have before and keep things fresh through their lens versus trying to dictate, re-create, or repeat what we’ve been doing.”

There have been several successful social media campaigns during the last few years, but one of the most impactful is myShinola, which encourages customers to take a picture of themselves with one of the company’s products.

“We received a ton of photos of people with (Shinola) watches,” Russo says, “but now people are taking pictures with (our) bikes, their notebook, or a leather item. So that’s been hugely successful and really helps us start a dialogue with our consumers.”

And Russo has the numbers to prove it.


“We’ve had a 20-percent increase in mentions across social channels compared to 2014,” she says. “Our engagement continues to rise, as well. We’re currently at a 3.16 percent engagement rate on Facebook, while the industry benchmark for brands remains at 0.3 percent.”

Even long-established companies are taking to digital marketing like never before. For nearly 90 years, passion has been an integral element in the relationship between Monroe-based La-Z-Boy and its legion of recliner chair devotees. Now, the company, whose name has long been synonymous with recliners, is undergoing a major overhaul.

“We have some interesting things planned that we feel will continue to shift people’s perceptions of our brand,” says Dallas Budry, La-Z-Boy’s digital marketing manager. “One program we have coming up in November is a reprise of Design Dash, where we invite five bloggers to create their dream room using La-Z-Boy furniture and accessories. In addition to the blogger experience, we’re giving people the opportunity to vote for their favorite room for a chance to win $10,000 in La-Z-Boy furniture. We’ve also designed a new small urban store concept that we’ll be testing this fall in the Washington, D.C. area.”

The focus in that store and others on the renovation schedule will be La-Z-Boy’s Urban Attitudes line, which features sleeker, more streamlined furniture presented in a retail space encompassing about 5,000 square feet, or a third of the typical shop. Those old-school recliners will be displayed in an area off to the side.

“They’re clearly refocusing with their Urban Attitudes line,” says Market Strategies International’s Leedy, “certainly not eliminating their old products and core customer base, but there definitely is a clear and deliberate attempt to engage millennials with a more modern furniture line, a lot of which doesn’t recline.”

Leedy emphasizes it’s also clear the company is wary of alienating its longstanding base.


“When we look at the social data and some of the content there, we’re not seeing a lot of the reaction to the new line bubble up through the chat yet,” she says. “The predominant themes are people talking about drinking beer and watching sports and being comfy in my La-Z-Boy — all the stuff that’s more stereotypical for that brand. So I think while they’re making a change that’s being noticed and talked about in marketing and business channels, that ripple is going to take a while to show up as a broader theme within the social space.”

Budry acknowledges the company is walking a fine and delicate line with its social media approach as it pursues a wave of new and younger customers, while still managing to respect and appeal to its core base.

“Our approach to digital in general has evolved over the last year or so,” he says, “and our investment and commitment to social media has never been stronger. What better way to understand our consumers than to have a back-and-forth conversation with them each and every day?”

For La-Z-Boy, that means making sure both its new and longtime customers receive the right message at the right time.
Digital marketing also can serve as an equalizer, since companies large and small can make an impact without spending millions of dollars on an ad campaign.

For example, Ann Arbor-based Domino’s and Detroit-based Little Caesars, the twin giant behemoths of the pizza industry, are in the Top 10 of the index. But just a little further down the chart, holding firm in its No. 22 spot from last year is Hungry Howie’s, based in Madison Heights. The company, with 600 franchises in 21 states, is finding a way to compete with the big boys.

“I like to think of us as the little engine that could, and I think that’s one of our benefits,” says Brian Wirth, Hungry Howie’s digital marketing strategist. “We can be fast and nimble, we can get on top of relevant events, we can watch these things because we’re a smaller brand and we’re agile. But we also stay relevant and integrated with our plan.”


That plan is to be the very best and most creative when it comes to online ordering. “It’s definitely a must for us,” Wirth says. “Customers want ease of ordering online. There’s so much going on in social media, with video content and images coming out, that it has to be something that will really grab the audience.”

At the top of the list is the pizza maker’s Love, Hope & Pizza campaign every October, in conjunction with the National Breast Cancer Foundation.

“Since 2009, we’ve turned all our yellow boxes into pink boxes (in October) for that cause,” Wirth says, “and that’s really taken off. We also ask customers to engage with us by giving testimonials through Instagram and sharing their videos online. We call them stories of strength, and every year we choose five or six and our advertising agency will then shoot a video about (them) and we’ll share it online.”
So far the campaign has raised $1.8 million, and the goal this year is to surpass the $2 million mark. “We also want to be fun and keep people entertained,” Wirth says, “so they have an incentive to come back to our page.”

That means coming up with endlessly creative ways to accentuate the brand’s flavored crust feature. Wirth’s target audience is adults aged 25-54, “skewing toward female,” he says. “They’re (often) the ones that make decisions when it comes to ordering dinner.”
Still, it’s those demanding and discerning millennials who get the bulk of the attention when it comes to anything Hungry Howie’s does on social media. “We try to be a little younger and reach out to them,” Wirth says.

It’s a sentiment every social media manager on the index can relate to. db