On August 8, the XXIX Olympic Games will kick off in Beijing. Amid issues about the environment, politics and labor practices, corporations are shelling out millions in advertising and marketing dollars. Their hope? Emotional connections are made. Buzz builds. Affinity grows. Sales soar.
While these brands seek to parlay their Olympics affiliation to connect with audiences in mainland China, scoring big back home is high on the agenda. American-born titans like Coca-Cola, Kodak, McDonald’s and General Electric, are putting their faith in the notion that the “world is watching” – not just the host country.
But there may be one problem: They probably won’t be. At least not in this country. At least not those brands’ most coveted demographic.
The Challenge of the Millennial
While debate rages over what to call them, or the age range that defines them, there is little dispute over this youthful slice of America’s relative power. The “Millennials” have arrived, 42 million strong and eager to remind us of their presence (USA Today. October 16, 2006). They have stolen the coveted title of “most desired target” from baby boomers, yielding influence over as much as half of all spending in the economy (Marketwatch. October 11, 2006).
Beyond their sheer power in numbers, these Millennials boast ideological and technological power. It is a recipe for influence that makes worldwide Olympic partners from Lenovo to Johnson & Johnson salivate. Conventional wisdom states that success in winning over these young people means that a golden bounty awaits.
However, this generation is unlike any other before it, and the very characteristics that make it so unique also create a formidable challenge for traditional Olympics marketers, as well as an opportunity for those willing to challenge their own conventional communications tactics – as long as they remain aware of three major factors at play in this year’s Olympic Games.
Force One: The Olympics “Cool Factor” (or lack thereof)
As a 30-year old Gen-Xer, I remember watching summer Olympiads from Los Angeles, Seoul and Barcelona. I remember starting guns going off and time standing still. I remember not missing a second of the opening ceremonies and Mary Lou on the Wheaties Box.
The Olympic mystique, which captivated me, seems to have faded. Young Americans are distancing themselves from the Olympics. Despite a global rise in interest, the U.S. ranked 24th of 26 countries in viewership of the 2004 games in Athens (IOC). The trend continued in Torino in 2006 as “Idol” and “House” blew away Olympics coverage among younger viewers (La Stampa, February 18, 2006).
Force Two: A Decidedly Digital Consumer
While :30 and :60 spots still auction off at premium prices, brands seeking to reach Millennials may want to consider alternate strategies. Not only does the iPod and YouTube Generation spend an inordinate amount of time online, but, when they do watch the tube, it’s with an itchy trigger finger. And they’re likely ignoring a sizeable percentage of the ads.
Indeed, according to a recent study, 87 percent of American Millennials with DVR say they “regularly fast forward through commercials and are more likely to be switching channels and multi-tasking” (Millward Brown, March 26, 2008). While this trend is not altogether new, it is nonetheless disconcerting to brands still heavily dependent on television commercials to convince Millennials to purchase a new Big Mac or the latest Kodak camera.
Print placement faces similar challenges as more and more Millennials get their cues – on music, sports, fashion and food – from an age-old source they trust more than any publication, expert or brand: each other. They are speaking out on social networks, in chat rooms and online groups, and heeding the advice, opinions and direction of their peers and social networks, all with implications for – and without the control of – Olympics marketers.
Force Three: An Elevated Social Consciousness
Millennials also possess a global social consciousness that plays a critical role in their brand perceptions and purchase decisions. They believe it is their responsibility to make the world a better place. They expect the same from corporations and are “prepared to reward or punish a company based on its commitment to social causes” (Cone Millennial Cause Study. October 24, 2006).
These Olympics are not immune to the trend. Millennials are already vowing to boycott ads as a punishment for what they perceive as support of the Chinese government and their actions in Tibet and Darfur. “In this way, Gen-Y consumers – already increasingly known for their interest in social and responsibility and social-community-driven movements – are trying to ignore the advertisements – and thus the brands – that are trying to connect with them via the Olympics” (New York Times Magazine. March 30, 2008).
A Golden Moment for PR?
The shadow cast by these three forces is ominous for brands that rely so strongly on traditional communications tactics. The rules of engagement for American Millennials demand a departure from this standard operating procedure. Rather, reaching this group requires even greater tailoring and a sophisticated cross-channel strategy, and reaching out across more outlets than ever before.
Many of our clients don’t own Facebook and IM accounts. They aren’t familiar with RSS or DVR. Yet, the audience they covet uses these tools daily to share opinions, connect with peers and form opinions. Public relations can leverage these new mediums to target influencers and spur conversation unlike any TV spot or banner ad.
Doing so successfully requires employing inventive spokespersons. It demands partnering with bloggers, utilizing Podcasts and exploring mobile marketing campaigns. It requires a Wikipedia strategy, YouTube channels and a POV on where and when to interject in the comments section of a popular blog or develop a dialogue with the moderator of a LinkedIn or MeetUp group.
Public relations is perfectly positioned to create meaningful dialogue with Millennials and leverage a brand’s Olympic association. An agency’s value lies in bringing new tactics to clients and providing counsel on their integration into the marketing mix, as well as fostering continued education on the power of conversational marketing and the distinct influences that surround Olympics and Millennials. The eyes of the world are watching. They just may not be where they’ve always been.
Steve Bonsignore is group vice president at Cohn & Wolfe. He joined GCI (now Cohn & Wolfe) as account coordinator in 1999 and since 2006 has led the sports marketing specialty, which represents Nike, the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, and the PGA Tour.