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From Tic Tacs to potatoes: Selling to Millennials (column)

Everyone has an idea to get a slice of the Millennial pie

Pity today’s corporations: They keep trying to win over the Millennial generation, but most aren’t getting very far. No matter how persistent they are, companies have trouble selling stuff to this important new demographic when they use traditional, time-tested marketing techniques, such as cleavage and lying.

Experts say companies need to alter their approach. Why? Because Millennials respond to campaigns that “inform and involve them.” This surely comes as good news to beer companies, many of which already go to great lengths to inform consumers about that young lady’s rear end. You’re halfway there, bros.

The Millennial generation is defined by many as those born between 1980 and 2000. It’s a huge group—more than 75 million in the U.S. alone, invariably described as “fickle” in its tastes. In the words of one brand expert, Millennials possess a “unique sense of self”—unlike the rest of us, who apparently share custody of a self, leaving some without a personality on Wednesdays and every other weekend.

According to one report, the pursuit of this new generation has unleashed “24/7 micropandering, psychographic analysis, a high-priced shadow industry of consultants.” Yet Millennials continue to stray from established brands. J. Crew and Abercrombie & Fitch are underperforming. The Gap is closing hundreds of stores. McDonald’s seems pretty desperate in pushing the whole “Not everything we make will instantly murder your colon” strategy.

So few Millennials are shopping at high-end supermarkets that Whole Foods is going to open a new line of stores “geared to Millennial shoppers,” with a streamlined design, new technology and lower prices. One question, though: If this new chain is going to offer “high-quality fresh food at great prices,” why would anyone shop at a traditional Whole Foods, which offers high-quality fresh food at prices that make money cry? What slogan do they plan to direct at Boomers and Gen-Xers? “Whole Foods: We know you’re not a Millennial, but we’re hoping you are an idiot.”

Everyone wants a slice of Millennial pie. Even the United States Potato Board commissioned a study entitled “Understanding Millennials: How do potatoes fit into their lives?” The organization devoted months of study to discovering that, among Millennials, “potatoes are primarily consumed for dinner at home as the main component of a side dish.” Whoa. Crazy kids.

(FYI, the potato board website indicates nominations are open for new board members. If you’re on the fence, consider this observation from current member Ken Burback: “Potato people are pretty cool people.” Not like those squares at the onion board.)

And then there are Tic Tacs. A story in the New York Times chronicled an 18-month effort to make this half-century-old mint appeal to a whole new generation of people stuck in checkout lines. The result: a “revolutionary” product called Tic Tac Mixers—dual-flavoured mints that morph from cherry flavour to cola, or from peach to lemonade.

If you think it’s weird to spend more than a year conducting “extensive qualitative and quantitative research” into Millennial candy preferences, well, the people at Tic Tac were pretty weird to begin with. Consider how they describe the experience of consuming one of their dumb little mints: “A Tic Tac transforms from a mint to a playful toy in your mouth . . . Enjoying a Tic Tac is a uniquely sensual experience.” Listen, guys: If you believe that sucking on one of your sugar pebbles is a “sensual experience,” then I’m pretty sure you’re doing sex wrong.

Besides, you’re just going to get hurt again, Tic Tac. Any Millennial fascination with your freaky mutant mint is likely to be fleeting. A single change of flavour will lose its novelty. Millennials will demand a candy that transitions from orange to watermelon to melancholy: WE WANT TO TASTE OUR SADNESS.

After all, research shows Millennials are prone to demanding more. A chocolate bar can’t satisfy only as a snack. It must also deliver what marketers describe as “emotional rescue.” It must entertain and help Millennials briefly escape the tedium of life.

That’s a lot to ask of a Snickers bar. Or maybe, as a child, I failed to put enough pressure on my candy. Clearly, I should have been asking: Why are you only one thing, Fun Dip? Then we might have Fun Mindful Reassuring Dip.

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