4 Things You Need to Know to Market to Millennials

Warped Tour founder dishes decades of advice

If anyone understands the millennial mind (or that of Gen Z, coming up right behind it), it's Kevin Lyman. Since founding the live music event and brand strategy firm 4Fini in 1995, Lyman hasn't just immersed himself in youth culture—he has helped brands like Truth, Ernie Ball and Journeys stay connected to it. The Vans Warped Tour—his cornerstone event, which jams up to 100 bands into 10 hours of portable, mud-filled mayhem—is now the longest-running festival tour in North America. In his more than two decades as a marketer and promoter, Lyman has learned a thing or two about reaching teens and young adults. Here, he shares some of his best practices.

A brand must show utility.

The brands that sign onto Lyman's concerts aren't just those paying to be represented. They must forge a genuine connection to attendees, he said. For example, Rockstar Energy Drink, the title sponsor of the Rockstar Mayhem Festival, promotes the fact that its underwriting of the show helps keep ticket prices aligned with millennial wallets. And when Monster wanted to hand out free samples of its energy drink—with 160 mg of caffeine in each 16-ounce can—Lyman convinced the sponsor that filling those cans with water was a better idea, as it kept the already-pumped-up-enough crowds hydrated while providing valuable exposure for the product. "The fan wants to see why the brands are there," Lyman said. "They want to feel like the brand is bringing something more than marketing to them."

Millennials are not all the same age, nor do they behave that way.

According to the Pew Research Center, millennials were born as early as 1980, which means the target group is as young as 19 and as old as 35. The differences among that wide range of consumers are apparent in marketing live music. While younger millennials will spend the money and have the stamina to attend a multiday event like Coachella, postcollege millennials more often have responsibilities that restrict both their disposable income and time.

If marketers want to reach older millennials, Lyman said, a one-day event with a relatively low admission price makes more sense. "Craft beers are very happening for that audience right now, and mixing it in with a very focused type of music that sometimes can relate to where they were when they were 15 or 16—nostalgia for them—makes a lot of sense," he said. 

The Vans Warped Tour has become famous for its happy anarchy. Pictured: The band A Day to Remember performed in Tinley Park, Ill., last year. Such events offer brands an opportunity to connect with young consumers. | Photo: Chelsea Lauren/Getty Image

The backlash against social media pitchmen has already begun.

Lyman said the wealth of digital content out there makes it difficult to digest all the brand messages, especially since millennials are smart enough to recognize a paid pitchman, including by way of a 15-second Instagram video. In fact, Lyman's experience suggests that tangible goods are a more effective marketing tool than a social pitch. When Lyman surveyed millennial attendees of the South by Southwest Music Festival this year, it turned out that what they most wanted was posters featuring bands. Taken together with the resurgent popularity of vinyl records (which saw a 52 percent sales spike last year, per Billboard), we are seeing a renewed appreciation for the analog and for physical products.

Lyman thinks it's a trend marketers should pay attention to. "We're creating the digital blur right now," he said. "How we get our messaging out should be a balance between digital that makes sense and also going back to those tangible things that really affect people's lives."

Brands must be willing to give away free stuff.

In Lyman's experience, younger millennials look for tactile connections to the musical acts they listen to. Brands can join in that connection by giving away merchandise that promotes their goods and services. The automaker Kia did that by creating free posters into which it worked its name and logo. "You put a Fall Out Boy poster on your wall and it's got the Kia logo on there—that's going to reinforce a positive, impactful experience in their lives continuously," Lyman explained. "It's going to bring that fond memory when you're in eight feet of snow in Boston."