Austin McCraw

Marketing to Millennials: Are we still just selling snake oil?

March 1st, 2016

Skepticism is the disposition of our age. I’m not saying it’s a altogether new, but it is definitely the disposition of anyone under the age of 30 — AKA Millennials (see this study, and this one). I was recently reminded of how this reality impacts marketing when I came across a snake oil spoof video:


Most of us are too young to know the history of the original snake oil ads, and yet we have been significantly impacted by them. Some of the original snake oil ads (see below) created so much demand for their product that entire businesses were built upon them. It has been reported that city blocks had to be converted into factories just to handle the demand generated from such an ad.

And yet today, this kind of disingenuous marketing has completely jaded the marketplace. If this ad could even make it past all of its legal offenses today, it would not even come close to producing 1% of the results it did hundred years ago.

Snake Oil Cures AllThe above video, though a spoof, is making a very poignant point — many of today’s marketplace, particularly Millennials, see our “clever and creative” marketing tactics as nothing more than snake oil.

Consider the video as more than just something funny to pass around the office, but as a satirical indictment of our marketing techniques. Yes, the content of the video is absurd, but the marketing approach is not. And the painful truth I am reminded of as I watch it is that the post-modern consumer sees right through all our “best” methods.


We are more “oily” than we think

Whether you’re a Millennial or not, you don’t have to go very far to feel what I am talking about. You are a post-modern customer. Consider your email box right now, and look at the emails that have come in the past 24 hours.

Look at the way these emails are talking to you — and I’m not just talking about the spam. What tone are they using? Most likely, they are braggadocios — condescending and filled with hype.

Are you naturally inclined to believe them, or are you eager to eliminate them?

Now go look at your email, website or other piece of marketing collateral and ask yourself a tough question: Is it any better?

Perhaps it is better. Perhaps is isn’t as “oily” as the worst email in your inbox or these snake oil ads from 100 years ago. However, before you relax too much, note that that due to the average Millennial’s unique sensitivity to the slightest marketing technique, your marketing collateral might be more “oily” than you think. Just as the marketing a generation before us now appears hokey, it is likely that ours has the same impact on the next generation.

Here’s the point — if you are not factoring for the increase skeptical posture of emerging marketplace of Millennials, you are likely missing the boat.

If we are not speaking in a different way than we did 10 years ago, then our marketing collateral will sound just like the snake oil ad from 100 years ago. There’s a lot I could say about the way we should be talking to our customers, but below are three essential questions to test the credibility of your marketing collateral.

Question #1: Are you using general qualified claims or specific quantified facts?

One of the biggest mistakes we can make in our marketing collateral is to make sweeping, qualitative statements about our offer. Our service is “the fastest.”  Our product is the “most reliable.” We are the “leaders in XYZ.” All these statements reek of oil.

The post-modern consumer does not want to know that you are the fastest, but by how much. Give me quantifiable facts that make it believable. It is worthless to broadcast that you have the world’s best customer service. You must prove it with specific details. Stop telling people that you are the leading provider of X. Tell me what makes you the leader. Is it your number of clients? Is it the fact that you were the first in the industry? Is it because you are recognized by the most authoritative industry voices?

If you want today’s post-modern consumer to believe you, you cannot make general claims. The effectiveness of general claims disappeared half a century ago. Today’s post-modern Millennial is looking for facts. And, honestly, we owe it to them.

Question #2: Are you hiding your own weaknesses?

Authenticity goes a long way with Millennials. This means not just being able to honestly talk about things that you can do, but also being able to honestly talk about things you cannot do.

If we are up front with our consumers about our product’s weaknesses, then they will believe us when we tell them our strengths. People buy from people, not companies. Just as we are skeptical of those people who seem unable to admit their own shortcomings in person, today’s consumer has a keen ability to sniff out a cover-up.

This doesn’t mean you have to solely focus on the negative aspects of your products or offer; it just means being honest about them. Usually, one strength implies a trade-off. If you invest in a high-quality product, then it’s likely you’re not going to be the cheapest product. If you’re cheap, you have likely made some concessions with quality. Do not be afraid to just say that. The post-modern consumer will appreciate you for this.

There’s something in human nature that infers honesty when you admit your weaknesses. It’s not about being weak — it’s about being a human.

Question #3: Are you still talking about yourself?

One final principle to keep in mind when trying to build credibility with the post-modern consumer is this — let someone else do your bragging.

Third-party verification, whether it be an accreditation, seal, award or testimonial is always more believable then you speaking to your products’ own accolades. The post-modern consumer will always assume bias in your judgments regarding your own products.

You can combat this with specificity or humility as mentioned above, but there is hardly anything more powerful than the voice of an outside party who has bought-in. And the greater the authority associated with that voice, the stronger the credibility.

For instance, I have three amazing boys (ages 4, 6 and 7) right now and every dinner time is an attempt to prove themselves to their father. They constantly are sharing their day’s adventures and victories. Recently, my son won the “quiet game” at school. He is homeschooled, so the competition is not stiff; however, if you knew my son, you would know that the believability of such a claim was suspect. Let’s just say he is very social for a homeschooler.

Nonetheless, he proceeded to brag of his accomplishments, but he is smart enough to know that he is going to have to have some third-party verification. He could turn to his younger brother and say, “Didn’t I Griffin? Tell Dad!” This would have a greater impact than just him speaking of his victory, but my son naturally knows a more effective way. He turns to his mother, who is a clear and trusted authority of his father, and seeks to elicit her verification of his success. She affirms his accolades and he triples the overall credibility of his claim.

This is just a silly example, but you get the point. There are various ways you can bring verification, you just need to know that for today’s postmodern consumer it is one of the most effective ways to build credibility.

Millennials are good for good marketers

In the end, as difficult as it can be to overcome the current natural skepticism of our customers, I am thankful for it. I am thankful that we have moved away from a world in which a snake oil ad would genuinely generate demand or response. I’m thankful that Millennials are rarely fooled by such disingenuous marketing. I am thankful for the higher standard it demands of us in the presentation of our own offers and services.

When you have a truly valuable product, it is a relief to know that our customer is less likely to be fooled by the inferior product. We may have to go through some additional hoops in our communication, but in the end, it is better for all.

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Austin McCraw

About Austin McCraw

Austin McCraw, Senior Director, Editorial Content, MECLABS From Web clinics to certification courses, Austin works behind the scenes to bring our research analysts’ discoveries to our audience in clear and creative ways. Before joining MarketingExperiments, Austin was the Promotions Director for a PBS affiliate in Gainesville where he was in charge of publicizing local and national programming. A graduate of the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications, Austin specializes in new media and video production by day and producing family memories with his wife and two children by night.

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