Democratic superstars: how two companies reached millennials' hearts (and wallets)

We’re used to Nike sponsoring athletes. From their first deal with a tennis player to the ongoing partnership with Michael Jordan to last year’s World Cup ad, Nike has excelled at inspiring us through star endorsements. But the traditional celebrities no longer monopolize our attention.  Self-made celebrities today command flocks of Twitter followers and small armies of Facebook friends. The traditional marketing world is just beginning to realize the opportunity of these new superstars.  Growth hackers have already seized this opportunity and are successfully reaching the coveted millennial market.

The Instagram Dress

Remember gold and white dress that went viral on Twitter a few months ago? (And no, I don’t care what anyone says - that dress is clearly gold and white.) Just a couple weeks ago, a different dress went viral on Instagram.  While this Instagram dress didn’t draw as much attention (or controversy) as The Dress, it did draw massive attention to Lord & Taylor’s new collection.  Fifty different Instagram fashion bloggers published pictures of themselves wearing the dress, and together they drew thousands of likes (the most popular photo is currently at 13.4k likes).

So excited to be dressing for spring in this dress from @lordandtaylor’s new #DesignLab collection!! #ad

A photo posted by Cara Van Brocklin (@caraloren) on Mar 27, 2015 at 10:27am PDT

Rather than fighting for traditional celebrity endorsements, Lord & Taylor astutely noticed that many fashion bloggers have hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram.  Also, given Instagram’s emphasis on visuals, that platform presents a brilliant opportunity for fashion promoters.  By finding and using this undervalued opportunity, Lord & Taylor ran a successful campaign (the dress sold out within just a couple days) for just a fraction of the cost of a traditional campaign. (Side note: You don’t always have to create viral events - sometimes the best option is to hijack something that’s already popular.  Salvation Army did this by creating a campaign against domestic violence based on The Dress - responses were mixed.)

The Tim Ferriss Show

Since launching last year, Tim Ferriss’ new podcast has driven massive popularity (it’s currently #13 of all podcasts on iTunes).  Like many podcasts, Tim includes short messages about his sponsors in most episodes. Late last year, Tim asked for businesses interested in sponsoring, and Kevin from Mizzen+Main responded.  About $10k later, Mizzen+Main got their product in front of thousands of their prime audience.  Three of their top five sales days were driven by Tim’s podcast (the other two were driven by Wall Street Journal and New York Times). Tim Ferriss is quite well known and his podcast is highly visible, but how many traditional marketing budgets even think about podcasts?  By acting outside the box, Kevin was able to find a highly lucrative opportunity in a medium with very little advertising competition.

 Why Are These New Superstars So Effective?

Hidden opportunity: I recently read the book Red Notice where the author talked about making a fortune by finding investing opportunities in developing regions where most investors were still too scared to spend.  The same thing applies in marketing.  As new platforms develop every day, many large marketing budgets are too comfortable with traditional spending to risk experimenting with new opportunities.

Contextual: We’re overwhelmed by advertisements. A century ago, mass media ads were just beginning to take off.  Innovators of the time tried marketing programs like painting advertisements on barns in exchange for free paint and $1-$2 per year.  Today, we are bombarded by hundreds of ads every day.  Sponsorships help cut through the noise. Authenticity: Perhaps in reaction to the fake perfection of previous generations, the millennial generations value authenticity.  Our heros are real people with failings and redemptions.  Our favorite companies don’t pretend to be perfect either. (We also value transparency, so please disclose ads correctly.)