What Brands Do Millennials Love?

There are plenty of surprises on every level.
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There are plenty of surprises on every level.
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Lena Dunham is one. So are Justin Bieber, Mark Zuckerberg, Taylor Swift, Prince William, LeBron James, Lionel Messi and the Olsen twins. Yep, they're all Millennials, people born between 1980 and 2000, and they’re the biggest demographic block since the Baby Boomers.

They also now account for $1.3 trillion in consumer spending and are online more than any other age group beside Gen X’ers.

So what do these big-spending grown-up children want? In a word: authenticity. Social media isn’t an afterthought, it’s a given. So if a brand is only pumping out canned messaging through its Twitter and Facebook pages, it’s unlikely to connect with Millennials. But if a brand offers true social engagement, including responding to concerns or providing tech support or customer service through social media, those are things that a Millennial consumer won’t soon forget.

A brand with a good sense of humor doesn’t hurt either — like K-Mart’s recent “Ship my pants” campaign. And while sex still sells, brands targeting Millennials should be aware that if you try to entice the boys with sexy ladies, you’re going to hear from the Millennial girls about body image on Twitter or Tumblr or Reddit.

For a great study on Millennials and their shopping habits, see this one by the Moosylvania Agency, which covers Millennials and how they shop, how they buy, and why they keep buying.

But which brands have these young folks migrated towards? Here’s a quick list of some of favorite brands of teens, college students, 20-somethings and early 30-somethings, aka the Millennials:

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Chipotle — A recent study by Barkley of the favorite fast-food brands of Millennials (PDF) found that Chipotle, the burrito joint that advertises that its meat is grass-fed and antibiotic-free, topped the list. This means that Millennials are willing to pay $2 or $3 more for lunch if they know they are getting a healthier option. Taco Bell, clearly the lower budget Mexican fast food option, placed at number four on the survey. 

Only 27 percent of the Millennials surveyed by Barkley would admit that McDonald’s is their favorite fast food chain, barely more than half of those who said it was Chipotle (48 percent). Sure, McDonalds brainwashed Millennials with Happy Meals just like the Gen X’ers before them, but the Millennials have moved on, making those drive-thru lines a little shorter than they used to be.

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Panera Bread — The sandwich-salad-bakery-coffee place came in number two in the Barkley survey, which reinforces why Chipotle is popular with Millennials: the young folks are willing to pay a little extra for something they perceive to be more healthy.

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Dunkin Donuts — The biggest surprise of the Barkley survey is that Dunkin Donuts, the New England coffee chain, beat out Starbucks, the West Coast coffee chain. Starbucks would appear to most on the verge of world domination, but Millennials are more likely to skip the fancy Starbucks latte in favor of a raspberry donut and cheaper coffee that’s still pretty damn good.

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Old Navy — Gap’s budget brand, Old Navy, scores big with Millennials through its combination of low prices, humorous TV ads, and social media campaigns like its annual summer $1 flip-flop sale, #flipflophooray. With Old Navy, Millennials know what they’re getting: inexpensive seasonal essentials that they can jazz up with a pair a designer sneakers and a set of Beats headphones.

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Smirnoff — Millennials like to drink and haven’t developed a taste for whiskey yet, so they are buying vodka for their house parties and mixing it with Sunny Delite, probably. Absolut Vodka used to be the king brand of Gen X vodka drinkers, as well as the king of the print ad campaign. But Millennials don’t read print publications, and somehow Smirnoff is doing a better job of reaching them online and on their devices.

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Store brands — Millennials are notorious for spending way out of their budget for gadgets, clothes and accessories, but apparently one place where they are willing to make a sacrifice is with the private label store brands in food and retail stores. Of course, stores like Target are doing a better job of marketing their in-house budget brand that would have once been considered “generic,” but whatever it is, Millennials are buying it. In fact, the obsession over Trader Joe’s house brand of “Two Buck Chuck” wines is getting out of hand.

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Google — According to a study from late 2013, Millennials’ most favorite brand is Google with its video company, YouTube, coming in at number two and its browser, Google Chrome, rounding out the top 10 brands that Millennials like most. Of the other brands to make that top 10, three were tech related (Amazon, Microsoft, Nintendo), two were candy (Reese’s and Oreo), and one was crayons (Crayola), raising no small amount of concern that the study’s results might be skewed due to the Millennial participants’ marijuana use. (Apple, surprisingly, was down at number 23.)

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Walmart — You would think it would be Target, right? Or even Amazon, if the question was “What is the top retailer brand for Millennials?” But it turns out the answer is, um, Walmart? Maybe just because of Walmart’s massive footprint in both suburban and rural markets, it just dominates to the point of saturation and Target’s reach stops at the edge of the ‘burbs. Still, the results from this Barkley study remain counterintuitive. Like that one South Park episode, the power of Walmart’s low, low prices is just too great to resist, even for luxe-conscious Millennials.

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Auto brands — Of all the surveys of favorite brands among Millennials, automotive brands never get into the top 10 — in one survey, only 16 percent of Millennials said they planned to buy a car any time soon. Among those 16 percent, the top brand was a virtual tie between Toyota and Honda. Other brands are looking for novel ways to get Millennials behind the wheel, like Ford’s partnership with Zipcar, targeted at college students.