SIA Newsletter

Building a Tribe: To Connect With Millennials, Brands Are Most Successful When They Stop Thinking and Start Feeling


We’ve now come to our third installment in our Millennials Series, and after speaking with many industry leaders, somehow this multi-faceted and sometimes overwhelming issue of how to engage with Gen Y seems to be boiling down into a very simple truth. The snow sports businesses that are most successful on this issue seem to be the ones who aren’t necessarily trying. Instead, they’re the ones who are simply loving this sport, loving this industry, and so of course, they’re loving their customers because they’re the people who are as passionate about it as the brands are themselves. Simply put, these businesses look at their participants and customers as members of their tribe, and they’re always working to draw their tribe together.

Jason DorseyIt just so happens that this attitude resonates very deeply with millennials. In fact, these businesses are naturally doing what Jason Dorsey, chief strategy officer at The Center for Generational Kinetics. and aka “The Gen Y Guy,” strategizes for clients like Mercedes-Benz and Visa, teaches in his seminars, and relates on his Today Show appearances.

When we asked Dorsey about how our manufacturers and brands can engage with Gen Y, we originally thought that many of our members’ pro athlete adventure stories and charitable works would speak to Gen Y and draw them in, but he said it’s more than that. “Telling your brand’s story, being authentic and having a cause are good starts, but when we dig into the data we see that all of those are copyable,” Dorsey said. “That’s what creates the commoditization in the space. The way you get out of being a commodity with Millennials is to bring back the people side of the brand.”

“When we work with manufacturers to solve their millennials challenge so much of it is turning the typical brand, marketing and advertising shtick on its head,” he explained. “Leveraging assets in this way means that you can’t just tell the story or show you wrote a check. Millennials are wise (and bored) with that. They need to see that all the people stakeholders are engaged in them and their adventure as an individual. In our work we want to create a Millennial movement behind a brand that we’re all in together.”

Dorsey’s response made a lot of sense, but it meant even more after talking with a few manufacturers who explained what goes into their website and social media work, and what they feel is the end goal.

They said that their efforts on digital media were more than an attempt to connect with this new Gen Y group, or to directly sell skis, boards or hats. Turns out the work these manufacturers put into the digital side is one part of a larger effort to draw their tribe together, not only to let them feel like a part of the brand’s storyline, but also to create brand advocates out of people who feel as passionate about their products and about the sport they all love as they do themselves.

Matt Stillman“Someone who identifies themself as a snowboarder is one thing, but for them to be able to find components of the brand that uniquely resonate with them and further their connection with the brand is the goal,” explained Matt Stillman, digital marketing director at Rome Snowboards. “Our ‘We Believe’ campaign is a good example of this; it’s an attempt to clearly state what we as a brand believe is important in snowboarding and life, and ideally you see these concepts and say, ‘Hey, I believe that too.’ Jason’s line about consumers wanting to see that the brand is engaged with their adventure is pretty much our goal; we want to inspire people to take road trips, to spray skiers, to have fun above all else, and hopefully these ideas resonate with riders.”

Steve Hemphill, social and digital media manager at K2 Sports, agreed with Dorsey’s and Stillman’s assertions. As part of that effort, the K2 website has a link called ‘K2 Wants You,’ giving customers a place to review gear, enter contests and interact. Hemphill said that page is there to invite customers to join in and feel a part of the brand.

Steve Hemphill“’K2 Wants You’ is a place where we want to connect with all our customers and they can connect with us,” Hemphill said. “Millennials to baby boomers, ‘K2 Wants You’ is focused on giving each customer their own voice. At K2 we want to see our customers as more than just a commodity, we want them to be a part of our family, part of the fun and experience that we get each time we click into our skis. If people choose to opt into ‘K2 Wants You’ it’s a way for them to become a part of our brand. When it comes down to it, K2 is focused on cultivating not only a brand that people can connect with but a brand that people can be a part of. We’re focused on providing consumers and brand advocates with not only the tools, but also the content, stories and experiences that help them connect with the mountains and have serious fun while doing it.”

Stillman agreed that what he strives to do in managing Rome’s digital media is not necessarily aimed at any one demographic, nor, he added, is it meant to be experienced on-line and left on the screen. For example, Rome has a section of their website called The Syndicate, which is a space for riders to weigh in and post about anything they’d like, but he’s quick to add that this website page is just one of many spaces where Rome fans can gather, and is really more of a collective concept than a webpage.

“To say that The Syndicate is measured just by the section of the website would be selling the entire concept short,” he said. “The Syndicate is every time you see a Rome sticker on a car bumper or stop sign in a resort town, every time you high five a random rider you run into in the woods, it’s every time someone posts a photo on Instagram and uses the RomeSDS hashtag. The Syndicate portion of our website is merely a more visible collection of these actions and it is by no means only for Millennials.”

Corinne PrevotCorinne Prevot, owner of Skida Headwear, echoed these thoughts when we asked her about her social media strategy. First off, she kind of laughed at the word strategy, because it’s clear when you look at Skida’s digital media, which Prevot does entirely herself, that it is all straight from the heart. As a fresh-out-of-college business owner she’s an expert at engaging with her own generation, but she says that’s never been a big focus. Clearly her natural instinct toward Skida’s digital media is born from the fact the she herself is a digital native, but since she is also a successful business owner, the perspective she brings is a fresh one.

“I’m not really going out of my way to grab that demographic,” she said, “I just try to be genuine. I do think about how I would want someone to talk to me on the internet or about the emotions I want to inspire, but mainly I want to share what we are doing and give people a window into it; to feel a part of the fun. And it’s very cute- a lot of people will post their photos to do the same for us; a lot of it is, ‘Look at us wearing your hat out on our own adventures.’ It’s great, and it is definitely one way for us to connect with all of our Skida friends. I think that people connect with our brand and our digital media because it reflects what we’re about. The inspiration for Skida comes from the activities we do – running, skiing, being outside. Skida represents that cheerfulness and energy of being active, and if that energy comes through on our digital media it helps people feel connected.”

Prevot agrees with Stillman that digital media is one way to express your brand’s values and to gather your tribe, but that it’s also important not to get too caught up in it and to remember all the other avenues of communication and methods of connecting with people who believe in your brand. “After running the website myself for six years, and being the person who manages our social media, I know it’s easy to get over-focused on it. But there are other means of communication too, and I try not to think too much about doing it right or connecting with any one group. I don’t think how many likes we have correlates directly to how our business is doing, so I don’t worry too much about it. I like to focus on other things too, like being at the ski areas, being a face and a person rather than just a voice on the internet.”

If the loyalty of these businesses’ fans and the depth of their passion for the brand is any indication, then clearly their efforts and time on digital media have been well worth it. They have each successfully drawn their tribes in and rallied them as brand advocates, which, as Stillman points out, must be the main purpose of digital media.

“It is certainly a disadvantage of social media from a traditional marketing perspective that it’s fairly difficult to quantify the ROI, besides sheer exposure and view counts,” he said. “In my view, social media is one way to communicate what your brand is all about. Ultimately if you don’t have independent, unique reasons for consumers to visit your stores or website, then social media is nothing more than wasted bandwidth.”

Of course those unique reasons boil down first and foremost to what you’re selling, but beyond that, communicating what your brand believes in and the passion you feel for the sport rallies people who believe in the same things and encourages them to join you. It seems this Gen Y thing might be simpler than people think – just remember to follow Prevot’s lead, and gather your tribe by speaking from the heart.