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Lessons from Bernie Sanders: How to talk to millennials

March 8 2016

Alissa Kline

This is the first of a two-part look at the unconventional candidates who’ve taken this year’s election by storm. Each has won a big portion of the much-coveted millennial vote, and – while miles apart ideologically – employ strategies that have been surprisingly effective with millennials.


Despite Hillary Clinton’s victories on Super Tuesday and Saturday, Bernie Sanders has proven a much more formidable opponent than even the most astute pundits thought possible. Many factors have led to the unexpected success of his campaign, but chief among them is the feverish support he enjoys from young people.

Yes, he’s a 73-year-old “democratic socialist” from one of our nation’s least populous and most rural states, but he has an 11-point advantage over Clinton among voters age 18 to 34. And his support is even greater among younger millennials: in the Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada primaries, Sanders earned more than 80 percent of the Democratic vote for those 30 and under.1

How has the oldest candidate managed to win over the youngest voters? A good deal of Sanders’ appeal has to do with the way he speaks to them. The effectiveness of his voice, tone, and message offers some important insights for brands ­– insights that run contrary to practices of many millennial-courting marketers.

Real-ness over polish

Bernie’s strong Brooklyn accent, candor, and often-disheveled appearance are a breath of fresh air in the buttoned-up world of politics. His presence also serves as a strong contrast to the ultra-poised Hillary and an anti-cool follow-up to the ridiculously smooth President Obama.

But beyond his distinctly un-Washington appearance and nutty professor persona, Bernie strikes a chord with millennials because he’s unhappy with the status quo and not afraid to show it. His tone reflects millennials’ disenchantment with today’s politics and disappointment about their own economic prospects. Additionally, his straightforward, no-nonsense delivery comes across as incredibly authentic – a quality millennials value above almost all else.2 He is what he is, and says what he thinks.

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Even in this pixel-perfect world, where brands are able to produce increasingly slick and sophisticated campaigns, Bernie proves that millennials are down with a little messiness and unscripted-ness. They love the Bernie brand not despite its gruffness, but because of it. In fact, it’s the same maverick approach that has this age group – on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum – championing Republican frontrunner Donald Trump. Both candidates serve as further proof that millennials crave authenticity. As a brand, how might you loosen up, shed a few layers of polish, and present an image that’s a little more transparent and down-to-earth?

Substance over style

Another key aspect of Sanders’ campaign is that his language doesn’t pander to millennials. He doesn’t attempt “millennial speak” or drop pop culture references that risk falling flat or sounding awkward. He talks plainly about issues millennials care about.

“His success is about his politics much more than his persona,” says Liesbet van Zoonen, author of Entertaining the Citizen: When Politics and Popular Culture Converge. “Young people are not stupid and won’t go for a candidate who is desperately trying to be cool.”

While it’s important for brands to stay in tune with buzz words (see our own dictionary here) and other trends in youth culture, marketers’ chief concern should be the content of their message. If it doesn’t matter to millennials, there’s no amount of millennial frosting that can make it appear relevant. Brands need to nail the substance, and let style follow.
Some of the most successful brand campaigns in recent memory have done just that. Dove’s stripped-down Campaign for Real Beauty succeeded by challenging America’s female beauty standards, which had left many women feeling trapped and insecure. Chipotle’s simple text ads appeal to those who care about food ethics and disagree with the practices of big agriculture. And Sanders, who probably doesn’t understand many of the millions of memes he’s inspired, has ignited a generation of voters by addressing issues like income inequality and climate change head-on.

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Consistency over hipness

In the same ironic vein, Bernie’s campaign became a millennial sensation in large part because he’s remained exactly the same for 40 years. When you look back on his record and watch old interviews, his message – and even the delivery of it – has remained remarkably consistent on a core set of issues.

This aspect of Sanders is another branch of his aforementioned authenticity. He’s remained true to his beliefs for decades, unswayed by popular opinion, and focused on the long game. He moved slowly from small town mayor to U.S. representative, a position he held for 16 years, and on to U.S. senator. And last year, he moved slowly from obscure hopeful to legitimate challenger – and now is this election’s progressive icon. All the while he’s kept saying the exact same things, about the exact same issues, in the exact same voice.

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Brands should take note. Marketers who court millennials are so often trying to emanate youthfulness and hipness, taking a “keeping up with the Joneses” approach. But millennials are growing up and, as previously noted, don’t want to be pandered to. Building a strong brand takes deep forethought, a clear vision, and faithfulness to brand standards and values. That’s not to say brands shouldn’t adapt when appropriate – they should – but brands that really want to go the distance with millennials need to find their voice and stick to it. Time after time, year after year.

You can feel the bern, too

The extraordinary success of Bernie Sanders’ campaign should push marketers to reevaluate the way they’re speaking to millennials. Are you prioritizing authenticity, substance, and consistency? When you do, you’ll start to win over millennials ­– who will become powerful brand advocates for years to come.

Next unexpected millennial favorite on the docket? Yep: The Donald. Stay tuned.