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Trip of a Lifetime: How Millennials Redefined Travel Marketing

Liam Loan-Lack
Liam Loan-Lack (former) Account Director

Every airline in the world says they offer ‘the best’service, every hotel talks about comfort… what I want from my holiday is something real…[1]

Devising a marketing plan that enables a brand to bond with, and ultimately generate revenue from, the originator of this quote is the enigma of modern travel marketing. This Millennial audience (sometimes referred to as ‘Generation Y’) is driving a de-commoditisation of travel brands and fuelling a new zeitgeist in modern advertising discourse: that of emotion and storytelling as the key routes to delivering profit gains in the short and long terms.[2] We intend this article to be a blueprint for travel marketers looking to future-proof their businesses and help them understand this discerning and valuable[3] group.

Why Millennials Matter for Travel Brands

Most definitions of ‘Millennial’ focus on age (born between 1980-1995), and emphasise the fact that this group has lived through a rapid technological change that has radically altered the expectations they place on themselves, society and brands. Millennials demand creativity, authenticity, confidence, intelligence and trust[4] from their labels – something scarcely possible to communicate, let alone evince, in a 30-second TV advert, or one-page print insertion.

This audience is so valuable to the travel category for three reasons:

  1. A large section of this audience is entering the most ‘valuable’ period of their lives. They are at a point in their careers, entering low/mid-management, just before parenthood, when their propensity to spend on travel is at its peak, due to a large disposable income.  Combined with the fact that Millennials are also delaying traditional rites of adulthood[5] (moving in with partners, marriage etc.), this ‘peak period’ has been elongated.
  2. Millennials document everything on social media, especially their travels[6]. Research by phone network Three for their ‘Feel at Home’ campaign identified a new class of picture, “the braggie,”  — popular with younger Millennials — illustrative of the way we see online sharing (and even boasting) via social media, as integral to the leisure experience.  
  3. By 2020, this audience will represent half of all travel spend worldwide[7]; getting on the radar of this audience today will therefore pay dividends in the long-term.

However, courting Millennials is easier said than done. Over 40% of UK Millennials claim to be cynical about how brands communicate with them; in other words, if “a brand doesn't provide an experience of value, they will overlook it in a heartbeat[8]”. The outtake is that, for most brands, the chance to get on Millennial’s consideration list is small.

Bespoke Holidays and Anti-algorithmic Behavior

The proliferation of aggregators and aggressively deal-orientated OTAs has allowed Millennials to extensively research the best price, cherry-picking separate travel brands for accommodation, flights and excursions. This booking behaviour is fuelled by anxieties about their finances: 52% of UK Millennials fear getting into debt and worry about the cost of their everyday living, and there is a common perception that a DIY approach yields the best-value bookings.

However, as much as they enjoy planning a bespoke itinerary, Millennials are acutely aware that the freedom of e-commerce is by definition limited by “…algorithms, the over-personalisation of products, services and ad messages, too many suggested links or purchases in our social media, on e-commerce sites...” In other words, they still crave some element of serendipity[9], which can take the form of managed surprises, built into pre-planned holiday itineraries.

A great example of a brand addressing this desire — and thereby positioning themselves as a facilitator and not a functional service brand — is the Surprise Stopover campaign by Icelandic Air. This offered passengers the chance to win free stopovers all in the name of discovery and the brand’s desire to tell “real stories.”

A concomitant of serendipity is the reliance our audience place on their peers. They realise that they will never discover something new, different or anything vaguely interesting if they rely on online bookings. It is therefore not surprising that the likes of AirBnB, HouseTrip and HomeAway have thrived in recent years. These sites are the antidote to the “impersonal treatment in an anonymous environment[10]” found in chain hotels and go some way to delivering genuine, hyper-local, authentic surroundings[11] when away from home.

Thus we arrive at anti-algorithmic behaviour — descriptive of the lengths Millennials will go to curate a differentiated holiday package that is both unique and personally enriching. This is the polar opposite of a 10-day, all-inclusive beach break on the Costa del Sol from a package tour operator. Clearly the latter is the antithesis of ‘off the beaten track.’

So, in the face of such a demanding consumer, do airlines and the traditional package travel operator stand a chance? (Arguably, airlines are the most functional part of travel trips: ‘booking in advance to save money’ and ‘use of comparison sites’ still rank #1 and #3 respectively, when consumers describe purchasing behaviours for airfares[12]). Is the best strategy to reap additional value from the families and baby boomers? Will the package holiday ever appeal? Is there a role for a distinctly ‘Millennial’ type of airline? Our answer is an unequivocally broad “yes” split into two parts, which we now explore.

Expedia and ‘Travel Yourself Interesting’

A case study illustrating the wider trend of commoditisation in the travel market is the Expedia Travel Yourself Interesting (“TYI”) campaign, where the business challenge was clearly rooted in the ‘race to the bottom’ caused by mass-commodisation:

“People started choosing [holidays] on the basis of price rather than brand values…we had to find an audience willing to choose Expedia based on more than just price. Quite frankly, we weren’t sure if they existed. Had the category changed forever, or was a different future possible?”[13]

It is suggested that this future is centred squarely on the Millennial audience. Why? Because they are willing to fork out on travel, even during hard recessionary times, as it represents a life experience that cannot normally be found in a material product — what Pine & Gilmore[14] call “the experience economy”. For TYI, Expedia identified this Millennial trait in the insight that travel is seen an indispensable investment (not cost) in their self-image and enrichment, hence the target audience name: ‘Believers’. This was in stark contrast to the ‘Apathetics’ who see travel as a nice-to-have, commoditised product. However, the important learning from a media strategy point of view, was their focus on social outreach to communicate the campaign message that those who travel became distinctly interesting people upon their return.


To execute this campaign, the brand first scoured Twitter to find celebrities and consumers who were posting mundane status updates. Then they responded to them directly in real-time with short videos, re-imaging what more interesting things they could be doing, if only they were travelling the globe (with Expedia, of course).

The reason this approach was so successful was for three reasons. First, the content was well-suited to the environment, in this case less than 30 seconds, which is ideal for Twitter. Second, it was not a cleansed, corporate video, replete with strong brand cues and heavy Photoshop; instead, it has a genuine, authentic feel. Finally, it gave something of distinct value to the viewer, in the form of inspiration and entertainment. The golden rule here for any content campaigns is to be mindful of the “overload”[15] the Millennial audience feel; “There is social media fatigue, with an increasing hunger for quality… content.” With 46% of millennials claiming to feel overwhelmed by the amount of content online[16], it is certainly a case of less is more.

Similarly, many airline brands have attempted to use comms to encourage experience-hungry Millennials to be spontaneous, and pick up their bags, leave work early on a Friday and party like no one’s watching in a European city (a firm favourite for our audience[17]). But how can the usual, functional view of airlines[18] — especially short-haul brands — be altered through media[19]? A common tactic is to use Millennials themselves, not just featuring in creative executions, but actually creating content which is in some way branded or brand-endorsed (the rationale being that our audience value peer recommendation above all else).

Lufthansa and ‘#inspired by’

We don’t dispute that peer recommendation can be effective. It echoes the challenger brand archetype of “The Democratiser”[20], offering our Millennial content-creators a platform to write, vlog and share their experiences. But our work with airline brands has thrown up a few learnings about using peer-to-peer marking. One example is the Lufthansa #inspiredby campaign[21], which was orientated around the need to tell real stories of crew/passengers and the “inspirational events experienced on their travels”. The result was a branded social content hub that aggregated videos and pictures using defined hashtags, some beautiful videos co-produced by VICE Media, and a healthy level of paid social promotion. However, the campaign does miss one trick, as one commentator put it:

But there was something missing. It gave me a “one-size fits all” kind of inspiration, casting a wide net hoping to catch some fish… it didn’t ever inspire me to travel Lufthansa, even if I got caught in its wide net — why Lufthansa? This was never answered…[of] all the data that Lufthansa today owns about its customers and all that it can mine from tweets of its 20,867 followers, 1.3 M Facebook likes and pictures of 4,803 Instagram followers, Lufthansa can surely create personalised and relevant “Inspirations”?…”[22]

This individual has a point: as much as this audience is heavily influenced by their peers, they expect a level of personalisation in comms because of the simple fact that they are not their friends. Why? Because it’s genuine, authentic and it means the brand ‘gets’ them. It does now, however, seem like Lufthansa has evolved its media strategy to take into account this point via the introduction of a Selfie Ad unit[23], leveraging the photo-obsessed habits of this audience (which, incidentally, Initiative UK is no stranger to since over 50% of our workforce are Millennials).

The final outtake in this section is that the burst ATL strategy should be discarded[24] when planning to effectively reach millennials for two interrelated reasons. First, from a media consumption standpoint, believing that heavyweight bursts alone will reach the target to a sufficient, effective frequency is risky. This audience accesses commercial content on-demand (they may binge on VoD one month and not touch it the next). Moreover, when accessing such content they are distracted with their devices — what we call “constant partial attention”.[25] Secondly and consequently, brands have shorter, smaller apertures to reach this consumer and although the natural channel to do this is online, it really should all be focused on the smartphone. Travel brands at the cutting-edge realise that a TV or OOH campaign means relatively little unless the message can be chunked and convincingly told on a smartphone. I do not envy the client or the creative in writing or fulfilling this kind of brief without solid, data-driven insights — an area in which the media agency currently excels. 

A Quiet Conflict: ‘Saving Time’ vs. ‘Making it Mine’

As popular as P2P brands like AirBnB have become, we still believe there is a workable angle for mass OTA, hotel and airline brands to be leveraged: one of trust. This is because of the uncertain legal landscape in which these P2P brands operate[26]. Several high-profile legal cases have recently seen travellers and room owners faced with severe financial penalties for falling foul of local contracts/bylaws. Millennials are eager to live like a local, but we draw the line at saying they are so driven by this motivation that they would not be swayed by the lure of an ATOL-protected travel operator to avoid such sticky situations.

In addition, there is a quiet conflict in Millennial behaviour which travel brands can exploit. Although the DIY online booking option seems natural for these digital natives because the extra hours spent trawling online are ‘worth it’ for a cheaper deal, this seems to jar with the strong shortcut reflex engrained into the Millennial mind-set. In other aspects of their life, such as technology, it’s all about value for time, “all of the new apps I’ve recently downloaded are about making my life easier and more efficient.”[27] But surely if they are career-minded, have a jam-packed social diary and want as many life-enriching experiences as possible, a travel brand which offers a level of convenience is a no-brainer? What is more, it is highly debatable whether the DIY option is truly cheaper — when you factor in time spent h than any form of bundling offered by one travel brand. Virgin Holidays is a brand we think is doing well in this space.

Blowing hot and cold is therefore really about how far our Millennials are willing to push to discover an experience sufficiently ‘off the beaten track’ for them. Some will go to extensive lengths and incur many hours of research (online, offline, with friends, locals etc.). This, we submit, is simply the price of true adventure in the modern age.

In Summary: Three Takeaways

Never forget that Millennials as an audience group have been born out of hardship. Therefore, they will bond with brands that make their life easier or genuinely understand their passions (and struggles). The good news is that travel is high, if not the highest item, on their life agenda. The less-good news: you’ll notice we used the word ‘bond’ and not ‘buy’ because we think it takes a sustained, emotive story told through media to convert this audience from consideration to purchase. That inevitably means thinking beyond the traditional annualised planning cycle and building your brand long-term.

In summary, for travel brands looking to court Millennials, we have three recommendations:

  1. ADAPT your media strategy by building from the smartphone out
  2. COLLABORATE via partnerships with other Millennial-savvy brands, and
  3. CREATE experiences, not adverts



[1] Initiative thought leadership 2014

[2] IPA, Les Binet & Peter Field – The Long & The Short of It 2013

[3] Valuable especially because they are more likely to continue spending on travel even in a recession (as detailed in the Expedia campaign referenced later in this piece).

[4] Initiative thought leadership 2014

[5] Initiative thought leadership & Future Foundation (NVision)


[8] WARC – Initiative paper, Dan Tighe (LA office)

[9] Future Foundation – Nvision – Surprise Me!

[10] WARC article

[11] audience survey 2014

[12] Mintel 2014 Airlines

[13] WARC – Expedia Europe: TYI campaign, Jay Chiat Strategic Excellence awards, Bronze 2014

[14] Pine & Gilmore, The Experience Economy

[15] audience survey 2013

[16] Examples: Long Good Read from the Guardian Media Group – hand selected, quality content, with not too much created daily so it can be kept on top of.

[17] audience survey 2014

[18] Mintel stat used for LH or similar about how long people are willing to ‘bear’ short haul discomforts (bar graph)

[19] As an aside from media brands can make business changes, such as GermanWings, an Initiative client which adopts a revolutionary pricing strategy by having a BASIC airline fayre which includes no carry-ons, arguably the ultimate expressions of the spontaneous, jet setting millennial.

[20] Challenger Times – EatBigFish 2015

[24] Pepsi recognises this – WARC Millennial Toolkit 2015, p5

[25] Initiative WorldWide – Everything at once 2014 – Sarah Ivey

[27] audience survey 2014