2016 Year in Preview: Brands will stop trying to be millennials' cool friend

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Ok, brands, we get it. You’re hip to the funky fresh lingo of today’s kids. You can make Drake jokes and be as on fleek as you please. In 2015, you really outdid yourselves, though. More than 168 brands — from McDonald’s to Sprint — contributed to over 660 mentions of the terms “bae” and, well, “on fleek” between January and November, according to social media analytics firm Brandwatch.

But here’s the rub: when a thing becomes cool enough for you to have heard of it, Olive Garden, it’s probably lost its cool cachet. And when everyone’s doing it, it completely loses any semblance of authenticity.

Thankfully, there is a silver lining to all this silliness: We may have reached a tipping point. In 2016 expect brands to stop trying so hard; expect brands to stop sounding like your slightly desperate 45-year-old Aunt Jessica at Thanksgiving.

Screen Shot 2015-12-02 at 3.43.35 PM“Many companies are too focused on the quick fix, the paint job, and the cheap, gold-plated jewelry,” said Nick Johnson, founder and CEO of The Incite Group. “They often put in a great deal of effort in order to present themselves as a bizarrely ‘street’ teen, when in reality, they are the opposite.”

For Johnson, the use of terms like “bae” are quick fixes and shortcuts by brands unwilling or unable to make real, substantial efforts at engaging with their customers in a way that isn’t forced or pandering. They don’t work.

The flurry of “hip” messaging from brands has hardened consumers, who approach brands with a growing level of wariness and even cynicism. Nowhere has this been better embodied than in the parody Twitter account @BrandsSayingBae which highlights brands at their most pathetic. 

ABX Advertising Benchmark Index evaluated McDonald’s new “Breakfast All Day” campaign, and walked away with some telling findings: Creative that emphasized food performed much better among consumers than creative that was heavy on social media and hashtags. While the former scored 133 points and prompted action, the latter had a much lower score of 110 and didn’t motivate consumers as much.

McDonald’s was also the company that used “bae” and “on fleek” the most number of times out of all brands — a total of 84 times — most of which occurred around its all-day breakfast announcement. Consumers clearly weren’t “lovin’ it,” though.

Initially, consumers got a kick out of brands adopting some sass online. It was fun and different and it helped humanize a faceless corporation. At first, it was even practically a requirement for brands to show consumers that they were paying attention by engaging with them and tweeting back quickly, said Jamie Gutfreund, CMO at Wunderman.

But as consumers glommed onto the fact that these giant brands have access to an enormous amount of their data, the novelty wore off. “The social contract now is, ‘how are you going to use the data to make my life better?'” she said. “Brands that rely solely on language are missing the point.”

And some of them have gotten the memo. Leading the way are brands like Domino’s, said Gutfreund, whose “Easy Order” button is a one-click step to getting pizza delivered to your doorstep. Netflix has provided a service to bedraggled parents with five minute-long Dinotrux videos meant to lull their kids to sleep. “Show me, don’t tell me. That’s the kind of utility that is really helpful,” she said. “The kind that deploys data in a useful and practical way.”

In any event, leaning on slang to appeal to consumers is risky in that nobody knows how long the edgier terms will have cache.  Generally speaking, words that are “less obtrusive, democratic and more widely used rather than limited to a group” tend to stand the test of time, said Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist based in Montreal.

Trendy or clever young-skewing slang that burbles up from the cultural underground — like “on fleek” — tend to have less staying power. Who’s to say with “bae,” though. Indeed, of the 660 uses of the two terms by brands, 93 percent of the mentions were for “bae,” according to Brandwatch. Still, both of the terms peaked in the first three months of the year.

Don’t expect every brand to instantly stop trying to sound cool, however. Already a new word has begun cropping up — and may already be old news to your plugged in tween. “Smoll,” which has numerous definitions on Urban Dictionary but can be best understood to mean something extremely small and cute, might be the next big thing. “It’s gaining a lot of traction,” McCulloch said.

McDonald’s, are you listening? We hope not.

There are nine more looks forward from Digiday’s editors and reporters as part of our 2016 Year in Preview series. Download the full series here.