If You Want A Glimpse Into The Millennial Mindset, Head To Burning Man Next Week

The principles behind a raucously primal desert festival give insights into what engages millennials’ creativity and commitment.

If You Want A Glimpse Into The Millennial Mindset, Head To Burning Man Next Week
[Image: Flickr user vjhoming]

The annual Burning Man festival will take place next week in Nevada’s Black Rock desert. Anyone who has ever attended, and those of us who have been several times, can attest to the fact that it is a social experiment on a grand scale. It is a blend of awe-inspiring creativity and life changing social interaction. It is simultaneously intimate and grand. It is tribal, highly participatory, and a celebration of what we are and what we can be.


This unique festival’s popularity has grown in large part to the principles that differentiate it from any other festival.

And interestingly, many of the principles that make Burning so successful are also principles that resonate with millennials and provide insight into what has social currency and why with this important generation.

Brands increasingly realize that successfully marketing to millennials requires an approach that is fundamentally different from those used for gen Xers and boomers. Success is predicated on understanding two key factors: digital utility and cultural currency.

Millennials are the first generation of digital natives and demand digital experiences that are simple and useful (think Apple iOS), personalized (think Spotify), and empowering (think Lyft). Equally important but less understood is cultural currency.

Millennial cultural sensibilities represent a true paradigm shift and revolve around three interrelated pillars–fun, discovery, and community. Not coincidentally, these are the very same pillars that define Burning Man and are the drivers of its ongoing success.


Let’s look at how these pillars are innate to both Burning Man and millennials.


Burning Man promotes radical self-expression. Attendees bring the entertainment with them, constructing theme camps and art installations for all to enjoy. At any moment you can be sucked into a 300-person impromptu drum circle or a techno/trance-inspired dance club.

Spontaneity reigns supreme, and we see this as integral to millennial culture. They are the largest content creators and, with the emergence of apps like Snapchat, their digital spontaneity is met with short-lived consequences.


It’s easy to see how the second pillar, discovery, is core to Burning Man. With 70,000 new friends sprawled across seven square miles, you can’t help but continually see new things. With thousands of bikes lighting up the desert well into the night, Burning Man surprises at every corner.

For millennial culture, discovery is key to a mobile-driven social life where you can find a new date with the swipe of a finger and make a dinner reservation based on your current location.



And finally, the third pillar, community, is easily understood within the Burning Man experience. Community starts with oneself, as each attendee is responsible for any event she or he holds and for leaving no trace behind. Burning Man is also dedicated “to a radical participatory ethic,” and those who attend are expected to participate–merely observing is frowned upon.

More than 60% of millennials are worried about the state of the world and feel personally responsible to make a difference. With the rise of corporate responsibility, this generation’s purchasing power is being directed accordingly.

From there, the Burning Man community extends to those around you and culminates in the “burn,” where the entire camp joins in to participate and interpret the event in their own way.

Using digital services such as Kickstarter and Thunderclap, among others, millennials have similarly demonstrated an interest in banding together for a worthwhile cause.

There are multiple opportunities for brands to take part in the three cultural dimensions of fun, discovery, and community. Burning Man doesn’t necessarily capture the totality of these dimensions, but it is a very good proxy.


If you want to market to millennials you need to understand how much they value cultural currency and why. Simultaneously delivering against the pillars of social currency and digital utility is your best bet for success.

Ensure that you, your brand team, and your agencies have a well-considered point of view on these culture pillars. Understanding them is the key to creating content that is truly relevant. And relevance is the single most important factor for driving engagement.

The Burning Man gathering makes clear that millennials know how to engage. Do you?

About the author

Steve has over 24 years of agency and client side experience leading CRM, interactive marketing, sales and media practices for brands including Nissan, Bank of America, Visa and Procter & Gamble, to name a few. In 2011, he was named an Adweek Media-All Star for his innovative work measuring earned and owned media content and developing predictive analytics models to optimize digital ecosystems