Back in 2000 when I began my professional consumer anthropology career, I was working in brand strategy and my focus was “youth” – in particular, helping my clients understand how to connect with Millennials. At that time, they were in a generational age range that comprised everyone from pre-tweens to recent college grads.
To say they are a generation that has gone through a lot of change is an understatement. Pre 2001, Millennials were the new frontier for marketers: having come of age in a time of prosperity and respective peace. They were characterized based on their over-scheduled lifestyles, purchase power (both with regard to their own spending as well as their influence over parent’s purchases), optimism and high expectations for their future and general savvy and awareness of their importance as consumers / desire to be catered to with regard to customized products and experiential marketing.
Then, in 2001, 9-11 irreversibly rocked their thus far un-cracked foundation. They realized very quickly that they were indeed not the center of the universe and that their world was not the invincible bubble they thought it was. While still optimistic about their futures, they began re-evaluating their priorities – in particular the importance of family and community and having a support system. They became more invested in close ties to their parents, tradition and religion as a source of guidance in a now very uncertain social reality. Their parents became even more involved in their lives and developed increasingly peer-like relationships whereby open dialogues about anything from social coming-of-age issues to personal family financial issues became fair game.
Then as an even larger group of Millennials were graduating college and entering / rounding out their first several years in the work force, America’s previously untouchable economy took a nose dive. The “dot bomb” crash that happened during the span of time between 2000 and 2012 didn’t have nearly the impact that the economic crisis of 2007 and 2008 where they witnessed the collapse of everything from the housing markets to financial institutions and automotive companies.
They watched their parents, who had in many cases sacrificed many of the fundamentals of family life and quality time in favour of two-income households and financial security, lose their jobs, investments and homes and consequently became sucked up by a wave of distrust in corporations and institutions. Not to mention they were entering a less than optimal work force, if they could get a job at all.
Many Millennials ended up back at home with their parents after college and / or back in school trying to give themselves a leg up. But net / net they ended up a generation caught in limbo as they tried to bust out of their socially-induced extended adolescence into adulthood.
Now, looking at America’s new generation of young adults and young families, the American Dream has morphed into a new American Reality. How has this impacted their outlook? There are positives and negatives to the realities they have experienced:
Technological Innovation: Lets not forget the power that evolution in communication technology has had toward creating a profoundly connected and savvy generation. Despite the many challenges faced from a socio-political and economic standpoint, this generation is the most empowered by access to information and one another. They have embraced virtual platforms in knowledge sharing and networking to connect to one another and activate not just an American culture but also participate in a global culture entrepreneurship and change. They are spearheading the conceptual economy empowered by technology and as a result are creating a new type of workforce and making headway on securing a brighter future for their generation and those to come.
Social networking platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn provide unparalleled connection resources. Online media platforms like YouTube, WordPress and Reddit also allow unparalelled access to getting your message out there and sharing those that are most worthy. Millennials have the power to create their own media influences rather than being subject to them and that makes all the difference in empowering a generational culture.
Raising their Voice: Having born witness to the onset of financial, social and political instability both on their own turf and around the world, American youth have taken activism and addressing social issues to a new level. Social responsibility has become a part of the fabric of their being and they use all the resources at their disposal to make it part of their day to day: using technology platforms as well as their spending power to support good causes and raise up new ones every day.
From Kickstarter (an alternative funding platform for entrepreneurs) and Etsy (online shopping for hand crafted goods) to programs like the “It Gets Better” project (itgetsbetter.org) that combats the high suicide rate among gay and lesbian youth by showcasing inspiring video messages from celebrities and adult gays and lesbians who have been there and moved on. Not to mention movements like Occupy, the growing “green” consumption and local food trends that have had multi-generational influence by have been embraced and championed by younger consumers.
Financial pragmatism: With all of the financial instability this generation has experienced, budgeting, discounts and smart spending are a permanent part of their vernacular. Young people tend to be stereotyped with expectations of behaviour geared toward instant gratification and peacocking (in this day and age with brands, etc.). But Millennials are far from short-sighted and frivolous. They are entering the workforce carrying student loan debt, paying off credit cards and delaying expensive purchases.
There are apps galore (like Scout Mob and Foursquare) to help them save money . They seek advice from their parents on considered purchases like cars, opting for practicality versus flash and unlike any other previous generation are more inclined to give up four wheels all together for alternative transportation. In a recent study, nearly half of 18-24 year old drivers said that if forced to make the choice they would rather have access to the Internet over a car!
Holistic Balance-Seekers: Their financial pragmatism is only part of the bigger picture. Inspired by lessons-learned form watching parents pay the price for commitment to work and making money over following their passions and spending more time with family, Millennials have been forging a new path to fulfilment. Having watched the aforementioned financial collapse, they are realizing there is more to life than building net worth. This is a generation who would rather have a job with purpose or one that fuels their passions then make lots of money.
Many Millennials have, however, taken that traditional route only to have early-onset midlife crises. I can’t tell you how many conversations I have had with disillusioned late twenty-somethings who have already burned out on their high paying professional careers and decided to go back to school or start an entrepreneurial endeavour that makes them happy. One young lawyer told me “I’m 29 and already burned out. I’m sick of working 70-hour weeks for something I’m not passionate about. I’ve decided to quit and put together a business plan to open up a bakery.”
Entrepreneurial Motivation: Lest you think that this New American Reality has beaten Millennials down, be reassured that this generation is nothing if not resilient. They have all kinds of power in their hands and they know how to use it. On the brink of an emerging conceptual economy they are bursting with ideas, energy and entrepreneurial spirit. Millennials are empowered by technological, social and economic platforms of their own creation (per previously mentioned examples) to find their niche and succeed. They may try on several careers in their lifetimes, but they will definitely not stop until they have gotten it right, setting the stage for “Gen Z” and others to come by showing them that not only can you change the system from within the system, but you can create a whole new one…all you need is the will and you can find the way.
So how do you make sure your brand is relevant to today’s savvy and empowered Millennial customer?
Empower their ambition: be a source of support and inspiration and provide platforms that help forward their entrepreneurial spirit
Listen to them: Brand building and innovation should be a dialogue, not a monologue…and who better to help you evolve then a generation committed to new concepts and ideas!
Use technology to facilitate connections: Don’t be afraid to connect with your customers. Utilizing online and mobile platforms is a smart way to connect with Millennials in their context and shows your commitment to dialogue.
Be a source of stability: for brands who have sustained over time, longevity is an asset and can have strong emotional resonance with this generation who has seen a lot of turmoil in their young lives. Authenticity – a hallmark of brand value for Millennials, starts with having a heritage to call upon.
Be Optimistic: a positive attitude is contagious. Make your brand an easy choice by virtue of its good energy.
Have a point of view and walk the walk: Millennials seek to live lives of purpose and gravitate toward brands that can express a unique purpose of their own. Take ownership of your brand’s perspective and make a point to consistently communicate that voice in your marketing communications and activate that within your corporate culture. They will know and if they trust in your intention they will also follow.
Most importantly, take the time to understand their context and take the initiative to understand how and where your brand fits. A little insight goes a long way in making human connections that can seed la generation of loyal customers