A millennial explains millennials

Every generation comes of age with different perspectives than the one before it. And while it’s dangerous to assume isolated movements or pockets of change are the same across a generation, it is clear there are some profound differences in the values shared by most millennials and those of their parents. Those values are having a massive impact on how millennials live their lives, what they buy, and why they buy it.

“Many have said, you know what, I’ll take a lower paycheque for a lifestyle that is meaningful and that I enjoy,” says Rebecca Kantar, herself a young millennial who has enjoyed early start-up success helping marketers connect with young consumers. Her company BrightCo recently joined New York City-based GLG Share.

The millennial trend is toward “quality over quantity,” she says. They’ll spend extra for brands they care about and less for products they don’t. Food, housing, travel, and brand loyalty are all, to varying degrees, valued differently than in older generations.

Millennials know more about what’s good for themselves, other people, and the planet itself, and that knowledge informs many of their purchasing decisions.

“The biggest threat is to major CPG companies, food and fashion; the brands selling products that are inherently not in line with millennials’ core values,” says Kantar.

It can be very confusing for marketers, but Kantar offered some suggestions for how to make sense of the millennial consumer. As cited in a McKinsey Report piece — the first tip is to start making changes now; millennials will account for 30% of all spending by 2020.

#1 Be Authentic

“If you want to understand millennial consumers, go into any Sweet Green,” says Kantar. Sweet Green was launched in 2007 by three millennials, has grown to 27 restaurants in Washington, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, and is slated to open in L.A. early next year.

“You can sit there and look around and see what exactly millennials value,” she says. Technology is seamlessly integrated into the ordering system, the stores are decorated with reclaimed materials, and the menu is healthier than most fast food joints with ingredients sourced mostly from local farms.

“Sweet Green taps into this desire millennials have for an authentic brand and this interest in sustainability,” she says.

Authenticity is one of the words repeated over and over again when it comes to solving the millennial riddle. And food has been one category where millennials have most dramatically changed the game — priding themselves on eating better, healthier food, with ethical and sustainable sourcing. Food brands can say they’re filling in that checklist, but if they’re not — if they’re not really — millennials will call them on it. That’s what being an authentic brand means in 2014. You can’t claim something if you can’t back it up. 
 One fast food company Kantar was working with wanted to know why its ads weren’t having any effect on younger consumers. “I think millennials are seeing your ads,” she told them. “I just think your offering is not appealing to them and doesn’t align with the millennial lifestyle.” 
 The trend is often cited as a factor in the growth of what is arguably America’s hottest millennial food brand. “It’s a point of pride for many millennials rather than a point of shame to carry around a Chipotle bag,” says Kantar.

#2 Do no harm

Another important shift is greater interest in how and where something they buy is produced.
They want to know where things come from, what negative externalities were involved in the production, and how they were produced. “Brands are going to need to sell high-quality goods and make sure their supply chain is not causing harm,” she says. “Millennials don’t want to be part of a story once they know it is causing harm to other populations.” 
This rule of course is neither absolute nor universal. Just as with any consumer group, a number of variables factor into any purchasing decision.

For millennials, the variables include things like cost, brand quality, where the product is made, supply chain, availability, etc.

Many will still buy cheap T-shirts from fast fashion chains, but that is mostly just a function of what they can afford for now. The much more important point is the fundamental shift in values. Given the choice, and the budget, many would prefer a locally produced T-shirt from someone on Etsy using organic cotton. (Well, it doesn’t have to be Etsy, but you get the point.)

#3 Experiences and content are better than ads

They’re okay with marketing, but it has to be on their own terms, when they want it, and how they want it. 
“Nobody wants to be bombarded with information when they are not asking for it,” she says. “Banner ads don’t work, brands should just stop using them. If your brand is causing a millennial an inconvenience, it doesn’t matter what you are selling.”
“The future of advertising is not advertising, it is content, it is word of mouth — it is just product.”

A favourite of Kantar’s is last November’s 30-minute documentary from outdoor clothing brand Patagonia. Released just before Black Friday, “Worn Wear” focuses on customers sharing stories about favourite pieces of clothing they bought years ago from Patagonia and never had to replace. It’s brilliant storytelling that invites consumers to be part of a community of like-minded people.

“It was a perfect ode to millennials,” says Kantar. “There is definitely a millennial desire to dump more crap and adopt a simpler lifestyle when it comes to what they own.”

#4 They’re loyal… to a point

“I think millennials are a lot less forgiving,” says Kantar. “There is brand loyalty until a brand does something wrong, and once they have done something wrong, it is really hard to win them back.” 
And this is perhaps the most important new lesson for modern marketing: millennials are constantly moving onto the next best things. Some might say this has always been the case, but with the speed of technological advancement increasing at a breakneck pace, millennial expectations change right along with it. 
Soda brands and energy drinks won’t just be competing with one another, but also with sprayable caffeines and natural products, says Kantar. If they aren’t already, food companies need to be thinking about inhalable foods
The only way for brands to hold onto millennial loyalty is to continuously reinvent themselves, she says. “It’s not just about your core product, but about where other products and companies are going, and how you can reinvent your brand.”

The Bio: Rebecca Kantar

When she was 14, Rebecca Kantar started the non-profit Minga to fight the global sex trade. She went to Harvard in 2010, but left after her sophomore year when she received funding for her start-up, BrightCo which connects young entrepreneurs with brands and investors. BrightCo joined GLG earlier this year, becoming part of GLG Share, a knowledge-sharing platform for start-ups in need of strategic and operational advice and assistance.