Millennials may represent the largest, most influential generation of our time, but they’re also known for being incredibly finicky, demanding and brand loyal. Here, design firms share insight and ideas on what makes them tick.
She walks into your store, iPhone in hand. She’s ready to shop, and she assumes your store is set up to interact with all the apps on her mobile device.
She’s a millennial, the biggest, most influential generation since baby boomers flooded the suburban malls, credit cards stuffed in their Gucci bags. By 2015, says Marcie Merriman, executive vp at Big Red Rooster (Columbus, Ohio), there will be 85 million of them.
But millennials, though the children of the boomers, are not like their parents. “Those guys rode the crest of a 50-year economic surge,” says Bruce Dybvad, ceo of Interbrand Design Forum (Dayton, Ohio). “This generation has been influenced by a different set of circumstances. They’re frugal, trying to get more for less, acquiring luxury but at a good price.”
“This generation” is generally identified as having been born between 1981 and 1993, the oldest of them approaching adulthood at the dawn of the new millennium. And what defines them, says Nicole Rehfuss, senior associate at Little Diversified Architectural Consultants (Charlotte, N.C.), are September 11, and the economic malaise that settled on them as the decade came to a close.
“September 11 shattered their sense of security,” says Michelle Fenstermaker, executive director, consumer insights, at WD Partners (Columbus, Ohio). “They lived that experience viscerally and immediately. Images of the twin towers were instantly on their TVs and computers. Parents had no chance to intercept and filter the information for them.”
The ensuing years of insecurity left this generation mistrustful and skeptical of authority. “They don’t like to be given rules or limitations,” says Little’s Rehfuss. “They don’t like to be told they can’t text or surf the web at work, or when to be at their desks or when to go home.”
“Home” is another definer of the millennials. Though September 11 made them feel vulnerable and mistrustful of strangers, home has always been comforting to them. “This, after all, is the generation of car seats, bike helmets, shoulder harnesses, air bags and bottles with security caps,” notes Merriman. “These kids never played in the back yard without their parents watching.”
They’re not quick to marry, and many of them move back in with their parents after college (causing some to call them the “baby boomerangs”). And though they may cocoon alone in their childhood bedrooms, their social circle is millions of contemporaries around the world through the magic of digital networking – Twitter, text messaging, blogging, Facebook, Skype, plus the mobile communications devices constantly at their ears or thumbtips.
“They don’t answer the phone with ‘How are you?’ ” says Ken Nisch, chairman of JGA (Southfield, Mich.). “They say ‘Where are you?’ ”
This interactivity informs their knowledge of the world. Cause marketing matters to them. And it influences their fashion and shopping choices. Whether shopping in a store, in a catalog or online, they rarely shop alone. They know what brands and trends their contemporaries value. And someone’s opinion, even from across the country, is just a text message or iPhoto away.
They’re brand-loyal, and many of those preferences are based on how the brands talk to them. (See the sidebar.) They like brands that use social networking well, or that respect the planet or that otherwise share their tastes and values. But don’t disappoint them. They’ll turn on you if they feel you’re inauthentic.
And they’re careful shoppers, a product of the sour economy they’ve inherited. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 37 percent of this work force was unemployed in 2010. “They’re well-educated and from households that were also well-educated and affluent,” Fenstermaker says, “so the prediction was that they would be tearing up the world. But it hasn’t been so.”
They’re not poor, insists Brand Amplitude LLC (Stevensville, Mich.) in its 2010 study, “The Millennial Handbook.” But they are in debt. “The Federal Reserve says graduates now shoulder three times more debt than a decade ago,” says the study. “Undergraduates now average almost $20,000 in debt ... [and] $4000 of that is credit card debt, on average.”
However much debt they carry, though, they tend to be optimistic. “This is the generation in which everyone on the team got a trophy,” says Patrick Dallesandro, JGA’s director of client strategy. “Their parents fed the idea that every kid’s a musician, an athlete, an artist. They weren’t made to feel they made mistakes, just that they could do it better the next time.”
As a result, says Dallesandro, everything is “Why not? Could be. Let’s try it.” And woe to the friend or employer, brand or retailer, that tries to throw cold water on any of that.