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Millennials are finally taking action in brand support

Marketers and political leaders have been frustrated for years with the reluctance of millennials to actually follow up on their complaints and take real action on brand issues. As the first digital generation, their values and perceptions are quite different from previous generations. While they voice strong opinions on social and political issues, their actual initiatives to date at the voting booths and consumer brand choices have been both mystifying and disappointing.

Younger consumers are very skeptical of their future, and for good reasons. This segment of 80 million millennials spent $600 billion in 2016, and this will grow to $1.4 trillion by 2020 (source: Accenture March 2017 study). They are also the largest generation of eligible voters, surpassing baby boomers this year: 30% of all eligible voters, which will grow to 34% in 2020, versus 28% expected for baby boomers. However, this younger group feels cut out of the mainstream, and that their future will not be nearly as bright as their parents’, which is not surprising when you realize:

  • Millennials earn on average 20% less than their boomer parents did at their age, and $10,000 less than young adults in 1989 (source: January 2017 study by Young Invincibles).
  • Home ownership for under 35-year-olds is at a historical low and increasingly out of reach.
  • The spiraling cost of university education has put this out of reach for more young people.
  • The average American millennial moves 4 times between 18 and 30, and 19 states prohibit voter registration a month before elections, a major obstacle for their ability to vote.

Their values are considerably (and understandably) more modest than previous generations. They are more risk-averse and less likely to spend money unnecessarily. They are very sensitive to social causes, and prefer brands with a pro-social message, sustainable manufacturing, and ethical business standards. Their main focus is on getting the best value, which is why they use mobile-scanning coupons often to get good promotion offers and the ideal price.

“Many younger voters in Western countries believe the current political economic system doesn’t serve them,” says David Bach of the Yale School of Management. He lists the hot issues that are finally galvanizing action by millennials–i.e. unemployment, job insecurity, unaffordable housing, climate change, and social justice.

Perhaps the greatest conundrum is their reluctance to force changes at the voting booths. They have a deep distrust of government and traditional institutions, which fuels their attitude that nothing will change. Millennials have traditionally viewed voting not as a duty; they regard it as the duty of politicians to woo them. Instead, they see parties as brands which they can choose or ignore, and would rather have the world customized to their preferences instead of a system that demands they vote for an all-or-nothing bundle of election promises, which looks uninviting to them. This is a key reason why half of millennials say they are independents compared to just a third of those 69 or over.

However recent events in Britain, France, and the U.S. may be changing all this. For the Brexit vote in 2016 the turnout for 18-24 year-olds was only 43% versus 78% for the 65+ year-olds. Once this group realized what they might lose, their turnout jumped to 69% in the June 2017 election, expressing their anger at Brexit and providing surprising support for Jeremy Corbin. Analysts called this massive surge in younger voter participation a “youthquake.”

The tipping point for millennials may have been reached in other countries too, as youthful leaders have inspired greater support by these voters: Emmanuel Macron at 39 in France, the youngest president in French history, and Justin Trudeau who saw the youth vote rise sharply from just 39% in the parliamentary election in 2011 to 57% in 2015. Similarly only 36% of millennials voted for Trump (lower among urban, college-educated whites) and their approval rating was only 21% (source: Quinnipiac survey in late February), with an identically low percent saying they share Trump’s values. Their negative response to Trump’s agenda could create havoc in the 2018 elections for Republicans, assuming a solid turnout, and especially if the Democrats can find younger candidates with the charismatic style of a Justin Trudeau brand.

This emerging resurgence of millennial activism and voting participation is also extending to consumer brands as younger people are demanding that companies practice business sustainably and ethically, and most importantly, demonstrate a socially responsible marketing behavior. A 2015 study by Nielsen revealed that 73% of millennials are willing to spend more on a brand that has a credible sustainability track record, and 81% even expect their favorite companies to make public declarations of their corporate citizenship. In short, younger consumers want their brands to make an impact on the world, and to be open and honest about their efforts.

Jay Gronlund

Jay Gronlund is an experienced business development and branding professional with a successful track record introducing new products and services, expanding into foreign markets, re-positioning products, and facilitating ideation sessions. Jay has effectively applied proven marketing and branding principles from his background in the consumer goods industry to other industry sectors, including B2B situations. Jay’s career began in consumer packaged goods and then expanded into household products, beverages and publishing. His first company was Richardson-Vicks (now part of Proctor & Gamble), where he held new product positions in New York and in London. He continued his new product responsibilities for Arm & Hammer products at Church & Dwight (Arm & Hammer), then VP Marketing of the wine/champagne division of Seagram, and finally VP, Director of Marketing at Newsweek. Gronlund started The Pathfinder Group in New York in 1990, an international business development and brand consulting firm. Related to this, much of his work today involves re-positioning brands, ideation sessions and marketing workshops, with a primary focus on emotional branding, especially building brand trust for clients. Jay has also been teaching a marketing course at NYU since 1999, “Positioning and Brand Development". Jay recently wrote a new book, “Basics of Branding," reflecting his NYU branding course and professional experience. He has also published several articles on diverse marketing topics: “5 Steps to a Successful Ideation Session," “What B2B Marketers can Learn from B2C," “Employer Branding," “Customized Marketing for Tomorrow’s Leaders," “Sharing and Implementing New Ideas Across Borders," and “Working with the New Russians”, “Word-of-Mouth Marketing for B2B Situations," “The Future of m-Health” and “How to Build ‘Value’ for Healthcare Brands in Emerging Markets." Jay Gronlund is a graduate of Colby College and has an MBA from Tuck at Dartmouth College.

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