Mil­len­ni­als treat brands dif­fer­ently, says Collen Ryan.

Colleen Ryan spent a month study­ing Mil­len­ni­als in the wild. And while some things never change, like love and mar­riage, money and ca­reer, one thing that has changed from pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions is their re­la­tion­ship with brands.

New Zealand Marketing - - Contents - Colleen Ryan Colleen Ryan is head of strat­egy at TRA.

Mil­len­ni­als are us­ing brands to re­flect back an ide­alised ver­sion of their own life­style. They look to brands for a life­style mis­sion state­ment rather than a bun­dle of brand im­age state­ments.

Mil­len­ni­als are a busy gen­er­a­tion. Fol­low­ing them for a month as part of The Lis­ten­ing Pro­ject kept us out late at night, shamed us when we saw how much they post, blog and up­load, and had us pon­der­ing what the dif­fer­ences are be­tween this and pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions.

When they talk about brands the lan­guage is about use­ful­ness. Brands are what they do, but in this case it’s a fairly lit­eral take on this idea. They are less im­pressed by the mys­tique of brands and more by how they make life work more ef­fec­tively and al­low them to get stuff done.

Func­tion­al­ity of the brand is al­limpor­tant. Mil­len­ni­als are quite fru­gal; they’re look­ing to in­vest in pur­chases that are multi-use, able to in­te­grate into their life­style, highly durable and of qual­ity and, most im­por­tantly, will sup­port them liv­ing their lives in some way.

Brands that pre-date Mil­len­ni­als’ adult life still res­onate with them, but for chang­ing rea­sons. When they talk about Ap­ple, for ex­am­ple, it’s less about style and in­no­va­tion and more about how the prod­ucts in­te­grate seam­lessly into their lives to sup­port them in do­ing what they want do. Uber has no brand iden­tity value, yet they love it for what it does, not what it says about them as a user.

It’s the same story with M.A.C. Our Mil­len­ni­als talked about the func­tion­al­ity of the prod­ucts, and as proof they told us it’s the makeup that pro­fes­sion­als use, known for all day stay­ing power. De­spite it be­ing a fash­ion-driven cat­e­gory, they love it be­cause it’s makeup that ac­tu­ally does what it says on the tin.


The age of the selfie seems to be cou­pled with brands hav­ing flipped from badges to mir­rors. Ear­lier gen­er­a­tions wore, ate, drank and drove their brands with pride be­cause they told peo­ple who you were. The brand’s im­age and style gave peo­ple a cloak of per­son­al­ity and iden­tity and a way of dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing them­selves from the masses while align­ing them­selves to the ‘right’ crowd. The choice of brands made a state­ment about what you as­pired to be, even if you hadn’t quite got there yet, or maybe never would.

What we are see­ing with Mil­len­ni­als is quite dif­fer­ent. They are us­ing brands to re­flect back an ide­alised ver­sion of their own life­style. They look to brands for a life­style mis­sion state­ment rather than a bun­dle of brand im­age state­ments. The Mil­len­ni­als in The Lis­ten­ing Pro­ject quoted Nike’s “If you have a body you are an ath­lete” and con­nected that to Lu­l­ule­mon and Nike fit­ness classes as a re­flec­tion of their sim­i­lar though less am­bi­tious life­style choices.

A badge brand re­quires a shared un­der­stand­ing of the brand’s per­son­al­ity. It func­tions as a vis­i­ble man­i­fes­ta­tion to oth­ers of the user’s per­son­al­ity. Whereas mir­ror brands look back at us and con­firm how we feel and how we would like life to be. Mil­len­ni­als don’t have the au­thor­ity struc­tures that pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions had to tell them how to be­have. They seek af­fir­ma­tion from brands in­stead and look to brands to tell them how to live.

The dif­fer­ence be­tween a badge and a mir­ror isn’t a sub­tle nu­ance. It changes not just how brands com­mu­ni­cate, but also how we mea­sure the ef­fec­tive­ness of com­mu­ni­ca­tions. It’s less about needs and more about emo­tional con­nec­tion, less about as­pi­ra­tion and more about af­fir­ma­tion, less about brand state­ment and more about brand pur­pose, and less about per­son­al­ity and more about prom­ise.


When you let go of brands as badges, you let go of the no­tion of the match­ing brand port­fo­lio whereby buy­ers of a brand would also be buy­ers of other brands with the same per­son­al­ity traits. By con­trast, the pick and mix of brands we are see­ing among our group of Mil­len­ni­als in­cludes rags to riches com­bi­na­tions of lux­ury hand­bags and Ware­house leggings, top of the range phones and Freeview TV.

The po­lar­ity para­dox we see across many mar­kets is equally true of Mil­len­ni­als and es­pe­cially as it re­lates to brands. They are happy to splash out and equally happy to make do. They are re­al­ists about life and what the fu­ture holds and that is re­flected in their choices and will­ing­ness to com­pro­mise.


No com­ment about Mil­len­ni­als’ re­la­tion­ships with brands is com­plete with­out ac­knowl­edg­ing the role that so­cial me­dia plays. The en­forced trans­parency of brands is a new phe­nom­ena and who knows how it might have af­fected pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion’s re­la­tion­ship with brands.

Mil­len­ni­als are a savvy bunch, they get mar­ket­ing and are happy to par­tic­i­pate, but they won’t be messed with. Al­though own­er­ship of a brand’s rep­u­ta­tion has shifted to a no-man’s land some­where be­tween the brand owner and their au­di­ence, our Mil­len­ni­als were not look­ing to ex­er­cise their power. There is a tacit sense of fair­ness, but of course that works both ways.

Our Mil­len­ni­als clearly felt pas­sion­ately about au­then­tic­ity and trans­parency of brands, be­cause if you look to brands to tell you how to live, when they fail to de­liver their prom­ise or, worse, if they cheat on their prom­ise, what is re­flected back in the mir­ror is not a pretty sight.

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