Purpose is the New Black: Millennials Seek Meaning

on Tuesday, 01 May 2012. Posted in Marketing to Millennials, Millennial Values, Millennials and Brands

Millennials are driving a new type of fusion -- of company culture and brand -- as they seek meaning in the products they buy and the companies where they work. No brand is immune from the responsibility to do no harm and consumer pressure to do good, not even the mighty Apple. In our classes, students say the current labor practices publicity has caused them to question their future loyalty.

Collaborators with a Cause


According to a recently released BCG-Barkley millennial segmentation, Millennials are more focused on causes than earlier generations:


Millennials believe that working for causes is an integral part of life, and they are drawn to big issues. Instead of making one-off charitable donations in cash or in kind, they’re more likely to integrate their causes into daily life…(They) expect companies to care about social issues and will reward those that partner with the right causes.”

The study found that Hip-ennials -- the biggest segment of Millennials accounting for 29%  -- are primarily defined by their belief they can make the world a better place. Not only is this the largest group, they are also the most active on social media. The combination of passion and amplification through social media means Millennials are poised to reshape public and private institutions to reflect their values. 


Companies Moving to Respond


Amazon‘s acquisition of Zappos is an interesting example of a firm seeking to live up to these high expectations.  One motive for the deal was in response to Millennial employee and customer desires. Amazon is the Google of ecommerce – supremely smart, a little geeky, and very efficient. Not a lot of higher-order, emotional benefits there. But it works so well. Following this line of reasoning, Amazon recognized the need for a more motivating reason for being to attract and retain Millennial.


Enter Zappos – committed to “Deliver WOW!” with a culture that values service above all. Performing the culture change from the inside out could be time consuming, distracting and potentially risky. Seeing the similarities in business models, the Zappos acquisition was a way to infuse caring and emotion into the Amazon organization. Viewed in this light, the deal was a =ulture transfusion.


Starbucks is another case of a brand working to develop greater meaning, as much for its largely Millennial employees as for customers.  In this case, Howard Schultz is doing it without another brand’s support. The April campaign to act locally to create impact globally activated over 700,000 people and generated over $4 million for local organizations and causes. Today’s “Thank You” ad in the NYT about the difference a month can make reminds readers that the brand is “bigger than coffee.”


Who’s Next?

My upper division brand strategy students at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business have a few ideas of their own. Their brand identity assignments confirm their desire to support brands that convey a larger purpose and a culture that rewards idealism. Some teams aim to accomplish it through internal commitment to causes that speak to the reality of the company’s culture. Others student teams, such as the team focusing on Benetton, recommend following Amazon’s example and achieving this goal through co-branding. They believe Benetton should move from seeking controversy for the sake of attention to focusing on issues with broad appeal where the company can make a difference. To achieve this, they recommend Benetton partner with, or acquire, TOMS Shoes, so that the two can join forces in a focused effort to bring shoes and eyeglasses to those in need.


The American Apparel team seeks to rehabilitate the brand, which is most known for attention-getting charges of sexual harassment and provocative (exploitative?) marketing. The team recommends American Apparel commit the brand and its employees to fighting human trafficking globally. This is a noble cause, to be sure, and one that directly confronts the accusations against the brand and the CEO.  There are challenges with such an approach, but it is at least consistent with its legacy of ‘sweatshop free’ manufacturing.


With Millennials asking more of the brands they buy and the companies they work for, the idealist approach, if done credibly and sincerely, is worth a try. 

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