I was looking at wireless plans the other day and was struck by the sheer complexity of what the big carriers are offering. It’s a complex hodgepodge of new contract-free monthly plans, two-year contracts, special promotions, data bundles, family plans, equipment pricing discounts, and activation fees. I’m in the business of technology sales, and trying to determine the best deal still baffled me.
What’s driving the mobile carriers to endless-option distraction? And what lessons can other companies learn? While many factors are at play, I think the main takeaway is this: The rise of the Millennial generation is forcing brands to adapt to an entirely new consumer model in which traditional customer loyalty seems to count for much less than it used to.
The Biggest Generation
By 2020, Millennials—typically defined as the group in their early 20s—will account for a third of the adult U.S. population. Millennials are becoming the biggest age group in the country, overtaking the baby boomers. Last year, there were more 23-year-olds—4.7 million of them—than any other age, according to The New York Times.
This generation is changing the way everything is sold, and companies are scrambling to figure out how to connect with a group that is typically seen as indecisive, unpredictable, and, as Vanity Fair’s article on Tinder evinces, reluctant to commit.
Commitment-Phobes and Digital Natives
As AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, and other wireless carriers compete for market share, they are playing to this audience by eliminating contracts or, in the case of T-Mobile, even paying for customers to break their contracts with other providers.
The average Millennial consumer apparently doesn’t have a problem with that. They live in a world where change happens fast, the customer is always right, and commitment is a challenge for most.
And their consumer behavior simply reflects the very different world they’ve grown up in. Twentysomethings are digital natives, socially conscious, burdened with debt, highly educated, and born of tough economic times. They also represent $1.3 trillion in consumer spending, according to marketing company Moosylvania, so brands are understandably eager to lure them in.
But once you’ve snared a Millennial customer, can you actually keep them?
Death to the Dinosaur Brands
A survey of Millennials found that three-quarters choose their favorite brands differently from their parents. Most felt that they’re as brand-loyal as their parents but, crucially, companies have to work harder to earn their loyalty.
“Millennials can call B.S. faster than any other audience,” reports a study by NewsCred. The bottom line is that these attitudes may spell certain doom to the dinosaur brands out there that aren’t willing to adapt—and tread carefully.
It’s not just corporate marketers and customer experience officers with a lot to lose. Witness the derision that recently met Hillary Clinton when she faced accusations that she compelled Millennials to sign a “commitment pledge” as a prerequisite for being allowed to attend a campaign event.
That attempt to curb the tide of Millennials’ legendary fear of commitment only compounded the embarrassment that Hillary suffered with this age group earlier in August, after she insulted their intelligence with a tweet asking them to share how their crippling student loan debts made them feel “in three emojis or less.”
Three Keys to Connecting with Millennial Consumers
But it’s not all bad news. Marketing to a consumers who are increasingly hard to market to may seem like a Zen riddle. But it can be done.
Research reveals that this audience loves to be addressed in a customized, personal way—hence the vast array of customizable options the mobile carriers provide. You must have a deep understanding of who they are and what motivates them. The essential keys to winning them over are:
- Target consumers by life stage, not age: Millennials don’t follow the well-worn path of their parents. Milestones like buying a home or marriage are being postponed or skipped entirely. They view life differently, and it’s not linearly. Touchstones like family, career, and identity have myriad definitions in an era where many traditional cultural mainstays are becoming fluid concepts. One 27-year-old isn’t inherently comparable to another.
- Be relevant and engaging: The NewsCred research found that Millennials are bombarded with more than 5,000 marketing messages a day. They have learned how to tune out anything that doesn’t add value—and catch their attention, quick. They connect with brands that address them in thought-provoking, meaningful, and genuinely helpful ways.
- Authenticity matters—a lot: Millennials connect with emotions. They are passionate about causes, and the study found that 70% said that their main reason for sharing content was that it made them laugh. Find the genuine voice of your brand and the feelings that align with it. Be true to those values. Take a point of view; don’t be a chameleon. If there’s anything Millennials despise most, it’s inauthenticity.
In the end, companies may be comforted to remember that Millennials aren’t the first generation to confound marketers. Baby boomers were equally puzzling in their day. (Remember pet rocks and bell bottoms?) Brands are all going to have to work hard to get inside Millennials’ heads.
“No one truly understands millennials,” the Moosylvania researchers concluded. “Not even millennials.”