Marketing trends millennials
This is a post by Abbie Dubin-Rhodin

Selling to reluctant capitalists

Ah, the elusive millennial. Whispered about in conference rooms the world around as the white whale every brand hopes to crack. It’s easy to see why, when, as a group, they’re anticipated to control ~$31 trillion by 2020.

As marketers, our interest in courting millennials is predicated on the assumption that they too are interested in what we have to offer. We have the product, but they hold the purse strings – capitalism in about its most classic form.

But what if millennials don’t want to be capitalists anymore?

A series of articles in Fast Company (the most recent of which was published earlier this month) explores the fact that many – maybe even the majority – of these millennial ‘cash cows’ just no longer believe in capitalism as it stands. Don’t sound the ad-land alarm just yet, but do listen to what this cohort is saying. They’re not telling us they no longer want to buy things or engage with brands, they’re telling us to step up our game and make it worthwhile for them. Compared to older generations, millennials are more likely to engage with a brand if it aligns with their larger social values. In the last year, this has grown more pronounced, with brands taking on overt stances on political, social, and economic issues that, a decade ago, would have seemed too risky to even fantasise about.

While our most engaged audience rejects capitalism as the notion of ‘profits above all’, they are simultaneously arising as the loudest proponents of one of the system’s classic tenets: consumer sovereignty (or for those reading on the go, the idea that in capitalism, the consumer has the power to guide the market because they control the flow of money). It is upon us as builders of brands to build something that our sovereign consumers, these millennials, actually want to interact with. We shouldn’t be trying to shift their attitudes to align to the benefits of the brand, rather invest in creating brands and products that align to the expectations millennials have explicitly told us they have.

Designing women

At a time where great user experience has become the expectation, rather than the exception, why do our interactions with the healthcare system remain so lacking?

For several designers at the San Francisco-based design firm, Frog, this question came to life when they thought to their own experiences with the annual women’s health pelvic exam and its piece de resistance, the speculum. Realising the design of the speculum has seen minimal updating since its invention in the 1840s, designers from Frog’s industrial design, interaction design and mechanical engineering teams set out to bring the speculum into the 21st century.

An October 2017 article in Wired describes the research and design project that began as a desire to redesign the speculum and transformed into a full-scale effort to ‘disrupt the pelvic exam’. The multi-disciplinary team at Frog engaged women and OBGYNs to identify the key issues at play that have actually resulted in the American College of Physicians from recommending against pelvic exams, citing “the harms, fear, anxiety, embarrassment, pain, and discomfort” brought on by the exam. When the particulars of the experience itself are keeping 50% of the population from engaging fully with their health, you have a problem. And these are exactly the types of problems agencies and design consultancies are equipped to handle, but so infrequently get charged with by clients.

This endeavour represents a strong example of a company bringing their purpose to life – in the case of Frog that they “advance the human experience through design” – to address a fundamental societal issue. As in last month’s review, I harken back to Edge’s use of the SPICE brand purpose model to emphasise the importance of the work this team is doing. The spice model accounts for the various stakeholders (Society, Partners, Investors, Customers, Employess) a brand must account for in bringing its purpose to life. Most often, and in no small part because it’s the most difficult to action on, ‘society as a stakeholder’ gets left behind.

This project by Frog makes a compelling case for benefitting society by tackling larger issues through a brand’s medium of expertise. It gives brands a chance to be bolder in their thinking and execution, while simultaneously allowing employees to flex their expertise to bring to life solutions to issues about which they’re passionate. 

All GMO Everything

Despite near rabid consumer pushback, about 90% of our food is genetically modified to some extent. And if investor activity is to be believed, the synthetic biology industry – of which GMOs are the most famous output – is still in very early days. For emerging players, like biotech company Ginkgo Bioworks, translating this investor excitement to consumer desire will be key to long-term success. In a conversation with Buzzfeed News, CEO Jason Kelly put forward a radical, but elegant proposal to handle this: take a page out of the organics movement and be honest.

It makes sense – consumers have been very clear that they expect transparency from the brands with which they choose to be loyal. However, unlike organic products, synthetic biology deals with complex content, concepts not easily distilled into a pithy tagline for the casual consumer. If this industry is truly interested in shifting consumer sentiment, it will need to not only meet the demands of radical transparency, but also create a narrative that is clear, concise and compelling.

The synthetic biology industry can take heart though, while neither quick nor cheap, it has been done before. One needs look no further than the classic PR crisis management undertaken by Johnson & Johnson following their cyanide in the Tylenol (paracetamol) scare in 1982. While their market share plummeted almost 30% in the immediate aftermath of the event, Tylenol was able to recover within a year. How? By being honest – aggressively so. They recognised the gaps in consumer safety that had allowed the poisoning to happen in the first place and undertook immediate, holistic action to rectify the situation. In doing this, J&J not only fundamentally shifted consumer expectation for the safety of over-the-counter medication, they made themselves the poster child of the revolution. Within a year, Tylenol was no longer the poison NSAID, but the one consumers trusted as an innovator in product safety.

Given the significant global challenges that are maintaining the food supply, combatting climate change, not to mention significantly inflated consumer expectations, the synthetic biology industry is primed to explode. If it’s to gain traction outside of boardrooms, however, the synthetic biology industry should heed the advice of one of their unicorns and “be honest”.