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Today’s Consumers Love Brands—And Expect More From Them

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As a portrait of teenage angst, The Breakfast Club holds up well after more than 30 years. But the film's non-diverse cast and social categories of "athlete," "princess," and "brain" are as outdated as the computer-less library where the characters served detention.

More than Baby Boomers and Generation X, Millennials and Generation Z use brands to define their identity. Teens today look for representations of themselves, and are much more likely to identify as "Swifties," "Potterheads," or "Whovians" than any of the categories Generation X used.

Superfans like these are very loyal, but that loyalty has a flip side—their expectations for brands go far beyond simply providing a quality product or compelling content.

Driven by Millennials and Generation Z, consumers now expect brands to behave just like their friends do, including:

  • Owning up to mistakes and fixing them quickly
  • Connecting with them in an authentic, personal way
  • Standing for more than the bottom line

Own Up to Mistakes and Fix Them Quickly

When 28-year-old Anna Hezel moved in with her boyfriend, she bought a $600 Peggy couch from West Elm. She wanted, she later wrote, “to prove [her] adulthood with mid-century furniture.”

But the couch was built so poorly, and the brand showed so little sympathy for her complaints, she ended up throwing it out and writing a long article for The Awl about her disastrous experience.

Hezel's article took off on social media, inspiring other Millennials to share photos of the frayed stitching and detached buttons of their own Peggy couches.

peggy couch tweet

West Elm's response? They agreed to refund all customers who bought the couch within the last three years.

Today's consumer has dozens of ways make their complaints public. Any story, anywhere, can mushroom into a public relations crisis. One study of UK consumers found that social media complaints increased eightfold between 2014 and 2015. Sometimes the shaming is deserved, but other times it can be a form of cyber-bullying. Often, companies (and consumers!) have no way to confirm whether the complaints are valid.

Because of this, many companies are faced with a “One strike and you’re out” ballgame. A single decision or action, however well-intentioned, can turn into a debate that threatens years of loyalty-building. Even established brands like West Elm are vulnerable to sudden changes in consumer attitudes towards them—like a best-selling couch rendered worthless overnight.

The stronger the brand, the less likely these tactics will have an impact. Starbucks was ridiculed for its "Race Together" campaign, which encouraged baristas to discuss racial issues with customers. But when the company walked back its request for baristas to write the phrase on cups, the ridicule went away too.

Smart brands don't hide from customer complaints. Just like a close friend, they want to know when they've done something to offend—and they want to repair the relationship.

JetBlue's customer service team quickly answers customer questions, and sometimes has airline staff follow up in-person at the terminal. On their Twitter account they help customers, respond to customers, and even joke around with them.

When brands own up to mistakes and make good, customers are often even more supportive of the brand. After all, they're only "human."

But consumer outreach doesn't have to be reactive. Brands should identify the underlying motivations for negative sharing and use this research to proactively surprise and delight their customers.

Connect with Customers in an Authentic, Personal Way

How do friends build trust? Not with blast emails or marketing jargon. Brands who default to these tactics won't succeed with young consumers, who seek authentic, personal connection to brands.

more than 7 in 10 teens say it's important for brands to be authentic

Insight Strategy Group research shows that more than 7 in 10 teens say it's important for brands to be authentic. Younger generations are savvy about advertising and seek communication that feels more honest.

Consumers who identify closely with brands expect those brands to show up in the same social media feeds where their friends are. The clothing company Everlane, which targets a Millennial and Generation Z audience, declared in 2015 that Snapchat would be the brand's main social channel. To create an authentic connection the brand uses Snapchat to show behind-the-scenes footage from its design studio.

Wendy's uses its Twitter account to banter with people—and sometimes scold them—just like a friend would.

wendy's roasts consumers

In the media world, networks and movie studios are increasingly letting fans and actors interact in the more intimate setting of social media. After Stranger Things was renewed for a second season, the youngest members of the show's cast conducted a 16-minute Facebook Live session, playing '80s trivia games and answering audience questions.

Reddit Ask Me Anythings (AMAs) allow stars to respond to fans' questions directly. Passengers star Chris Pratt did an AMA in December 2016, two weeks before the movie's release.

Between responding to customer complaints and giving fans behind-the-scenes access, brands can open up a constant feedback loop, driving conversation that can not only increase brand loyalty, but inform product decisions and future marketing campaigns.

Stand for More Than the Bottom Line

Brands need to go beyond just knowing what issues are important to their audience—they need to support their audience with social stances of their own. In March 2016, North Carolina enacted a law regulating restroom access in that state. LBGT advocates decried the law as discriminatory against transgendered people. More than 70 brands announced their opposition to the law. The NBA moved its 2017 All-Star Game out of Charlotte. Deutsche Bank stopped plans to hire 250 new employees in the state.

Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft stores with a more conservative audience, sued the U.S. Government and won a Supreme Court case, arguing that the Affordable Care Act violated the company's religious beliefs.

brands need to support their audience with social stances of their own

When sexual harassment allegations against Bill O'Reilly went public, activists targeted brands that advertise on O'Reilly's Fox News show. More than 80 brands pulled advertisements from the show, and O'Reilly was fired.

With the news cycle constantly churning, and advertising diffused across thousands of sites and pieces of content, it's a daily effort for brands to maintain their image. But they have to. Because consumers have so many options, it's easy for them to avoid brands that don't align with their values—and throw support behind brands who stand up for shared beliefs.

Film and TV creators know that their content will perform better if the audience makes a personal connection to the actors involved. But their content can also lose part of its audience if an actor's statements or behavior offends a key demographic. The 2016 film Birth of a Nation faced a boycott and protests after sexual assault allegations against writer, director, and star Nate Parker came to light.

In 2015, the movie Aloha, set in Hawai'i, featured Emma Stone playing a character described as half-Chinese and one-quarter Hawaiian. The Media Action Network for Asian Americans released a statement condemning the film's casting.

In contrast, when making the movie Moana, Disney convened a panel of advisers from Polynesia, who weighed in on everything from how the characters were drawn to the lyrics of the songs they sang.

Every choice a brand makes will be debated on social media. Brands can't please everyone, but they must at least avoid stances and choices that offend their target audience.

Key Takeaway

The intense identification consumers now feel for content, companies, and products is both an opportunity and a challenge for brands. Superfans can be reliable customers for decades, and no-cost marketing engines that never stop.

But when a brand lets a superfan down, that negative experience feels much more personal—it's an attack on their identity. Just like a friendship, the consumer relationship requires effort, empathy, and near-daily maintenance.

Millennials just want to be Happy

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Pharrell’s hit song, “Happy,” has topped the charts for over a month now, with his proclaim for happiness not showing any signs of waning. The song has been widely embraced, especially among Millennials who exude his message in their outlook on life. Millennials’ penchant for pragmatic optimism is echoed by one of the song’s lines that’s directed at bad news and people who dwell on it (“I should probably warn you I’ll be just fine. No offense to you, don’t waste your time”). Millennials are on a journey towards finding and defining joy in their lives, and they have no patience for haters.

In a survey Insight fielded last year among a national sample of 2400 Millennials ages 14-25, we found that 4 in 5 Millennials are optimistic about the future and agree that their main goal in life is happiness. Where do they look for happiness? One place is at work. 9 in 10 Millennials agree that it’s important to love your job.

Not only do Millennials rally around the pursuit of happiness, but more Millennials define success by happiness (88%) over more material things like money (60%), fame (36%), and being popular (57%), deflating some over-circulated Millennial stereotypes. Moreover, 2 in 3 Millennials are sick of hearing how spoiled their generation is – they just want to be happy!

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