Fun fact: nobody knows how many marketing messages the average American sees per day. The much-disputed estimates range from 700 to 5,000 interactions; estimates aside, though, it’s clear that modern brands are everywhere. They’re now as much a part of our lives as our families and friends.
Millennials are especially likely to find meaning in brands: 50% of them feel that brands say something about who they are, where they fit in, and which values they hold dear. And their opinions are important, because according to Accenture, millennials collectively spend about $600 billion per year.
Still, millennials’ idea of good branding differs from that of previous generations. As the first generation of digital natives—the generation that watched high-speed internet, social media, and mobile devices change the world—they expect to engage in two-way conversations with brands. “The conventional, linear framework that most companies have used to manage brand engagement no longer holds,” declares the Boston Consulting Group. “Executives and marketers must embrace the new reality: marketing is an ecosystem of multidirectional engagement rather than a process that is controlled and pushed by the company.”
Technological advances have changed the tools marketers use, but the mentality of many marketers has yet to catch up. In many circles, engagement is still a pleasant bonus instead of a serious goal.
As millennials, we respectfully disagree: building a lasting brand means making engagement a priority.
A Quick History of Branding
Branding has utilitarian roots. It was originally a method for proving ownership of cattle or products. However, it quickly became a way to distinguish quality: shortly after paper was invented in ancient China, marketers started putting brands on flyers and banner ads. Fast-forward many centuries, and Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, ushering in the era of mass communication. The American Civil War led to the widespread popularity of packaged goods, which did for branding what the iPod did for mp3s. From AdAge’s encyclopedia:
National advertising of mass-produced, brand-name packaged goods emerged as one of the most significant developments of the post-Civil War era. Advertising made specific products so appealing that customers would accept no substitutes and in turn, they urged stores to stock those products regardless of the price set by the manufacturer.
The iPod’s ancestor, the radio, helped brands make the jump from physical to emotional necessity. By sponsoring radio programs, companies introduced the notion that they could bring consumers something that couldn’t be put in a box: entertainment, identity, and even happiness.
Jump forward a few decades: Ray-Ban means cool, Pepsi means young, and Apple means different.
They’re facing stiff competition from a crop of new tech brands, though. Last year, a judging panel and a survey of 2,500 British consumers put Spotify and Netflix on a list of the coolest brands, pushing out Rolex and Sony.
What do Spotify and Netflix provide that Rolex and Sony don’t? Engaging, addictive digital experiences. Specifically…
- Recommendations that respond to user behavior (if you’re curious about how Spotify’s Discover Playlist works, check out this post)
- The ability to easily jump between devices
- Instant access to a wide variety of content
These three factors lead to continuous engagement, which makes people associate these brands with experiences rather than things. It’s no coincidence that most millennials would rather spend on what they do than what they own: according to a PWC study, 52% of consumers 18 to 34 are spending on experiences, versus 39% of older consumers. Moreover, a Harris study found that 72% of millennials plan to spend more on purchases that create memories and allow them to connect with other people. Think: blasting a Spotify playlist at a party, watching Netflix with your bae (or straight-up replacing your bae with Netflix… let’s be real, it happens).
It’s worth noting that the Harris study was sponsored by Eventbrite, a platform for planning, promoting, and selling tickets to live events. But engaging experiences can be — and often are — digital. And if all the predictions about virtual reality are right, the line between a “real-life” experience and a digital one will become blurrier and blurrier.
Simply put: to curry favor with millennials, you have to create engaging digital experiences. You have to win the internet.
Branding in the Future
At Boomtrain, we believe relationships with brands should transcend utility and enrich consumers’ lives. We believe brands should create great experiences for consumers in general, and millennials in particular (if only because they expect it). Above all, we believe that personalization — grounded in a deep understanding of individual customers — is the foundation for a fantastic experience. Because how can you satisfy the needs of a person you don’t even know?
Along with little-known innovations like the printing press, the internet dramatically changed what people expect from brands. Next up: artificial intelligence. It’s behind Spotify and Netflix’s personalized experiences, and it’s going to power many more experiences in the coming years. At this point, the question shouldn’t be, “Will I invest in AI?” It should be, “What will I use it to create?”