What do younger consumers want from brands? Which companies are doing a great job of connecting with Millennials and Generation Z? How are marketing preferences evolving?
All too often brands try to tackle these questions through endless rounds of internal brainstorming and debate.
There’s a much more effective approach: simply ask the experts. Specifically, talk to marketers who have already developed successful campaigns that resonate with these audiences.
Recently we did just that: We chatted with Meghan Holzhauer and Michael Tennant, the co-founders of Curiosity Lab, a recently launched consultancy designed to align brands with youth culture.
Check out the full Q&A below to get their take on what brands should – and shouldn’t – do to successfully connect with younger consumers.
Q: Before we dive in, can you share a little bit about your backgrounds?
Meghan: After I graduated from business school I was offered a dream job: I was the Director of Development for a luxury hotel group that was based just outside of San Francisco.
I got to learn so much from incredible hospitality visionaries and flex my creative muscles, but I realized that over and over again I was sitting in conference rooms full of white men over the age of 50 having conversations about the next generation of consumers. I kept hearing things things like: “Airbnb is not a threat” and “we should do things this way because it worked in the past”, assuming past performance is a direct prediction of future success. I realized that a lot of companies, in a lot of industries, are looking backwards
instead of forwards; they are not paying attention to how much things are changing.
At the same time I was meeting a lot of entrepreneurs – this next generation of leaders – that understood the next generation and were building to meet their needs. Seeing that difference between old school companies and innovators who understood the marketplace made me want to work on this new venture.
Michael: I started my career at MTV working in grassroots and viral marketing before
moving in to a producer role within their branding and design group. While I was there, the massive shift from TV to digital was happening, and they were still figuring that out. You could see how things were shifting; Rolling Stone did an article about how a blogger had become the most influential person in music A&R and I realized I wanted to be doing what she was doing.
So, I started my own company that introduced music fans to the next hottest band before they became too expensive to see. From there I went to VICE where I worked a lot on connecting brands to the Millennial audience. Eventually I switched to the advertising world, where I worked on branded content for various agencies. Most recently I was Head of Branded content at PHD.
At the agencies I frequently felt that I was a part of teams that weren’t willing to push brands outside their comfort zones. Eventually I decided to give up the six-figure salary and team up with Meghan on Curiosity Lab.
Q: What is Curiosity Lab?
Michael: Curiosity Lab is an integrated media and brand consultancy. We help brands connect with Millennials and Gen Z by assembling, activating, and aligning with authentic Millennial and Gen Z influencers, publishers, and communities.
Essentially, we have a deep network of voices that Millennials and Gen Z love, and we have the know how to merge them with brands.
Meghan: In addition to the brand work we do, we also work with small publishers and communities that we love.
So, for example, we work with an organization called Breakout, which is a national community of entrepreneurs, leaders, and activists. We help them have conversations with brands and find ways for them to partner in authentic, meaningful ways.
From a brand’s perspective, we are able to connect them to communities and publishers that have hyper engaged audiences and the ability to tell great stories.
Michael: We’ve only been out working with brands for a short while and literally every conversation we have had has led to another conversation. That’s because every brand is asking itself the same crucial question: Why will the next generation of consumers give a shit about me?
We are willing, able, and connected properly to have that conversation and help guide it.
Q: How do you think the needs and preferences of the next generation – Gen Z and Millennials – differ from those of older audiences? What do brands need to shift in terms of what they’re doing?
Meghan: That goes back to the name Curiosity Lab.
You constantly hear about Millennials and Gen Z, and although we’re using that terminology in this interview it’s something we try to step away from. That’s because it’s not necessarily about an age group; it’s about a state of mind. It’s about values.
When we were brainstorming on what this company would be, we ended up calling this group the Curious Generation; hence Curiosity Lab.
The changes in consumer behavior are being driven by Millennials and Generation Z, but they are also being embraced by people of all ages. It’s about wanting to feel like you belong to something greater than yourself, craving community, and making a contribution to society.
Michael: America is more diverse and more progressive than it ever has been, despite our
recent election. And that diversity has given birth to a mindset among young people that embraces open-mindedness and believes very strongly in individuality.
Moreover, there has been deep media fragmentation. A brand can buy a Super Bowl ad and reach the eyeballs of millions of consumers, but to connect with the hearts of people, there is no silver bullet.
That is the biggest thing for us: knowing that you have to embrace the nuances of the consumer base that you’re targeting and find the right way to connect with them authentically.
Q: When it comes to content specifically, what resonates with the Curious Generation?
Meghan: The key when it comes to content is that the brand has to really care about what you care about. And it has to show that it isn’t afraid to take a stand on issues and isn’t afraid to tackle taboo topics if it can provide useful information. It’s important to have stories that inspire and evoke strong emotions.
Michael: It is not about “renting space” next to the topics that brands think people care
about; it’s about really understanding the things that they care about and championing them with the same passion that the individuals themselves would.
Bad marketing aims to exploit trends in communities because they are buzzy in marketing circles. That’s inauthentic and puts the brand message above the interest and passion of the people in these communities. Furthermore, it usually late to the trends and lacking a point of view.
Q: What are some examples of brands that are doing a good job of being authentic and connecting in the ways that you’re talking about?
Meghan: One brand is Thinx. They’ve done an incredible job of tackling a taboo topic – periods – and taking a stand on a next generation feminism concept. They’ve made it a social issue by addressing how girls in developing nations can’t always go to school when
they have their periods. And their marketing is also super strong; they got a lot of attention when the MTA in New York declined to put their ads on the subway, turning a
simple OOH campaign into viral marketing.
Another one is Away. They have done a great job of really engaging the travel enthusiast with their luggage. They have been smart about building partnerships with brands that
matter to their audience; not just mainstream partners such as Madewell, but also underground cool spots like the Hotel San Cristobal in Baja, Mexico. And they have a great
content engine; they’re smart about tapping highly connected and engaged influencers rather than celebrities.
Michael: Airbnb is another brand we crush on. They start by focusing on their product, then they market to two communities – the host community and the guest community – from there. They’re really thoughtful about those engagements. For example, the Airbnb Open Conference is an impeccable piece of 360-degree work that inspires and provides value to both communities.
Heineken’s Open Your World is a great example as well. It tackled a difficult topic – differences between people – in a very smart way. It was a moving piece of work that didn’t water down the conflict.
Michael: Our company is built around trends that we see that aren’t going away.
One is that social media has democratized access to audiences, and new publishers can focus on specific audiences that they want to resonate with. In the past it was all about scale and ubiquity, but now it’s all about creating great content for your specific audience.
We really love that and it’s something that we’re trying to help grow further by opening brands’ eyes to what’s happening. With social media, smart distribution, and great storytelling, they can gain a greater connection to people through the things they are most passionate about.
Meghan: To reiterate what we said earlier, I’d highlight the increasing importance of being authentic. It’s necessary for every company to be grounded and connected to the communities that they are seeking to reach.
If Pepsi’s controversial ad had been put front in front of a Women’s March organizer or Black Lives Matter activist they would have told the brand that under no circumstance should it be released. You can’t speak for people without engaging with them directly.