By Theresa Forman
Many years ago, I looked across the crowd at a leadership meeting and half-jokingly said, “We have too many grey-haired people around here and not enough green-haired.” Ironic coming from a middle-aged woman, but my thought at the time was that we need to hear from the up-and-comers.
Our job as leaders is to listen; our job as marketers is to stay relevant by keeping our eye on the now, and more importantly, on what’s coming around the corner. Big data is so ubiquitous and offers insight into what customers do, but it’s the why that can get lost (for example, how they think or how they feel). That’s why bringing the next gen into decision making is so critical. Currently, millennials are reshaping the world, both as customers and employees—and they look for different things out of their brands than the generations before them. They hold more buying power than any other generation before them ($600 billion/yr. and Accenture calls them “tomorrow’s trillion dollar demographic”) and they will make up the majority of the workforce in the near future (they’re already 80 million strong in the United States alone). They’re digital natives whereas a lot of leaders are digital immigrants. They think differently, they act differently, they—to some degree—value different things. It’s no longer enough to deliver a good product and be trustworthy. Brands have an opportunity to provide stronger reasons—things like purpose, authenticity, and a more engaging and meaningful customer experience—to engage millennials with a brand and drive loyalty.
When counselling our clients to include or address millennials, we often hear: “We don’t need to worry about the millennials yet—it’s their bosses we’re dealing with.” This is a critical mistake. A growing number of millennials now occupy senior positions, and there’s been a shift in the researcher demographic. While millennials might not often be giving approval or writing the cheque, they are usually influencing purchasing decisions quite heavily. Given the tendency of millennials to ignore messages in traditional media channels, coupled with a greater ability to scrutinize companies and their growing economic power in the marketplace, they are driving a change in thinking among marketers away from focusing on brand image and brand equity to thinking about building meaningful brand relationships and engagement with customers.
While new ideas and some diversity are a great reason to involve the next gen in your decision making, there is another important reason: retention. A recent 2019 Deloitte study shows that millennials are disillusioned and not particularly satisfied with a number of things in their lives, including businesses and their jobs, and The Muse reports that 58 percent of next-gen professionals plan to change companies in 2019. They want a seat at the table and they want their opinions to be heard. And leaders should listen—they have a lot of great ideas and considerations to offer. Nurturing them and giving them the space and the forum to use their voice is good for morale—and good for business. If they feel valued and heard, if they share an organization’s values, and if they can see their influence on their company’s products and service offerings, then they will be loyal, they will share on social, and they will tell a friend (which is critical as they weigh purchasing decisions more heavily on peer reviews than they do advertising). As a result, turnover is reduced and the company saves money.
The question is—are organizations ready? Do they have the infrastructure and processes in place to facilitate this type of exchange with the next gen on their staff? There are many ways executives and managers can engage junior leaders: advisory councils, user-group forums, mentorship programs, curated development programs for star-performers, etc. Engaging the next gen offers teaching opportunities that can—and I assure you—will flow both ways and is worth the investment.
We all need to be next-gen workers (the green-haired and the grey-haired) if we’re to be prepared for the ways in which we all will need to work differently over the coming years. However, involving the next cohort and their views, values, vision, and dreams does not change—once it was the baby boomers, then the Gen Xers, now Gen Yers/millennials and then Gen Z and Gen Alpha. Looking backwards can be an important way to keep the core of a company alive, but if a leader wants to keep their organization’s brand relevant in the future, they need to talk to those who represent it.
Theresa Forman is the President of McMillan, an independent creative agency headquartered in Ottawa, Canada, with offices in NYC, that specializes in brand experience for a global clientele. She’s responsible for plotting the pragmatic course of action through business development, services offerings, and strategic partnerships that define the agency’s growth and corporate strategies.