‘Social capital’ and ‘cultural infusion': how brands can engage Australia’s millennials

In Australia, 15- to 35-year-olds are currently spending $67 billion every year and in ten years’ time will make up 75% of the workforce. By 2025, their spending will be pushing $100 billion annually.

Some brands have tripped up by treating Australian millennials as one homogeneous group, but they are not. There are also fundamental differences between this generation and the previous and as a result the way we make meaningful connections with this group is significantly different.

Brands can build engagement among Australian millennials by focusing on social capital and cultural infusion.

How Australian millennials differ from previous generations

Millennials have grown up digital. Remaining connected is not a conscious thought, it’s just part of their DNA. For them, life is online and that part of their life is very public.

Captured and shared experiences are the new social currency for this group. They trade experiences and knowledge for social connections or “Social Capital”. Social connectivity also means that product reviews and endorsements have shifted from companies to the peer group, and this shift has significant implications for marketers.

Millennials’ high levels of personal anxiety extend to feelings of uncertainty about the future. Specifically, they’re worried about global terrorism, career and housing instability, increased exposure to illegal drugs and higher levels of mental health issues such as depression.

They’re also staying at home later to save money. Financial reasons, coupled with high personal expectations of living standards, have pushed the average age of leaving home to 26. And the majority believe that home ownership won’t be possible for them – another source of anxiety for a generation who want the best and want it now.

They’re delaying responsibilities until later in life, and believe more deeply in gender balance than their predecessors with millennial mums and dads sharing responsibilities for school drops and meal preparation.

Millennials value knowledge, experience and social connection above all else. It is their social currency: part of their cultural paradigm. For brands to succeed, they need to introduce themselves and become part of millennials’ daily lives in lasting, authentic ways. Young Australians won’t accept a brand without meaning and depth. The brand needs to understand where it fits into their broader cultural context; otherwise it’s just a fad.

Lifelounge calls this process “cultural infusion”.

Boosting a brand’s ‘cultural infusion’

Cultural Infusion is the ultimate aim of a brand that wants to become part of millennials’ lives. But it relates to more than a brand’s widespread use. Brands that have achieved cultural infusion also have certain significance and meaning within youth culture that is collectively understood.

Apple, Converse and Google have all managed to become a part of the culture and the daily lives of this urban market because they stand for something meaningful that resonates with young people.

So how have these brands become culturally infused? To first gain status among millennials, successful brands have had to engage with them. This has been achieved through many different means, but it’s fundamentally about creating meaningful contact that involves young adults on an emotional, cognitive or experiential level.

Brands such as Coca-Cola have adopted the vernacular of the competitive gaming E-sport community, authentically aligning the brand with their consumers’ lifestyle. As part of their marketing strategy, Coke have created bite-sized content pieces for League of Legends that highlight real-time gaming and content updates to heroes and champions ensuring Coke establishes relevance with this millennial audience.

Good integration is not easy. Successful integration relies on understanding where your brand potentially fits within young adult culture so the brand value can be leveraged and a consumer backlash avoided. The balance lies in getting enough exposure for the Style Surfers (who are the key influencers of whether a new product gets into the mainstream) to find you, without looking like you were trying to be found.

Creating a good fit is not just about the functional use of the product. Instead, a good fit relates to the congruity between the values of the brand, content and culture. Red Bull master this: the product itself is not directly related to action-sports (sure, it can help give energy, but it isn’t a necessary requirement of action-sports). However, the brand and product represent the ability to “go further, go harder” which is congruent with the sponsorship and positioning of various extreme sporting events and the shared attitude of many young Australians.

Brand marketing must be a two-way street

The way millennials respond to brand marketing is also key: millennials think that they are cooler than their parents or older generations. They see themselves as the shapers of popular culture.

Many successful brands have been willing to let the Style Surfers discover them (or related content) for themselves. This works because it provides young adults with the “Social Capital” to impress their peers and contribute to their social world.

To enable this discovery, brands now place their content within the increasing array of media used exclusively by young adults. Once brands are discovered, it is important they provide opportunities to promote themselves: to become “expression enablers”. This is often seen via great product design that promotes conspicuous consumption (the iPhone, for example) or through the ability to pass the brand’s content on to others.

For brands to develop staying power and avoid becoming a fad, they need to become truly infused within millennial culture.

This has often been achieved by providing a good initial representation of the underlying values that young adults hold, rather than trying to reflect what is “hot” at the time. Because values take a longer time to change (and often do so progressively) the brand is entwined with millennials’ everyday lives, rather than seen as a transient fad.

In summary, millennials are a very valuable segment of the market. They cannot be approached as one homogeneous group, yet there are fundamental and significant differences between the millennials and previous generations. Brands need to understand those differences if they’re going to make successful connections with this segment.

About the Author

Dion Appel has been researching young adults for the past ten years and is an expert in youth segmentation. He established the Lifelounge Agency in 2000 with a focus on marketing and events for youth, and then expanded his business model to incorporate market research. He is the fountain of knowledge for marketers wanting to make meaningful connections between brands and this increasing valuable segment of the market.

In 2015, DDB acquired Lifelounge where Dion Appel is now managing director DDB Melbourne. In his role as managing director of DDB, Dion uses creativity at all levels of the business to help his clients reach their growth objectives.

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