On being a dinner-date-worthy brand

Get past millennials' BS-meters and be authentic, says Havas' Maggie Windsor Gross.

shutterstock_178715747This story appears in the November 2014 issue of strategy

By Maggie Windsor Gross

I’m a planner between the ages of 18 and 35 (30 actually). I’ve worked in brand and digital strategy and communications planning almost since I entered the workforce, pushing past the “Ugh, kids these days” mumblings of my Gen X and boomer co-workers. (You guys rock, by the way! Thanks for putting up with my YOLO phase.) I’ve spent hours defining my generation, been dragged to meetings as a “millennial expert” (probably because I was the only millennial in the department) and at one point had business cards with the title “multicultural millennial insights,” just to prove to a prospective client that we could “crack” their audience. Advertising is weird…but I digress.

I want to talk about authenticity and brands. I’ve always heard this is an especially difficult nut to crack when dealing with millennials, whose bullshit-meters are finely tuned. But proving authenticity is easier than we think. Before I go on, I should explain that I describe my job as turning brands into the kinds of people you’d want to have dinner with, and I’ve discovered that most brands don’t make very good dinner dates because being a good dinner date boils down to authenticity.

Every brand I’ve worked with, whether in financial planning or mobile phones, has wanted to be authentic – dinner-date-worthy. Every agency I’ve worked for has wanted to create authentic work – good dinner-date conversation. But despite our common goals and best intentions, very few brands are authentic. It’s because, as marketers, we get caught up talking about segments and traits and indices and data. We forget we’re in the business of people – not just targets.

I’ve explored the topics of millennials and authority, their views on consumer electronics, the impact parenthood has on them, their financial beliefs, goals and fears, their retail shopping habits, their media consumption, how affluence affects their outlook on life and their views on philanthropy. While these studies all uncovered new and interesting facts, what was impossible to ignore was that millennials are not some elusive tribe of yetis wandering the forests on the outskirts of Portland, equipped with iPhones and beards. Millennials are more like “everyone else” than most marketers were willing to talk about.

Sure, we have less interest in “rebellion” and “revolution” than our parents and grandparents did at our age, preferring tinkering and hacking. But in an iterative world, where digital and technology are foundational driving powers, isn’t tinkering just a new form of rebellion? Isn’t hacking a new form of revolution?

Yes, sometimes we do take selfies. Sometimes we love wasting hours on social media. Sometimes we were raised to think we can do and be anything. Sometimes we put more value on experiences than on things.
But in the end, we’re just people. And people don’t like being treated like targets.

Havas Worldwide’s Prosumer Report, Hashtag Nation: Marketing to the Selfie Generation, is one of the first times I’ve seen a report honestly assess a generation without being unnecessarily divisive. To quote: “What sets young people apart from older generations today is less what they think and feel and more how they spend their time and what tools they use to ease the flow of their lives.” I have to admit, as a millennial who has more in common with my 60-year-old aunt Mary than with Taylor Swift, I kind of suspected it all along.

We’ve ignored the fact that what makes millennials tick is no different from what makes any other person on the planet tick. If our ultimate goal is to make a brand dinner-date-worthy, we should be honest. The problem isn’t tonality or tactics or channel choices – the problem is no one wants to have dinner with someone who just retweets what they say, or puts their Instagram photos on a billboard in Times Square. (Even if they pick up the tab!)

Authenticity is being a dinner date with an opinion – an opinion on the world, an opinion on your purpose in the world and a willingness to accept that not everyone will have the same opinions as you do. I know it’s scary to think everyone isn’t going to love, or even agree with you all of the time. It’s hard, and you’ll have to work at it and stick to it, but that’s what will make you a pretty swell dinner date for any millennial, and most of all, any human.

GrossMaggie Windsor Gross is planning director at Havas Worldwide New York

Image via Shutterstock