FEATURE22 April 2013

The great Gen Y debate


River Research’s Tom Skilbeck and Incite’s Mark Yeomans go head-to-head to explore the unique and slightly contradictory world of the Generation Y consumer.

A lot of research work has been done to try to understand and simplify Gen Y for marketers, with two of the most recent studies conducted by River Research and Incite. So Research brought River’s Tom Skilbeck and Incite’s Mark Yeomans together to share and discuss their most important discoveries about this important and intriguing group of consumers.

Research: What’s the one thing that marketers really need to know about Gen Y?
Tom Skilbeck:
Gen Y are savvy, professional consumers – the marketer generation. They have grown up in a world dominated by marketing and commercial messages and have been exposed to more branding stories than any other generation. This context is distinctive.

They have seen first-hand and participated in the transition from shouted commercial messages to engaging brand relationships – therefore they have learnt, quite expertly, to filter out those shouted messages. This leads Gen Y to have very high expectations as to what they need and desire from a brand relationship. They want brands step up to the mark and involve them in a genuinely reciprocal relationship.

“I’m always amazed, when they express their aspirations, at how traditional and deeply conventional Gen Y are. Instead of discovery, hedonism, exploration, career ambition or being free, Gen Y are all about being grounded, settled, secure and established.”

Tom Skilbeck

Tom Skilbeck

Mark Yeomans: It’s definitely not enough to say to Gen Y, “Buy our product – it’s the best”. Marketers need to get across to them exactly what it is they will get from engaging with and using a brand.

I absolutely agree with the point about filtering, which is where peer networks and chosen ‘experts’ come in handy as a means of facilitating that filtering process.

However, I would caveat Tom’s ‘savvy’ label with an element of safety-seeking that arises from a combination of lower knowledge levels in some markets (financial being an obvious one) and general risk aversion – i.e. not wanting to make a bad choice, particularly if the cost of what they are buying is relatively high.

The trick for marketers is to get Gen Y talking about them and engaging with them while also making sure that they are seen as a smart choice. I wouldn’t advocate trying to push a brand as being the safe choice, but in essence that’s what a lot of Gen Y are looking for – and quite often, the safe choice is what everyone else is buying.

TS: I should add that I think Gen Y are savvy in some ways but that they completely miss the point in others. They are savvy because they research in great detail many of their purchase decisions or journeys, hoping to make the best purchase possible in their given budget. But a lack of real conviction and a personal or independent opinion makes them un-savvy in some ways. I guess it depends on your definition of the word.

One element that we keep coming back to, though, is this idea of tradition and security being fundamentally important to Gen Y. I’m always amazed, when they express their aspirations, at how traditional and deeply conventional they are. This is always a sharp challenge to our clients: instead of discovery, hedonism, exploration, career ambition or being free, Gen Y are all about being grounded, settled, secure and established.

MY: The idea of tradition being important to Gen Y is an interesting one. We certainly see the security aspect coming through in our work, although it’s often tempered with them still wanting to align with brands that say or do something different. One of my Gen Y colleagues talks about this group wanting to be “similar enough to belong, but different enough to stand out” and choosing brands that help them to achieve this. So, when you refer to tradition, is that from a behavioural or attitudinal perspective?

TS: Tradition is very much attitudinal, which I think relates to the economic situation Gen Y finds themselves in. Traditional values, therefore, feel like a safety net that they can rely on. From a behavioural perspective, I don’t think Gen Y are extremely traditional. However, I do think that brands that embody realness and authenticity have more credibility with this group. They crave a real story that they can invest in.

“Gen Y are not just a challenge for marketers. As researchers, we need to find the right ways of talking to them and the right ways of getting them to reveal insights”

Mark Yeomans

Mark Yeomans

Research: Which brands would you say are the most surprising success stories among this generation?
I don’t know that it’s surprising, but it strikes me as interesting that brands such as Kath Kidston and Jack Wills have been really successful with Gen Y and younger audiences, despite having an old fashioned or traditional feel to them. I guess both of them offer them a level of authenticity and a traditional story that they can buy into, not to mention designs and logos that make it easy to show others that they are wearers/owners of the brand.

In conversations with a number of our clients, we have talked not only about authenticity but also about openness and honesty in the way that brands approach Gen Y. The challenge comes down to finding the right way to get through to Gen Y and to become accepted and talked about.

But it’s not just a challenge for marketers. As researchers, we need to find the right ways of talking to them and the right ways of getting them to reveal the insights that we can then use to build strategies to get them onside.

In terms of how best to involve Gen Y in research, I’d say that we need to avoid dragging them into focus group facilities or similar venues and talk to them in an environment that’s more in line with the types of lives they lead.

TS: I agree – but I guess the key question is what type of environment should that be? We advocate online communities and co-creation sessions for this audience – a two-way process that consumers really appreciate, where they understand who the client might be and realise how they can personally impact a key brand decision based on their participation.

MY: We’ve used online forums to look at a wide variety of products from condoms to credit cards and are constantly amazed by the amount of information they provide and the extent to which they will reveal very personal details that truly allow us to understand Gen Y’s needs, their motivations and how they feel about brands and products. We’ve typically combined the online forums with immersive qualitative research, taking some of the best online forum participants and then visiting them in their homes or accompanying them to retail outlets, bars, banks, etc.

Quantitative research is often more of a challenge – not so much from an approach perspective, but more from a sample sourcing perspective. Online surveys tend to be our chosen route, but Gen Yers are not sitting on panels in the same numbers as their older counterparts. There are ways of using social media to get to Gen Y, but it really has to be done properly – offering them something that is engaging and with a clear sense that their participation will make a difference.

Tom Skilbeck is associate director at River Research and Mark Yeomans is a director at Incite


11 years ago

In the US we've found that raging uncertainty is a driver of wanting to be "settled, secure and established" that Tom notes. Middle class Millennials here tend to have traditional life goals/aspirations such as to own a home and be (or become) good parents. Many have a strong attachment to designer brands and struggle with wanting high-end products vs. the very real need for mindful spending. To address the “lower knowledge level” in finance that Mark mentions we recommended that a bank client invest in building financial literacy. This led in a program with the Khan Academy (a peer/expert) that will help Millennials learn to save, improve their credit score, and ultimately gain the know-how to achieve their dreams.

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11 years ago

I think you both put across some good points about a commonly misunderstood group. I think the fact that millenials have grown up in a world dominated by marketing has meant that they are more aware of their value as a consumer and are continually challenging marketers to not only justify why they should buy a product but also why that brand even deserves to be listened to. Brands often make the mistake of spending time trying to find out what’s ‘trendy’ and then trying to leverage that as a medium for marketing activities. However, by that time it’s often too late and it’s not ‘trendy’ anymore. What they should be doing is asking why does a trend become popular? What makes it unique? In doing this they are more equipped to spot new trends. However, that’s just half the job; to have a successful campaign they then need to create something that’s honest, engaging and meaningful. In our own small way we have experience reaching Gen Y (for research). Rather than following trends we believe in two simple things; respect and relevance. Respect; by not only giving them a generous offer, but also by empowering them to share their opinions and have a real say. Relevance; by recognizing that they’re quite a unique and distinct subgroup to involve in research. This involves a number of different things; from the way we incentivize them, to the medium of data collection and even the research topic. Tatenda Musesengwa, Head of Panel Services, YouthSight

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