Here’s a conundrum. Companies, brands, reputation managers and internal and external communicators seem to be increasingly obsessed with devising strategies aimed at engaging millennials.
Yet pretty much all the research conducted into this new but powerful demographic group concludes that millennials demonstrate little loyalty to consumer or employer brands. So why is business spending so much effort trying to reach them?
Are we so worried about connecting with millennials that we effectively wrap them in cotton wool and give them special treatment, compared to the immediate post-war ‘baby boomers’ or the ‘generation X’ that followed?
If millennials are not loyal, why should anyone care? It’s an apparent contradiction that merits some examination since millennials, commonly defined as people born between about 1980 and 2000, account for 23 per cent of Britain’s population.
Though it has taken some time to settle on the current name for this group - previous attempts ranged from ‘echo boomers’ to generations ‘Y’ and ‘We’, the ‘global generation’, ‘generation next’ and the ‘net generation’ - there is no shortage of research on its characteristics.
For example, the Deloitte Millennial Survey 2016 finds twothirds of millennials expressing a desire to leave their employers by 2020. Furthermore, it states that 44 per cent of the 7,700 millennials from 29 countries that it interviewed have ‘one foot out of the door’ since they declare that they would willingly leave their jobs in the next two years, given the choice.
Such disenchantment was attributed by survey participants to perceptions that they are not developing their leadership skills sufficiently at their employers and are being overlooked for career advancement. These millennials were also not happy with their work-life balance, degree of flexibility allowed and the values of their employers.
PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) is adamant in its own millennials research that this ‘remarkable lack of allegiance’ should be taken seriously. It points to the sheer weight of numbers, with millennials more numerous globally than any generation apart from the soon-to-retire baby boomers.
Millennials now account for one-third of the workforce in the US and more than half the population of India, while PwC forecasts that millennials will form 50 per cent of the global workforce by 2020.
Isabel Collins, founder of consultancy Belonging Space, believes all this suggests that engaging millennials is a serious workplace issue that demands the attention it is receiving.
She says: ‘I don’t think we’re too obsessed with millennials, because there’s enough evidence that suggests that this generation does have a very different set of expectations. Millennials expect that employers are not going to be loyal to them. They’re not expecting a job for life, a secure pension or secure employment.
‘They know they’ll have to continue working until they’re 70 or older and probably have three or four different careers. And, unlike older generations who had student grants, they’re starting their professional lives heavily in debt so their personal motivation is different.’
Among employers, there is concern that they face ploughing investment into recruiting their next generation of employees, only to have them walk out of the door almost as soon as they have been trained or are making a difference.
However, Ingrid Brown, brand and marketing communications consultant at corporate and brand communications agency Emperor, points to the upside, referencing surveys showing that millennials are attracted to work at companies that have strong employer brands.
‘Brands like Google always come out at the top,’ she says. ‘Millennials don’t want to work there because they have great expectations of benefits or pay. It’s because they think that the best people work there.
‘So if you can have a brand that aligns people internally and gives a sense that you are really the best place to work, millennials will move towards that. They like companies that have strong internal brands and have a commitment to their employees which is authentic and genuine. That’s how they differentiate between companies in the same sectors.’
The nature of millennials also has implications for employers’ external brands, extending from how they are perceived to whether their products and services are attractive to this group.
‘Millennials are socially-driven, not status-driven,’ explains Carl Turner, head of creative at creative communications agency drp. ‘They’re not brand-loyal, they’re hard to attract and they’re a very tough audience but they have massive influence on their friends. If you can get one millennial to be an advocate for your product or service, they’ll have a very large field of people they can push their product or service out to.’
This clearly provides the potential for brands that can utilise this social factor to reduce their advertising expenditure. Yet, in the short-term at least, they’re spending money on research to help them understand the demographic changes resulting in this different customer behaviour.
‘Agencies are spending hundreds of thousands of pounds to work out how you get hold of millennials because you can’t just pay to get in front of them,’ adds Turner. ‘They don’t react to that.’
So what are companies to do? According to PwC, the good news is that it’s not too late for employers to overcome this ‘loyalty challenge’ since seven out of every ten young professionals choose employers that share their personal values.
It recommends that employers develop policies to suit, creating ‘perfect’ job environments, promoting their ‘purpose beyond profits’ and building support networks including mentors and career advice.
The 2015 Millennials Impact Report, published by The Case Foundation, an American organisation co-founded by former AOL chief executive Steve Case to create fearless approaches to social change, agrees, urging employers to align themselves with the millennial generation’s desire to do good.
It suggests that companies use millennials’ colleagues to influence them to take part in company charity programmes, promote volunteering opportunities to their staff and offer competitions and incentives to encourage millennial engagement. It also encourages employers to identify with issues that millennials care about and offer to match their charitable donations.
Engagement agency Involve, adds that, when motivated properly, millennials can become a brand’s most dedicated ambassadors.
‘Despite the cultural stereotype that millennials are perpetually dissatisified and afraid of hard work, we find the millennial generation to be an extremely valuable asset,’ says Ben Kingsmill, head of brand engagement.
They offer an alternative view to their older colleagues and understand the modern consumer and the channels through which they engage with brands. Their unique perspective can help shape the thinking of the future of brand engagement. Millennials are likely to sense when a brand’s values are just words and are not acted on in an authentic way.’
When I Work, another engagement agency, advises employers to rethink the word ‘manage’ since millennials feel they have been over-managed all their lives and crave the opportunity to make their own decisions. It advises companies to lead millennials, rather than manage them, show them respect, give them attention and to adopt a conversational tone.
All this might sound like millennials have the upper hand in the workplace. However, Andy Brown, chief executive of Engage, an employment engagement arm of PR group Edelman, believes that it is right that much of the narrative around millennials involves telling brands what they have to do to connect with them.
‘You have to adjust to a different reality with millennials,’ he says. ‘Although they will have a shorter time horizon, you can still get hugely hard-working and motivated work out of them while they are with you. The key becomes how you motivate them while you have got them.’
Belonging’s Collins agrees: ‘There’s a bit of thinking to do. It’s not about panicking or blaming this generation. They will bring different influences into the culture they join, so it’s reasonable to listen to their demands.
‘I think they will probably bring a more responsive way of looking at the world and more agile expectations. The norm for them is that things will change and will not stay in the same place. The norm is that they won’t work at the same desk every day. And they will expect to stay for two or three years, not for 30.
‘Therefore it’s about how you motivate them to stay longer and acquire loyalty. It’s about how companies show appreciation. It’s not necessarily about paying them more money. It might be about allowing them flexibility with their time so they can take sabbaticals and have a chance of returning. It’s about reconfiguring the workforce so millennials can come in and out.’
Turner believes another lever that employers can pull to connect with millennials is that they are technology-driven and highly-receptive to new ideas.
‘You’ve got to talk to them on their terms,’ he says. ‘They’re not materially-driven; they have much simpler needs. They want to be part of social groups and they want to be liked. You’ve got to be on their wavelength, engaged with what their interests are. It’s about tapping into their needs and values.’
As for who is getting this right, Turner likes the way that energy drinks brand Red Bull doesn’t try to hard-sell its products to this age group but instead associates itself with extreme sports activities. ‘It’s about saying We support you in your interests and sport or social group,’ he says. ‘They don’t tell them to buy their drinks.’
Emperor’s Brown also argues that the onus is on companies to show that they understand and have empathy with this very different demographic group and want its members to work for them and buy their products.
‘It’s really important that we do all bother,’ she insists. ‘Millennials have this great sense of entitlement. The expectations of them have been greater. They’ve had to compete more; they’ve been expected to get A-stars in their exams. Going to university wasn’t a choice but an expectation and they’ve had to pile up all this debt being educated.
‘So they expect you to be able to give them what they need. I’ve spoken to recruiters and found that they’ve actually had millennials interviewing them. They want to know why they should come and work in your business. You have to be able to convince them.
‘Businesses nowadays need to be brands as employers, as well as have brands to sell as products and services. You need to have a brand and proposition that people can own. That’s where it can add great advantage.’
That might stick in the craw of older generations brought up on the strictures of showing elders respect and speaking only when spoken to.
However, managers are fond of telling employees that change is inevitable in today’s workplace and that they have to adapt. Perhaps they need to accept now that the boot is on the other foot.