Millennials permeated many of the conversations on the Shoptalk main stage and in the Shoptalk track sessions. It stands to reason, as they are the most desirable consumer group, outnumbering their boomer parents with a staggering headcount of 95 million. With an age spread of 18 to 34, marketers are cautioned to not lump them into one consumer group. They are not monolithic. Tastes and behaviors swing widely from one end of the spectrum to the other. But one thing they share: digital prowess and an insatiable appetite for new ideas from e-commerce whether it is social, discovery, subscription, content, or mission based. And for brick-and-mortar, they crave experience, a storyline, and a reason why the retailer deserves their money. With so many options available to them, they view brands as choices, democratizing traditional prestigious icons.
It’s the Vision Thing
From an uber perspective, if you are listening to the next gen, they are requiring that you have a massive mission and a transformational vision. They expect this from start-ups as well as legacy brands. They want brands to solve a problem, not sell stuff. They also prompt the question, “What business are you in?” The science of sleep for Casper mattresses and to help people discover the world from Raden’s smart suitcases. This may require some strategic thinking and reframing to turn your core mission into a narrative.
Make it Real
One major thread, which has made an indelible impression on marketers, is the millennial demand for authenticity. This has been a game changer not only in terms of how marketers talk to this group, but also how each digital brand has to present itself transparently. And transparency also means a seamless discovery. Pinterest now seamlessly lets you buy those fabulous shoes or suits you found in their image bank. Stitch Fix provides seamless personal shopping consultation to maximize your best look. Brands like Honest Beauty transparently reveal what’s in their natural beauty ingredients.
Another mandate propelled by millennials is the need for speed. Velocity is the new normal. Google has accelerated to daily drone deliveries. Jet delivers fresh food in coolers overnight; PieceMaker, a 3D printer, delivers customized, self-designed products in a matter of minutes (45). Postmates brings local communities together with a seamless way to purchase products from local merchants, delivered in under an hour. And we’ve all heard Amazon has patented a system to send you stuff before you even think to order it based on your preferences and shopping history. Speed also affects the platforms you operate on. If you haven’t caught their attention within one second on their mobiles, you’ve lost them.
There is a growing app fatigue in the marketplace. Mobile is the future of shopping (not to mention banking, telemedecine, online payments) and the tool of choice of millennials. Many next-gen e-commerce brand marketers prefer a well-designed native mobile web interface to an app. Since most people use the same three to five apps repeatedly, the days of unlimited apps may be numbered unless they provide a specific solution or a service. What is core is to have a mobile strategy that anticipates future growth and has the flexibility to pivot when new tech emerges. And by the way, among millennials, women tend to use iOS, while men use android operating systems. According to Max Levchin, CEO of Affirm, the biggest hurdle to being tech sophisticated and activated is the rapid rate at which software becomes outdated.
Social selling is another millennial-inspired movement. Many successful start-ups began with a clear mission to encourage social consciousness and create a culture of generosity. David Heath, founder and CEO of Bombas, created a business to give socks for socks, echoing the Toms model. Apparently there is a huge need for socks in homeless shelters, and Bombas has developed a high-performance model for people who can’t change their socks everyday. Everyone who participates in the program receives a personal handwritten thank-you note. Chloe + Isabel gives women financial independence by creating a network to social sell fashion jewelry, and CEO Chantel Waterbury says her business has transformed people and changed their lives. Mayvenn, geared to African American women, enables stylists to direct sell hair extensions. Diishan Imira, CEO says, “The business exists to serve human beings, how we use technology supports the goal.” According to Davis Smith, founder and CEO of sports brand Cotopaxi, his team is dedicated to helping people in extreme poverty and sells “gear for good”, as well as a host of Questivals, outdoor adventure activities that are based on sort of a scavenger hunt model to complete challenges with the team winners chosen by peer judging—all is reported on social media. There is a social justice undercurrent in many new e-commerce brands to reach out and make a difference in creating connected communities though social selling that serves a purpose.
Tangential to social selling is community membership brands. The Dollar Shave Club offers men’s grooming products couched in a safe space to discuss personal grooming needs. Birchbox is an established beauty sampler brand, Popsugar not only curates topical content and videos, it packages a surprise box delivered monthly.
User Generated Content
Content creation rules as the authentic way to communicate the benefits of brands. Traditional display advertising is long gone, replaced with a deluge of content created by customers, influencers, celebrities, journalists, and experts. You are well advised to reframe your definition of influencer endorsement to content creator. It has a more noble spin, but, really, millennials can smell a rat and they require your celebrity spokesperson to be an authentic match to the brand who actually uses the products and services. Celebrity branding simply for the buzz will backfire on you. This creates a whole service market of digital businesses, including Speakr and Tribe Dynamics, who advise brands and identify appropriate spokespeople and strategies, keeping marketers honest in matching a spokesperson to the product. Influencers cannot be underestimated. They help make brands, like Jessica Alba for Honest Beauty, or new YouTube star makeup artist Eman of the smokey eyes fame. Influencers flood Vine, Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat.
The Me Generation
Personalization is the wave of the future. What you want, where and when you demand it. Ron Johnson defines his business as personal commerce, the next iteration in online shopping. Enjoy is an on-location Genius Bar; a trained expert delivers mostly electronic products that you have purchased directly to you and will help you understand, set up, and operate them. It’s a perfect fusion of digital transaction and personal service, delivering high tech with high touch. Stitch Fix personalizes your wardrobe. Birchbox customizes your beauty products. All this with the backing of data scientists and engineers slaving away to algorithmically personalize your commerce choices. And according to Chris Lindland, CEO of Betabrand, he takes personalization to its limit with online users crowd sourcing winning fashion designs from other online users—which are then sold online.
And all of this online activity is governed by the rules of gathering implicit and explicit data, turning it into intelligence, either through data engineering or machine learning, then offering a customized, personalized shopping experience. It’s hard not feel like a narcissist when you receive messaging about things you enjoy and products you actually want to purchase. Someone, even if it’s a bot, is looking out for you.
What Happened to Stores?
What about stores? We live in the age of Apple. Stores are being redefined as experience centers by savvy brands. Anything but clothes draws you into the store/showroom/entertainment center category. And if you want millennials to stick around, you need to entertain them, whether its hip-hop yoga in a Rebecca Minkoff boutique or a personalized experience in a Bonobos showroom. And you need to keep them connected on their mobiles and provide transparent information about the products you sell so they can research as they shop.
Purpose Driven Startups
And the key to so many start-ups and reinventions of the legacy brands spurred by millennials who are both the entrepreneurs of new brands and their customers: Find a gap and fill it. Solve a problem. Make a life easier, happier and better. These are the mantras of today’s new brand stewards. Don’t just sell endless inventories of stuff, find a customer niche that has a need and sell to them directly. The longtail is flourishing in e-commerce. Cautionary note: It’ fine for now, but as investors become more demanding, the issue will become how they can scale. This seems counterintuitive, however, when the idea was to serve a smaller slice of the total audience in the first place.
There is no shortage of innovative thinking in the e-commerce space. And Shoptalk had many of the most interesting, big ideas for specific audiences from new kids on the block who shared their passion, vision, and hope for a profitable, happy future.