Generation Y, Brand Values and Idealistic Purchase Decisions

Posted by: SarahGibbins

I’m a millennial, and I embody a lot of the clichéd things you’ve heard about the generation: the frivolous wanderlust, the tattoos, the addiction to Instagram, and one pretty powerful behavioral trend – the insistence on ethical substance and integrity from brands, or in other words, choosing to make mostly idealistic purchase decisions.

Without a socially conscious framework, your brand means nothing to me or many of my millennial cohort, and without capturing the millennial market, you’ll never amass the army of brand advocates you need to partake of the nearly $200 billion in millennial-driven sales each year. Socially conscious millennials may be following in the footsteps of their Boomer counterparts and the social and ethical awareness championed by them in the 1960s, but I consider this trend of idealistic purchasing a millennial-driven activity.

Many middle-class millennials are aware that the power to effect change that they have as consumers can really make a difference in the world. To the millennial shopper, that’s a big deal. It’s not an anti-business stance, but rather a pro-business, anti-sellout mentality.

Let’s take a step back for a second and look at where this call for authenticity and ethical substance is coming from. One answer might be found in the results of a multi-generational survey conducted by the Pew Research Center when they posed the question, ‘Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted, or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?’ Only 19% of the millennials who responded said they felt that most people could be trusted, compared with 31% of Gen X-ers, 37% of Silents and 40% of Boomers.

This may seem counterintuitive to the natural idealism that is usually seen with younger generations throughout history. Millennials are especially distrustful of advertising. states that user-generated content is 50% more trusted than traditional media and non-UGC content. While a friend’s opinion has always been the most trusted resource, to a digital native it’s not enough to have just one friend giving you his opinion on a car make and model; it’s got to be a Facebook post with multiple responses, Likes, Shares, and, even more important, an unlimited amount of Views.

Distrustful millennials need to see brands that encourage a sense of community and a part of a bigger picture. What a brand chooses to stand for, or more passionately, what they stand against is becoming the cornerstone of attracting millennial brand advocates. This idea goes beyond a single cause marketing campaign. Don’t limit your foray into ethical substance to simply the sponsoring of a charity or the creation of an inspiring tagline that lives in the ‘about’ section of your website. Due to the frighteningly easy accessibility of information available today, digital natives will quickly call BS on your ‘values’ if they’re not authentic. And what’s worse than a brand without a social conscience is a brand pretending to have one because they’ve been told it’s good for business.

To really be authentic, brands need to include their core value in the highest level of strategy and development. Examples of brands that have been successful breaking through this millennial mistrust include Toms Shoes and their One for One program (obviously), Burt’s Bees and their trinity of ‘People, Profit, Planet,’ Patagonia with their Common Threads Partnership and Seventh Generation with their commitment to the environment. These are not just small, ‘do-good’ brands, they are successful national and global brands with a purpose based in values shared across a wide array of communities. I think Whole Foods sums up the idea of values-based brand building in the intro to their list of core values: “These are not values that change from time to time, situation to situation or person to person, but rather they are the underpinning of our company culture.”

Millennials need to know why a brand exists and if that ‘why’ aligns with their own idealistic sensibilities. I hear you, Boomers, and your collective groan. I know you’ve seen it before, and that you say the younger generation has always been more idealistic by nature, and I tend to agree. However, with a voice that can ricochet around millions of people in mere moments, millennials are controlling the conversation – and that includes what they are saying about the integrity of the brands they interact with.

The feeling was highlighted by Forbes Magazine’s David K. Williams in A New Capitalist Manifesto: Balancing Purpose with Profit when he said, “I believe that most millennials would say that the answer is yes. Millennials believe in business, and they believe in profit, but they also need to see values driving brand decisions from the top down before they will open their wallets.

As a nation and as participants in the global community, can we successfully revisit and improve our Capitalist culture?

Photo Credit via Flickr: Collin Key, talkindie & marie b.

If you liked this article, check out Instagram Key for Advertisers when Targeting Generation Y.

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About SarahGibbins

Sarah is driven by creative ideas and doing things that have never been done. She’s a millennial who lives and breathes the generation and understands what makes them tick from both the perspective of a...See Sarah's full bio.