March of the millennials | Special report

Millennials are a diverse audience and one that is at home with technology. In the UK, Philip Chadwick finds out more.

Anthem’s connected pack campaign for KitKat targeted millennials.

An estimated 94% of consumers have a smartphone, making it a crucial channel for packaging designers and brands to communicate with this generation.

If you were born between the mid-1980s to 2000 then you are a millennial. In Sweden, you’d be called ‘Generation Curling’, in Poland the term is ‘John Paul II’ and in China the demographic is known as ‘ken lao zu’. But regardless of the country, the millennials – also known as ‘Generation Y’ – have become a big focus for brands and with good reason.

In the US, millennials surpassed Baby Boomers to become the largest living generation at 75 million. That is projected to peak at 81 million in 2036. In the UK, the demographic accounts for 14% of the population so it comes as no surprise that brands are clamouring for their attention. With numbers swelling, it means more have disposable income and that packaging designers need to think carefully about communicating to this highly lucrative audience.

“This is the generation who entered adulthood during the first decade of the millennium and has the advantage of growing up with a foot in both camps – growing up in an analogue world during a time that was both pre- and post-internet and mobile technology,” explains Laurie Offer, marketing and development director at design agency Cowan.

It’s a diverse audience and one that is at home with technology, adds Angela Spink, founder at Lineup Studios. “Millennials are technoholics,” she says. “They are entirely dependent on IT and have a limited grasp of alternatives. They communicate digitally, socialise digitally and form thoughts and opinions through crowd sourcing digitally.”

Online opportunity

A huge online presence might suggest that the demographic rarely takes its eyes off the screen of a tablet or smartphone. This presents an opportunity for brands as well as packaging designers.

“A total of 94% of consumers now own a smartphone, so it’s a crucial channel to reach all audiences,” says Cowan’s Offer. “We are seeing growth in location-based marketing where text messages inform consumers about where they can purchase a product nearby. But don’t do technology for the sake of it as it can end up being divorced from the brand.”

Tom Hearn, business director at Nude Brand Creation, adds: “Brands should embrace social media and engage influencers to create high-quality content that integrates naturally with its own voice and style, which can be shared with millennials’ followers and also leveraged by the brand.

“Technology can also be used in branding and packaging. Advances in digital printing and other innovations allow for personalisation and customisation, creating limited editions that fuel their desire for being ‘in the know’ and ‘first to share’.”

Martin Ward, Nestlé creative lead at Anthem, notes that a pack can be put to good use to “create a new digital experience at the moment of consumption where the brand is most relevant”.

“Through various means of connection, the pack can be used to deliver entertainment, education, loyalty, competitions, and social interaction, maximising any campaign message. The pack is a brand’s largest and most relevant form of owned media. In future, consumers will expect all forms of packaging to deliver some form of connected content.”

Anthem’s creative director Mark Lloyd adds: “By 2020, there will be 50 billion connected consumer products and packaging has the potential to be part of this trend. Brands are increasingly exploring the opportunities of the ‘Internet of Packaging’. We recognise that consumer journeys with brands need to be more connected to appeal to millennials.”

At the end of last year, Anthem developed a connected pack campaign for KitKat targeting consumers who like to travel. The on-pack ‘Live your break’ drive encouraged consumers to share their ultimate travel break on social media. At the heart of the campaign was the observation that millennials place a higher value on experiences over material objects. It’s one key element to communicating to the demographic.

Alcohol category

In the alcohol category, brands need to be aware that millennials expect a broader experience either with a lifestyle focus or a multi-sensory execution, explains Cowan’s Offer.

“Brands which are very obviously trying to target millennials will come across as disingenuous,” says Offer. “Before embarking on a new brand and marketing campaign, brands need to make sure they’re not simply jumping on a bandwagon, but that their messaging contains serious commitment to a cause – whether that’s a political message, or a sustainable and natural one. Brand transparency is a big deal to millennials – they are smart and savvy and can spot false or exaggerated on-pack claims that don’t add up. Tone of voice is also very important to consider as part of a packaging design strategy – ensuring that the tone of the copy has human-like qualities and a distinct personality, particularly humour. Brands such as BrewDog which carefully mock themselves are well regarded by millennials – this is becoming more commonplace within the craft beer category.”

Nude’s Hearn adds that simplicity will “cut through the noise” while story telling should also be at the heart of a pack design.

“Millennials want authenticity, uniqueness and quality,” he adds. “And the number one touch point to engage with millennials and communicate these messages is the packaging. Unless they are ordering off a menu in a bar it’s the one thing you can guarantee they will interact with, whether they are in the supermarket aisle, standing at the bar or shopping online. So, spending time, money and effort on the packaging is just as critical as getting the product itself right.

“Look at The Newmarket Gin, which uses packaging design to communicate quality and authenticity. It was inspired by the history of horse racing at Newmarket and English photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s pioneering study of the running horse. The frosted glass gives a tactile feel and provides a binocular window to spy the running horses on the back of the glass. Even the leather collar is hand made by Gibson’s, a local family business, which was established around 1900 and supplies Racing Colours to the Queen.”

Cowan’s Offer adds: “There is a notion that millennials want to ‘out-do’ their friends, especially online, so a brand offering a new and exciting experience will always be appealing – think ‘instagrammable packaging’. In addition, if a drinks bottle has a unique shape or colour, it can quite easily become a collectible item – millennials will find a way to keep it, reuse it to decorate their homes – think Hendrick’s bottles being used as candle stick holders. Choosing substrates that are durable and ownable are a win for millennials.

“Absolut is a brand which only targets millennials – it’s like the Madonna or Kylie of the drinks sector, constantly reinventing itself and always remaining relevant. Having a design architecture that can flex from edition to edition the way Absolut does is key to success. A recent example is Absolut Elyx, the copper crafted luxury vodka variant, often served in a signature copper pineapple cup. Millennials like showing off and sharing their pictures online – especially in something as unique and on-trend as a copper pineapple.”

Spink argues that the world has now moved on from shelf to screen. Messaging needs to be clear and reinforce digital engagement. “The consumer already has an expectation of the product and the experience,” she says. “The packaging needs to emulate that with colours, textures, layers and the hierarchy of messaging. Get ‘phygital’ – the right balance of digital and physical experience.”

Social media dangers

But there is a word of warning from Guy Douglass, creative strategy director at Parker Williams. “The answer is that brands can never expect to successfully pull the wool over the eyes of their consumers,” he says. “The impact of social media and the internet is that brands can be interrogated by consumers on the internet and therefore have to be completely honest and open. Millennials (and everyone else) are looking for brands that have humanity, that have a real story behind them (whether it’s heritage, provenance, expertise or a mixture of all three) and that don’t appear too corporate. The growth of smaller challenger brands is down to this movement, from Fever Tree to Method, from Ella’s Kitchen to Graze.”

Communicating to a demanding audience takes a fair bit of research and effort. But by tapping into this market, brands know that they stand make considerable gains for decades to come.

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