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Op-Ed | What You Don’t Know About American Millennials

Brands that understand our poly-identification, indefinite optimism and elevated baselines will win big with millennials in the US, says Jasmine Bina.
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  • Jasmine Bina

NEW YORK, United States — At the core of today's strongest brands are strong beliefs. For me and many of my fellow millennials, tenets like individuality, freedom of expression and global connectedness are the pillars of a value system by which I measure the authenticity of everything — including brands.

But beliefs are fool's gold. Experience is what actually matters. Not the user experience offered by a brand, but the life experience of a generation. Look into our histories and you will see early signs of major consumer shifts coming up ahead.

There are three powerful macro trends quietly growing amongst millennials right now. All of them are borne of the cultural and psychological experiences that shaped our lives. The brands that understand and internalise them will win.

Poly Identification: How We Move Between Boxes

When Chiara Ferragni dresses in head-to-toe Chanel one day and Supreme and sneakers the next, she's not just mixing styles, she's moving between spaces. It's indicative of a much larger trend of millennial consumers willing to simultaneously identify as preppy, bohemian, emo, street, glam or any other number of subcultures. Indeed, young consumers increasingly travel between styles instead of committing to a singular diehard identity. Rather than breaking out of the box, they collect boxes that reflect different senses of self at any given moment, on any given day.

It’s a distinctly millennial behaviour that allows us to aggregate a unique poly-identity. Millennial mothers in the US are perhaps the greatest examples of this. This is the first generation to break free from a longstanding, one-dimensional archetype of the mother in the home while nursing in a rocking chair. Rather than shifting their identities from pre-motherhood to new-motherhood, many of today’s young mothers embody many different identities simultaneously. They are the partygoers who take their babies to Coachella and the mommy bloggers who seamlessly move between parenting and fashion. They are the sports enthusiasts who take their babies to Mommy & Me yoga classes, or people like Nava Young and Beth Rodden who surf and rock climb with their young children.

We see this behaviour because millennials feel at ease being many things at once. In fact, a state of constant transition is our comfort zone. It’s part of the reason why belief in the traditional career ladder has given way to admiration for multi-tasking entrepreneurs who reinvent their offerings and skill sets every few years, and why the once-permanent goalposts of marriage and homeownership have started to float further into the distance. Brands that align with the idea of being one’s true self — no matter who that true self is today or tomorrow — will resonate with this emerging mindset.

Indefinite Optimism: A Great Future With No Plan For Getting There

In his book "Zero To One," the controversial Silicon Valley entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel makes a poignant observation about what he calls “definite optimism” as opposed to “indefinite optimism.” From the 17th century through to the 1960s, he posits that American optimism came along with definite plans of action, leading to monumental feats like the construction of the Panama Canal at NASA’s Apollo program, designed to land humans on the Moon. But definite optimism began to recede in the 1980s, he says, and since then Americans have been stuck in a wholly unsustainable state of indefinite optimism: the belief that a great future awaits us without the kind of plans or willingness to accept risk required to get there.

According to Thiel, indefinite optimism focuses on improved process rather than bold, long-term innovation. We’ve settled for incremental nudges toward a better version of what we already know rather than a whole new reality. It can be seen in everything from medicine and transportation to space exploration and infrastructure. (In contrast, Europe is in a state of indefinite pessimism, he says, and while that sounds rather dire, it’s more sustainable and realistic).

As the millennial generation grew up in this state of indefinite optimism, they came to believe that the world’s greatest problems had already been solved and “there were no secrets left to find,” says Thiel. They bought into a general narrative that “overrate[s] the power of chance, and underrate[s] the importance of planning.” Thus we told ourselves the greatest innovations were behind us.

When the hard work has already been done and the world’s greatest secrets are known, it feels natural to become sentimental and idealise — perhaps even glamourise — the past. It feels right that hipsterism, vintage style or throwbacks to glam rock and grunge should become mainstream. It feels comforting to cling to fashion that remixes the past rather than truly changing the future.

Elevated Baselines: Doing Good Is Nothing Special

No more round of applause for sustainability. No gold star for progressive political stances or business practices. No more adulation for doing the right thing. In the eyes of American millennials, doing good is now simply a baseline.

The next time a board member suggests a CSR initiative, keep in mind that the downside potential of not doing the right thing is still big, but the upside is disappearing. Being responsible is no longer a story and some brands investing heavily in these areas fail to understand that the morally correct choice is now a standard expectation from young consumers.

Doing the right thing, by the way, means doing it before it’s expected of you. It also means doing it because it means something to you, not because you think someone is watching. If your initiative doesn’t tie into your brand story, you’re potentially opening yourself up to a world of scrutiny and backlash.

Audi’s Super Bowl ad on the gender pay gap was an easy misfire from a company whose own reputation on gender equality is questionable. The backlash overwhelmed social media with people calling it out as feeling disingenuous, even if they didn’t know the automaker’s history. As we all know, a simple gut check is enough to compel a millennial to action.

Jasmine Bina is a fashion and luxury branding expert and CEO of Concept Bureau.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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