Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Where do Digital Natives come from?

Published in Nov-Dec 2016
Millennials may be demanding, but there is nothing better for brand health than to hook them, says Julian Saunders.
Illustration by Creative Unit.
Illustration by Creative Unit.

When I read studies about people in their 20s, I am struck by commonalities that are particular to this age group. Not since my parent’s generation, who were young during the defining shared experience of World War II, has an age group had so much in common. Three big interlocking factors have coincided to mark and shape their beliefs during their teenage years, which influence their outlook on life and brands as they enter adulthood.

Factor 1 – Prolonged and deep recession since 2008
Growing up, they have seen how their elder siblings and parents have struggled; they therefore expect things will be very tight too. Youth unemployment rates are high wherever you look in the world. It is difficult to come by a well-paid job – and wages have been driven down by a combination of globalisation, the financial crash of 2008 and the digital revolution.

Factor 2 – Rapid communications technology adoption
This is generation smartphone: they carry a portable supercomputer connected to the limitless hive mind of the web. The less well-off make sacrifices to be connected, which they see as one of the most important ways to live a full life. Cheaper smartphones (from China) and wireless networks mean that mobile connectivity is moving from mass to near ubiquitous. By 2020, says The Economist, the number of smartphones in the world will have doubled and dropped in price to as little as $40.

Factor 3 – A febrile and interconnected world
Through their handheld screens daily comes news that the things that happen over there affect us over here. War and famine produces refugees who put huge pressure on governments and resources. Building and manufacturing depletes resources. Industrialisation and modern farming affects the environment and is leading to global warming. This looks like the future that they will have to face and deal with.

What does this mean for brands?
This year I have run seminars in the US and UK in which I explored the question: “What do brands have to do to be trusted and relevant by you?” What follows is my interpretation of these fascinating conversations and eight principles by which brands should act if they are to be ready for the Digital Natives.


Easy searching and quick access to information is a defining quality of Digital Natives – something that Google deliver and is now a key feature of many online services. Google now owns three services that deliver different types of search. They are: Chrome on mobile (for everything), Google Maps (for everything near me or even a short drive away) and YouTube (for entertainment of all types and ‘how to’ education).


THE BIG PICTURE

Two opposing forces are creating a very particular culture among Digital Natives. (By which I mean young men and women in their mid-20s who can’t remember life before the internet and would feel helpless without their smartphones.)

  • A radical democratisation of power through technology which provides (24/7) access to information, entertainment, personal networks, self-organising pressure groups, publishing, products and services, worldwide. This technologically-powered world seems full of experiences, opportunities and exciting new things as well as ways to exert influence through self-organisation and campaigning.

  • Constraint – due to lack of well paid work and therefore lack of money – and little prospect that rapid economic growth will change this. If the predictions about the impact of AI are true, we may be facing sustained high levels of unemployment especially among the young and unskilled. Digital Natives feel simultaneously empowered by technology and yet also victims of economic and political circumstances. Understanding the interaction between these two opposing forces provides clues for brands: Tough mindedness with brands that have not ‘got their act together’ coexists with an appreciation of brands that deliver on their hopes, desires and needs. They ‘get’ digital communications in a way that many brands do not – and at the same time they are hungry for the things that brands can bring them.

The question then is how should brands behave to connect with Digital Natives? Here are principles by which brands should operate:

1. Be easy to find and use

This is the bedrock of modern branding for the Digital Native. They must be able to find you with one or two clicks of a search on mobile and the app must be quick and easy to use. Easy searching and quick access to information is a defining quality of Digital Natives – something that Google deliver and is now a key feature of many online services. Google now owns three services that deliver different types of search. They are: Chrome on mobile (for everything), Google Maps (for everything near me or even a short drive away) and YouTube (for entertainment of all types and ‘how to’ education).

When it comes to ecommerce, the process of buying needs to be as frictionless as possible. Booking.com provide a model for how to do this well; they know that complexity and/or barriers to a smooth transaction will cause drop out. Take the ‘Push for Pizza’ app: once it is set up with your payment details, you just press the button and it uses GPS to deliver a pizza wherever you are. Digital Natives are an impatient lot when it comes to poor usability, or even waiting.

2. Respect their data, respect their intelligence

Unlike their parents, they are not the willing dupes of the data hungry big tech firms. During the early days of social media many people ‘overshared’ with naïve enthusiasm, without really thinking through why these services were free. Digital Natives are more aware of how their data is used to make money. This is evidenced by a much bigger rise in ad-blocking among under 25s. They use platforms where they won’t be hassled and can exercise more control. Snapchat’s introduction of the self-destroying message hit the sweet spot and the platform is used to connect live with smaller groups of friends without the fear of prying eyes. Forty percent of American teens use Kik – a social media platform that preserves their anonymity. Young women in particular are very controlling when it comes to the images that are shared on social media.

They are also wise to marketing techniques. Since January more than 200,000 posts have been tagged #ad or #sp (sponsored post) or #sponsored on Instagram because celebrity endorsers of products have come clean that they have been paid to do so. The reason? Digital Natives can easily identify these posts as paid endorsements rather than independent comment.


Make sure your brand news is also a picture story. Pictures are the currency of social media as the success of Instagram shows. Launched in 2010 (it now has over 500 million active users), Instagram has become a platform on which many designers and creators share their images and build a following.


3. You don’t have to be perfect but you do have to be honest

Digital Natives, adept at creating their own image in social media, are proto branding experts. So, putting up a front and seeking to control information is unlikely to work as they expect (and can impose) transparency, by finding out what’s going on from people in and around a business. It is best to come clean quickly if the brand has made a mistake and seek forgiveness. Admitting weakness is a tangible demonstration of honesty and, therefore, makes other claims more believable.

For older business leaders, who liked to control information, this can be an uncomfortable idea. Yet, Digital Natives are realistic and so do not expect perfect service. They know that new technologies need to have glitches designed out as they are always ‘in beta’ (to use the jargon). The early buyers of the new iPhone were surprisingly tolerant of things not being perfect from the start. Similarly, Samsung launched a phone whose battery burst into flames. But that should not kill this much-loved brand – it is in the nature of technological innovation. What matters is how they deal with it and communicate it.

4. Be live with brand news

Watch a Digital Native using instant messengers (IM) – like WeChat and Messenger – and you quickly understand that the gap between a message and a response is down to seconds. Look at news apps (like The Guardian or BBC) and they increasingly show you a screen with ‘Live’ and ‘Breaking News.’ Successful mobile apps are now live always on media.

This behaviour, which has only really emerged in the last five years, has profound implications for the nature of campaigning. If the consumer is live in the media all the time, then brands have to find ways to be live too. Brands are used to designing spikes of marketing activity of (say) two campaigns a year (such as the fashion business which has spring and autumn collections). However, Digital Natives are hungry for live sharable news all the time. In place of brand campaigns, there should be brand news – year-long programmes of new products, new information, new video advice, new images, new partnerships, exciting offers and events. ASOS.com introduces new fashion lines year round and are therefore constantly using innovation to create brand news.

Make sure your brand news is also a picture story. Pictures are the currency of social media as the success of Instagram shows. Launched in 2010 (it now has over 500 million active users), Instagram has become a platform on which many designers and creators share their images and build a following. Try searching for fashion, beauty, food and jewellery and you will find many businesses and entrepreneurial start-ups sharing images on a daily basis. ASOS.com as you would expect is big on Instagram with five million followers.

5. Upgrade their lives

There are no more important brands than those associated with smartphones in the lives of digital natives. They love these brands. To use a smartphone is to experience big software upgrades and to be regularly excited with new features on devices. The likes of Facebook, Google, iPhone, Samsung and Snapchat set the pace in upgrading design and software. A major upgrade of the OS software brings new ‘bells and whistles’– such as a map that is also a GPS or an app that tracks the amount of steps you walk or monitors how much sleep you are getting. Seemingly every six months a new smartphone is launched with an even better camera. Ecommerce apps like Amazon also set the pace in raising service standards. Amazon Prime means that they can order on Saturday and get delivery on Sunday. Soon there will be same day delivery – perhaps by a drone. These brands set the pace and create the expectation of regular upgrades in design and services.

6. Be generous

Loaded with student debt and low wages, Digital Natives particularly appreciate generosity, especially for things and experiences that they cannot afford. Generosity breeds reciprocation with all people and especially among cash-strapped Digital Natives. Free stuff and ways to save money never go amiss. Generosity can take many forms but should be open hearted and come without conditions attached. One of the best things a brand can do is provide resources and access to experiences, such as internships or the opportunity to attend much demanded events. Survey data show that unique or special experiences are particularly appealing to this age group.


Google is famous among Digital Natives for offering employment terms that are flexible and generous, with free restaurant-standard food and glamorous offices. They understand that Digital Natives are self-teaching, self- fundraising, self-manufacturing and self-retailing. They are a networked generation that doesn’t have to wait for permission to publish, to become a YouTuber, to start a business on Instagram or agitate for change.


7. Do good, don’t just say you are good

Global Nielsen surveys consistently shows two things – that people increasingly prefer to buy from companies that pay attention to their social impact – and this is particularly true of the 20-somethings, who are at the forefront of this important change in beliefs and expectations. Brand ethics have moved centre stage. A decade ago at the Cannes Festival, Dove’s campaign for ‘Real Beauty’ stood out as a pioneering campaign. This year’s Cannes Festival showed that many more brands were embracing their responsibilities to deal with, for example, female empowerment, sustainability, diversity and health. Ethical behaviour is now expected by Digital Natives of brands that are very alert to any inconsistency between image and reality. Brands that wish to be admired by Digital Natives must be ethical and careful to live up to their commitments.

8. Be a great employer brand (it’s the foundation of enduring consumer brands)

Hunger for a good job is pervasive among Digital Natives (as with all generations as they enter their 20s) and getting one now is like winning a particularly gruelling assault course. They expect employers to be ethical, flexible and recognise them as individuals. Big tech firms try so hard to be known as the best employers, looking to come top in surveys about ‘the best places to work.’ Unilever too with its commitment to sustainable consumption (See Unilever’s [Five Levers for Change] on YouTube) is building a strong reputation as an ethical employer that combines the pursuit of profit with a higher societal purpose.

Google is famous among Digital Natives for offering employment terms that are flexible and generous, with free restaurant-standard food and glamorous offices. They understand that Digital Natives are self-teaching, self- fundraising, self-manufacturing and self-retailing. They are a networked generation that doesn’t have to wait for permission to publish, to become a YouTuber, to start a business on Instagram or agitate for change. Google, therefore, also treats its employees as experience-seeking entrepreneurs who can take time off to pursue their own projects and open their minds to new cultures through placements in other Google offices around the world.

Brands that are seen as good employers enjoy a wider reputational benefit because companies are porous. In the social media age, how they behave inside is known outside. The idea that Google is a great place to work is an important pillar in its wider brand fame. John Lewis has ‘partners’ (rather than employees) who enjoy a share in the company’s profits and are known as caring employers. In fact, this enduring consumer brand is built on its reputation as a great employer brand. If you wish to build a great brand among Digital Natives, a good place to start is inside the company and the institution of enlightened employment practices.

Why design your brand around Digital Natives

At this point in the article you may have reached the conclusion that Digital Natives are a tough and demanding crowd. Satisfying them as consumers and employees is going to be a rough ride. Yet they are the future and getting your brand ‘match fit’ for them may be the best thing you can do for future resilience. The brands that they like are keenly recommended – and there is no greater sign of brand health than that.

Julian Saunders works for Google as a freelance strategist and teaches through The Joined Up Company. julian@joinedupcompany.com

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