Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Jul-Aug 2019

The Millennial Big Tension

Why only the most resilient brands will be the ones that will help resolve the Big Tension.

Son (25) and daughter (23) have returned home after university, which is the perfect opportunity for some close-up observation of two Millennials in their natural habitat, with always-to-hand smartphones and dirty, untidy bedrooms.

I pause at this point to give some advice to fellow sufferers who have failed to train their children to “TIDY UP THEIR BEDROOMS!” The advice is this: it’s too late. There is no point in bellowing things like “PICK UP YOUR CLOTHES OFF THE FLOOR!” through closed doors as your children fester in the sheets in their unchanged bedclothes. You should simply adopt an air of resigned calm and accept the inevitable. You will be much happier.

Anyway, back to the social observation.

Two Millennials re-installed back home, gaze at and prod their small screens constantly (especially when they emit a ping). Son sits at dinner with a slight smirk on his face as he messages friends in China on WeChat. Daughter grabs the remote control from my wife because she is too slow at downloading the latest episode of Made in Chelsea. “FFS, it’s like watching a moron,” she says affectionately as she prods buttons in a blur of fingers and thumbs.

Son ignores us during the evening meal as he searches for cheap flights to Japan so he can visit his girlfriend. He might not yet be able to dematerialise in one place and materialise in another, otherwise the world is at his command. He can order or book seemingly anything with just a few prods of fast-moving thumbs. He can banter via an app with friends in four different locations around the world. He is living a life of semi-planned spontaneity in which arrangements can be made at the last minute and change live and in real-time. He has the power. He has the freedom.

Or does he?

There are also limitations and constraints. Stuck at home, he doesn’t fancy spending half of his trainee income on overpriced rental accommodation. The taxman is taking his cut to recover student debt. Several of his friends have little or no income so they can’t come out.

Property is stupidly expensive in London but quite cheap still in Berlin, but sadly, some beery backwoodsman of the Brexit persuasion has screwed up his plans to work wherever he wants to in Europe. His parents and other property owning oldsters have ‘eaten all the pies’. New Labour’s winning anthem has turned sour; things are not ‘getting better’. In fact, they may get worse.

This is the Big Tension and it works like this. Empowerment + freedom runs up against the pressure cooker of constraint – which is why the most resilient brands in the future will be those that help resolve the Big Tension. What my children want is (surprise, surprise) value and service, just like their parents. But how they want it is different.

Tough customers

They are ratty when things don’t go smoothly (“they haven’t got a mobile site FFS!”). Expectations have been raised and new standards set by a generation of constantly innovating brands that live inside their smartphones. If your brand does not wake up to their exacting service expectations, things are not going to go well for you. The smart advice from design thinkers is: always keep the toughest customers in mind, because they will make you more resilient. So, what are their demands?

Quick and easy through a smartphone

With a couple of prods of their thumbs (BTW talking out loud at your smartphone [via Siri for example] is still way too embarrassing). It is a smart move to design for mobile first. Want a brand to model your design on? Look at Booking.com, Google’s largest customers. They are pretty much always on page one of searches and work constantly to make their e-commerce as smooth and frictionless as possible.

Don’t use their data without asking

They know that Zuckerberg’s mob is a bit scuzzy and have tried to get away with things in the past through impenetrable T&Cs. They know that when you are encouraged to ‘sign in through Facebook’ that it is just an attempt scrape your data. Clean up your act. Embrace the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). It is your friend.


Every year, your phone gives you a big software makeover (you know the one that takes at least 15 minutes) with new bells and whistles. Meanwhile, over at Amazon/Facebook/Google ferocious amounts of A/B tests are happening in order to design new enticements to keep you in the habit. (“You have memories to look back on.” “You and Patrick have been Facebook friends for 10 years.” “Jim likes your post.”) It’s Darwinian innovation of course; if they don’t evolve then you will fall out of the habit and they will be swept away, as MySpace was.


Cheaper and quicker (and quicker)

Amazon. Enough said. Try googling Amazon innovations and you will see what I mean. Prime/One-click checkout/Drones. It is all getting quicker and none of that: “You want it urgently; you will have to pay through your nose.” No. Winning brands have abolished the trade-off. Quick, cheap and good quality.

Design in flexibility

“Book now, pay after you stay.” “Sign in four of your friends.” “Cancel whenever you want with no exit charges.” “No contract means that you are free to go, free to stay.” “Only drive when it works for you. No office. No Boss.” “Request a ride and you will be on your way in minutes.” These are the promises made by some of the brands my children love, including AirBnB, Booking.com, Lyft, Netflix and Uber. They make perfect sense to a generation who wants to act spontaneously (empowerment) but cannot come up with the cash (constraint). Flexible service design helps resolve the Big Tension.

Upgrade the experience all the time

To live life through a smartphone is to experience constant improvement and enhancement. Every year, your phone gives you a big software makeover (you know the one that takes at least 15 minutes) with new bells and whistles. Meanwhile, over at Amazon/Facebook/Google ferocious amounts of A/B tests are happening in order to design new enticements to keep you in the habit. (“You have memories to look back on.” “You and Patrick have been Facebook friends for 10 years.” “Jim likes your post.”) It’s Darwinian innovation of course; if they don’t evolve then you will fall out of the habit and they will be swept away, as MySpace was. The effect of all this restless paranoid innovation is to make the smartphone an endless pleasure ground of daily upgrades, which becomes, of course, an expectation – a new norm.

But what about making the world a better place?

Don’t all the surveys tell us that Millennials say they will a switch to ethical brands? A few companies are admired when it comes to ethical behaviour; the ones that have been committed to ‘social impact’ from the start, such as Ben and Jerry’s or John Lewis or Toms. They are (to use that overused word) ‘authentic.’ Otherwise canting pieties about ‘brand purpose’ and social responsibility doesn’t cut much ice. It’s seen as a cover for companies doing what they have always been doing or not paying their taxes (step forward and take a bow many global brands and much of Silicon Valley). The likes of Amazon and Uber lobby for open markets so they can grab market share and kill the competition. Those Uber drivers will be expendable when self-driving cars come in. Amazon are simply playing the game Tesco played in the past: driving out competition and buying as cheap as possible.

Son and daughter understand this. Does that make them cynical? No, just sceptical and realistic. Qualities that they are going to need in spades to thrive and survive the pitiless libertarianism of the digital revolution.


Julian Saunders was CEO of Red Cell (a WPP creative agency) and Head of Strategy at McCann-Erickson. julians@joinedupcompany.com