The ancient human need to explain the vastness of the universe through storytelling and mythology is what’s driving millennial consumer culture today in the US, argues Maggie Montagna and Mortimer Singer.
To understand the amorphous group known as “the consumer”, one has to step back and recognise that consumers are people. And how people act, individually or as a group, is driven by how they feel. We have long followed the mythologist and author of “The Power of Myth”, Joseph Campbell, who was arguably the greatest student of, and expert on, mythology and legend.
One of his main themes was centred on the human need to explain the vastness of the universe through storytelling and mythology. The stories recounted by the hundreds of belief systems, tribes and religions are in fact a mirror in which humankind views itself and attempts to explain the quandary of existence and the vastness of the void.
This same search for meaning and tribal codes is what is driving the underlying resonance of millennial consumer culture today in the United States. Like an echo from a mythological tuning fork struck across the ages, the storytelling of millennial brands is rooted in doing good, simplicity, striving for compassion and transparency; all while making an honest living.
The four goddesses that govern this realm are Goddess of Nature: Sustainability, Goddess of Health: Wellness, Goddess of Experience: Experientialism and Goddess of Simplicity: Minimalism. The emerging millennial customer today is looking for meaning in the way he or she spends his or her money. By touching brands with their wallets, the consumer identifies with the values for which each brand fervently stands.
There is enough data to suggest that the shifts unfolding at the hands of this consumer are worth noting. Considered non-conformers, they have been raised to stand up and stand out rather than blend in and follow. Each individual is creating their own i-brand woven from personal values, beliefs and tastes; sealed and reinforced by their digital interconnectivity.
The Goddess of Nature: Sustainability
“We salute you our Beautiful Gaia. You live within Us All and We in You! Living as One, Loving the All.” – Tara Mary
Consumers are more educated than ever and knowledge has fueled the modern generation to push for change from the ground up, with the goal of making a meaningful impact for the greater good.
Second only to the oil industry, fashion is one of the worst offenders in the crime of industrial pollution. What began as a plea from environmental agencies has spurred a movement toward educating the consumer about the short and long-term impact of their purchasing decisions on the environment.
Many of the industry’s emerging digital darlings, our Davids, have been at the forefront of the movement towards transparency, sustainability and reducing industry waste, enlightening consumers about where products are sourced, manufactured and priced. Everlane has become a poster child for “radical transparency” and ethical production practices. Designed for timeless style, their products encourage customers to keep their pieces for years and reduce their contribution to textile waste.
For the retail goliaths, this is a tough proposition to replicate. However, recognising the weight of their actions, apparel giants have begun to implement internal programs or sustainable collections to decrease their impact.
Brands are getting creative as consumers continue to demand more ethical practices in apparel manufacturing. While awareness is at an all-time high and change is imminent, the question of the masses remains: will consumers pay for sustainable fashion? The desire is there: consumers are seeking long-lasting, quality products as well as demanding the full story.
To today’s customer, a purchase is no longer just an exchange but an indication of support for the broader brand narrative. Brands that tell a story and incorporate an authentic social mission resonate deeply with the modern consumers, creating a critical competitive advantage.
“Through inconspicuous consumption, the aspirational class reproduces wealth and upward mobility, deepening the ever-wider class divide.”
The Goddess of Experience: Experientialism
All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.” – William Shakespeare
As millennials have come of age, their preference for experiential spending has catalysed a tide of retail disruption. Three in four millennials (78 percent) would choose to spend money on a desirable experience over a physical purchase. In contrast to their parents, who took pleasure in materialistic spending, millennials grew up in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The enduring impact has resulted in the intrinsic value of an experience taking precedence over other consumer goods purchases.
Included amongst this group of experience-driven consumers is the “aspirational class”, a subset of modern consumers identified by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett in her book “The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class.” Currid-Halkett proposes that this aspirational class has replaced the leisure class and that they are defined not by their income level, but rather by their life choices around wellness, education and parenting.
The organic foods they buy, fitness classes they indulge in, media they consume and childcare they employ bond them together with shared cultural capital. Through inconspicuous consumption, the aspirational class subtly indicates social status, and Currid-Halkett believes “these transformations influence how we all make choices.”
In addition to their lasting value and indications of social status, experiences have been propelled to the forefront of consumer spending by another powerful societal force: the age of social media. For the first time, the virtual self is just as important, if not more so, than the physical self. Life’s experiences are shared with the world in real time.
What does this mean for retail? Brands now have the opportunity to foster an experience centered around their product and brand values. They can work to curate a one-of-a-kind experience, rather than a one-size-fits-all. The power has shifted and it is the consumer that gives their seal of approval and pulls brands into their lifestyle through experience and procurement.
The Goddess of Health: Wellness
“The body is your temple. Keep it pure and clean for the soul to reside in.” – B.K.S. Iyengar
The health and wellness movement has proved to be a lasting societal lifestyle shift amongst millennials. As the antidote to a constantly connected culture, wellness encourages taking care of your body and mind, inside and out, for a longer, happier and healthier life.
Education on nutrition, fitness, and overall health is readily available. Currid-Halkett’s aspirational class has even defined wellness as an indicator of social status. In the words of Jason Wachob, founder and chief executive officer of Mind, Body, Green, “Balance is the new achievement.”
Wellness has permeated all aspects of consumer lifestyles as its value and importance have prospered. Fostering a healthy mental state has never been easier or more mainstream. According to Pinterest researcher Larkin Brown, “Self-care searches are up 121 percent.”
Millennials are more often turning down a night out in favor of “nesting”: home has become a coveted sanctuary for much needed rejuvenation. In terms of consumption, natural products are widely distributed and easily substituted for the consumer intently seeking health and longevity.
Today, food, fitness and retail are merging with brands offering in-store workouts, or fitness studios endorsing and selling their favorite brands and products in the lobby. Inclusivity is the new exclusivity and like-minded brands would serve well to band together to cross promote and engage their tribes together.
“Born from the excessive consumption of past decades and rising digital clutter, minimalism questions what is actually essential in an era of extreme accessibility.”
The Goddess of Simplicity: Minimalism
“Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest.” – Marie Kondō
Born from the excessive consumption of past decades and rising digital clutter, minimalism questions what is actually essential in an era of extreme accessibility. Consumers are going to back to basics and are becoming champions of less-is-more.
The fashion industry has responded with garment solutions to streamline the clutter: less variety and higher quality. Not only does simplification calm the mind and pad the wallet, it buys the consumer more time, today’s more precious and rare commodity.
For example, Orchard Mile’s My Mile is designed to save time by allowing shoppers to see full collections in one destination where shoppers can curate their own shopping environment by adding favourite brands, categories and products for a more customised and efficient experience.
Other consumer lifestyle changes reinforce the movement towards minimalism. From Uber to Airbnb, 44 percent of Americans are engaging in some form of peer-to-peer sharing services. Traditional companies are taking notice: General Motors invested $500 million in Lyft, recognising that millennials don’t feel the need to own a car when they can rent or ride share for a fraction of the cost. Access over ownership is a key part of the less is more phenomenon.
As the world around continues to evolve, consumers will embrace the change with excitement while finding an opposite and equal balance in their personal lives and life choices. By simplifying assortments and owning core competencies, brands can simultaneously simplify and enhance the shopping experience to appeal to the less-is-more movement.
“Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.” – Yoda
While this report might imply that the emerging generation of consumers will “let go” of their desire for consumption, that is not the message. In fact, the opposite is more probable: that this set of shoppers will vote passionately and repeatedly with their wallets for goods and services that allow them to feel that they are building a meaningful life. A life knitted through the patchwork of decisions they make about the way they accessorise themselves, their entourage and journey.
Mortimer Singer is chief executive officer and Maggie Montagna is senior associate at Marvin Traub Associates.