Millennials, culture and brands: an interview with Amplify’s Krupali Cescau

Millennials – those who have come of age in a period of vast technological change – are a sought-after group among marketers. They are internet savvy, smartphone-wielding and eager to establish themselves as valued workers and prospective property owners.

They are also not a single, uniform entity.

For marketers, who already have a habit of pigeonholing people into conceptually neat categories, the need to acquire as much user data as possible has made understanding what makes young consumers tick a high priority.

YouGov’s annual BrandIndex survey data shows which brands have the most positive image among millennial consumers. This year, Netflix came out on top with 74% of 18-34-year olds surveyed claiming to have talked about the brand positively with their peers.

One thing that makes the list particularly interesting for marketers, is that one agency works with half of the brands featured in the top 10. Amplify counts Netflix, Facebook, Airbnb, Spotify and PlayStation among its clients.

Krupali Cescau, head of planning at Amplify, has a theory as to why the London-based agency has become so successful with connecting globally recognised brands with young consumers.

our mantra is ‘people, brands and culture’

For Cescau, the YouGov poll was a vindication of the way that Amplify has conceptualised the people it is trying to reach.

“We pride ourselves on having our ear to the ground when it comes to insight and research, so we work really hard to know the things that are important and this kind of popped up on our radar,” she says.

“We were really pleased that we had five of the 10 and we were super happy that Netflix was the top one. Not to sound arrogant about it, but I wasn’t hugely surprised because the way we interact with brands and the kind of brands that come to us are the kind of brands that know that we are attractive to their millennial audiences and their centennial audiences.”

So, what does this mean for brands that are looking to create a meaningful connection with younger consumers? Cescau believes that the key is really working to understand the context and the environment in which a particular audience operates, and how these influences the way they talk, think and act. “Our mantra is ‘people, brands and culture’ and that’s how we approach everything: our briefs, our process and how we think of when it comes to solutions.”

Young blood

For Amplify, there are always two audiences: the brands that they work for and the other is the actual consumers that they are trying to connect with.

‘Young people’ is often a category used to describe a group of people not fully understood by the people heading up the brands targeting their goods at them. While Amplify does not solely chase after younger audiences, the brands they work with often have these consumers directly in their crosshairs.

For Cescau, this comes from the agency’s push to understand younger consumers. She headed up a large research project titled Young Blood which tried to cut through all the noise about millennials and really get to the heart of how they view themselves as consumers.

“It started off as a bit of a pet project of mine,” she says. “We had these brands coming to us to understand young people, so we should really do a piece of research ourselves. Just to make sure and to sense check that we have the right information and that we are up to date because things change so rapidly.”

“Culturally, things change very fast and young people these days are very fluid. We ended up putting quite a lot of time, money and resources behind it and it turned out to be an epic piece of work which I think surprised us and our clients.”

One of the major goals of the research was to try and move out of the London-centricity that dominates the majority of research that had previously been conducted. Many young people across the UK could be forgiven for looking at the characterisations of their demographic, made up of fashionable and tech-savvy capital dwellers, as being pretty far removed from their own personal experiences.

“There has been a lot of sort-of ‘London focus’ and an east London focus – kind of cool and trendy and what are the trailblazers doing,” Cescau elaborates. “But what we wanted to establish was, what are our core audience? What are the rest of the people in the UK doing?”

things change very fast and young people these days are very fluid

“From a personal point of view, I hate the term millennial. I hate the term centennial. I prefer to talk about people as young people, because when you use those terms you tend to end up putting people in a box.”

The problem with creating a catch-all term for a group as diverse as people aged between 15 to 35 is that it is essentially useless. Claiming that a 15-year-old from London and a 25-year-old from Newcastle believe the same things and act the same way due to their relative age is not going to give you a particularly sharp analytical edge. There is a flowing spectrum of belief and behaviour that changes over time.

What the Young Blood research showed was that reality wasn’t matching up to what Cescau was hearing from older generations and the media. Characterisations of millennials as lazy, tech-obsessed couch potatoes bubbling up with a sense of entitlement matched only be their financial irresponsibility have abounded for years now. But that didn’t seem to match the data coming in.

“That really didn’t resonate with us and kind of rubbed us the wrong way in terms of the people that we were meeting on a day to day basis, who weren’t like that at all,” Cescau recalls. “They were super-driven, conscious about the world, they were trying hard and had been dealt a shitty deal by the generations before and they are struggling. But they are figuring it out and are making great strides.

“For us, it’s a massively positive generation. Young people today are extraordinary and what we were reading just felt like Daily Mail headlines rather than the reality.”

A different environment  

The world is a different place then it was 30 years ago. For those who grew up and came of age in the 1980s and early 90s, innovations like mobile phones, the internet and 24/7 rolling news coverage have radically transformed the way that information is digested and shared.

Millennials have grown up in the midst of great technological and societal change. If nothing else, they hold the honour of being the first generation to grow up with the internet. But as a set of people, do they really differ from the generations that came before them?

Cescau believes there are some important environmental factors that have influenced the kind of consumers that many millennials have grown up to be:

“Some of the difference is just generational. Every generation is different from the one before, and if this wasn’t the case we would live in a very boring and flat world. We would have no progress.” One key difference for Cescau is the idea of certainty. For her, young people don’t have the same kind of certainty about their lives that their parents did. The idea that if you go to university you will automatically get a good job and be able to buy a house has not proved to be an accurate one for many millennials.

“I think that young people are pretty disillusioned with traditional institutions like higher education, government, religion, any of that kind of stuff, and they are having to find their own way around these problems,” she says.

Another key factor is technology, particularly with regards to the ability to seek out like-minded souls. “The world is a smaller place for everyone, there are niches and micro-niches that they can access. Nobody really feels alone in the sense that they are the only one feeling a certain way. They can always access groups.

“They can always access information. People can learn to do things online, things that you might have had to go and study before. That’s what I would say is the main difference.”

The other main difference is patterns of consumption. Cescau’s research showed that the young people she surveyed spent most of their disposable income on tech and clothes. This highlights a particular conflict between the twin poles of trying to be financially conscious and seeking out instant gratification.

every generation is different from the one before

“They understand the need for things that last a long time, they understand the need for ethical supply chains and making the right choices when it comes to the brands they buy,” Cescau said. “However, they also want to look fresh on Instagram.”

This battle between how to fulfil your immediate needs while also looking forward to the future means that the majority of young people seem to understand the importance of saving for the future. Most spend a fair amount of time thinking about where they are going and where they are trying to end up. This is a far cry from the image of the financially irresponsible millennial who spends all of their money on computer games and the latest technological fads.

“When we talked to them about looking to the future, 92% had savings,” Cescau continues. “Only 8% don’t have savings. That’s incredible; these are young people who are considered to be inconsiderate, irresponsible and lazy and who expect everything to drop into their laps.

“But, in places like London, where there are the highest financial barriers to the property market, kids and teenagers are starting to save for their long-term plans. Actually, it seems that it was the generations before that were financially responsible and put millennials in this position where they have to find workarounds.”

The role of technology

Another central conflict of the millennial generation apparent in the Young Blood research was their relationship with technology. Smartphones and social media have entrenched themselves deeply in the lives of most people, regardless of their generation. Millennials, however, seem to have conflicted views over the ubiquity of their phones.

“Technology underpins everything. I think it would be really naive to think that it doesn’t,” said Cescau.

When asked how they felt about the amount of time they are currently spending online, the majority of respondents reported feeling that they should probably spend less time using their devices. What other activities they would do with their increased free time was a more difficult question. Cescau recalls that when asked what they would do if they lost their phone for two days, the reliance on technology began to shine through:

“All of a sudden they realised, or they knew anyway, that they rely on Google Maps, they rely on WhatsApp, they rely on Facebook. They rely on their devices to connect them with the rest of the world, it puts the rest of the world next to them. When they are showing each other videos it is a way to connect with other people.”

you can be a black cab or you can be an Uber

The interlocking of the social and technological worlds seems like an undeniable fact. But is it necessarily something to be concerned about? For Cescau, it seems like it could be a hangover from previous generations, who could be equating ‘change’ with ‘necessarily worse’. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that young people are using technology to hide away from the world, and many would argue that the opposite is true.

“The times have changed and this is their reality, they’re not looking into a blank void,” she says. “They’re not being anti-social, they’re being worldly. They are talking to the rest of the world. They’re having more conversations and more interactions than any previous generations have had.”

“Technology has been a wonderful thing for them. It is helping them find workarounds and allowing them to be hyper-efficient at launching businesses and failing and trying ideas and evolving them. It is giving them a platform to figure out how the rest of their lives are going to work, rather than relying on these traditional institutions that they no longer believe in and that have let them down.”

For Cescau, the simple fact of the matter is that we are in uncharted territory, and no one can claim to have all the answers. Young people and their older peers are all speaking from the same position of ignorance. The only thing that is certain is that the rate of change cannot be denied, so the question becomes one of whether you are going to get on board or not.

“But the truth is that you can’t stop progress, you can be a black cab or you can be an Uber. Who do you want to be? Most people seem to want to be the Uber, and why not?”

Ethical buying

The proliferation of consumer choice is widely seen as another sign of progress, but here again another central conflict of the millennial consumer mindset appears. Whether they can afford to or not, many young people have the intention to be ethical shoppers, to only buy from brands that promote the way of living that they best feel aligns with their own.

Once loyalty to a brand has been established though, consumers can become powerful brand advocates.

“If they respect a brand enough to talk about them, and that for us is really the most powerful form of advocacy because even if that person is not buying you, if they talk about you to 20 other people,” says Krupail. “56% of the people we surveyed said that their primary influence was other young people. If you have young people talking about your brand because your brand is doing the right thing, you couldn’t ask for anything better.”

With so much information and choice available to young consumers, brands have found that they are operating in glass boxes and that there is very little they can hide from inquisitive Googlers. This has created a pressing need for brands to define themselves beyond simply what they sell. They need to have a social presence, to be able to say about themselves other that their products.

they know that their money counts

“People don’t buy products, they buy emotion,” reasons Cescau. “They don’t buy into particular products, they buy into the way that those things make them feel.

“So, what is your brand saying and what does it stand for. In this day and age, your brand has to stand for something because when young people are crafting their ‘brand of me’ – which is basically all the things around them that make them who they are, that form their cultural and personal identity – they’re looking to brands to do a job for them that they cannot do themselves.”

A prominent theme of the Young Blood research was one of a lack of traditional influence. The young consumers surveyed weren’t hugely positive about the power that they hold to change the political landscape of the country they live in. But while they are sceptical about whether online petitions have any effect on public policy, they do know that they live in a country where money talks.

“They feel pretty helpless in the grand scheme of things on a personal level. However, they know that their money counts and are willing to put their money behind the brands that represent what they want, they feel or they believe in.” 

Key lessons for brands

So, what does all of this mean for brands?

Cescau says the biggest takeaway from the research is the need for brands to consider themselves holistically: that they need to think about themselves as more than simply products or services. They need to start considering themselves as entities whose influence reaches out beyond their commercial activities, and they need to stand for something.

The problem is that, in the age of instant sharing and immediate judgement, standing up for something has more potential pitfalls than ever. “But the question is,” asks Cescau, “can you afford not to be political?

“Can you afford not to have a point of view on the world? Can you afford to be just a brand that is apathetic about everything but have nice products? Because someone else is going to have the same products as you, or something similar, and is going to stand for something that is going to make people want to put their money behind them.”

One key aspect of brands beginning to see themselves holistically as parts of a wider community is coming to terms with the idea that consumer loyalty in the old sense of the world is largely on the way out. Consumers used to be fans of one product and were likely to stick with it. Your father might be a Volvo man and your mother may still drink the same brand of instant coffee she has since the 80s, despite your repeated attempts to introduce her to the wonderful world of grinding your own beans.

For Cescau, the proliferation of choice means that brands need to be content with being part of a web of favourite brands that makes up a young consumers preference spectrum:

“I try new things because I want to be challenged and I want to find the next best thing,” she says.

“The most I will do for a brand is have them be part of my repertoire. No brand is going to be my single champion because there is way too choice out there.” With so many potential choices out there in the market, the question becomes about the reasons why consumers would limit themselves to only being products or brands they have tried before.

the most you can hope for is brand fandom

“On average, young people have 14 drinks in their repertoire. It’s no longer ‘I’m a Jack Daniels drinker and that’s it’ because that is boring and why would you want to do that with so many options out there?”

But once a brand does work its way into the affections of a young consumer, they tend to stay there. While this may not be as intense a loyalty as the old school, ‘we’re a Nissan family’ type of loyalty, it is still extremely beneficial to brands.

“The most you can hope for is brand fandom, that you are a solid part of somebody’s repertoire and that they are willing to talk about you,” says Cescau. “Then you have a role, a reason and a time and a place for your product and your brand. It is naïve to think that you will be chosen to the exclusion of everything else.”

There are exceptions to this general rule. Apple, for one, have created a global empire based on an ecosystem of products all linked together through iOS. But even the most ardent Apple devotee may still have to use a Window’s computer at work or use third-party applications such as WhatsApp.

For Cescau, this means that brands need to stop thinking in absolutes and accept that both their audience and their brand are likely to shift and change over time. “We’ve stopped thinking of audience’s in terms of pen portraits and started of thinking of them in terms of values, attitudes and behaviours” she says.

“We know that audiences are fluid. So, to say ‘it is this guy, he goes to X and buys Y’ is no longer good enough. We’re not talking to one person, we are talking one person who can be 10 different people depending on the circumstance.” This realisation is an intellectual foundation of what Amplify consider to be a particularly successful part of their strategy.

The fluidity of your audience and your brand message all take place within one overarching structure: culture.

Cultural underpinnings

By focusing on linking brands to cultural touchpoints in the specific geography or audience that they want to reach, Cescau and her team have been able to create the kind of meaningful conversations between brands and audiences that actively respect and benefit both parties.

“We think that global brands need to use culture to nuance themselves and connect with local audiences,” Kruplai states. “Although the world is becoming more global, it is becoming more local at the same time. We’re valuing local insights and trends. We look at big global macro-trends, but we also look at local cultures and cultural movements.”

Which brings us back to the YouGov’s BrandIndex list. Being aware of culture and how it affects local audience’s choices and behaviours as consumers has been an important part of Amplify’s success with making brands appealing to young consumers

For Airbnb, culture is a particularly important part of their local marketing. If the inhabitants of a local area aren’t enthused about the idea of tourists pouring in, the company is going to have a hard time maintaining a positive image among the people that it needs for its business to grow: people that are willing to rent their properties out to tourists.

One place that the company was facing scepticism was Berlin, where locals tend be suspicious of big brands. What Amplify discovered though, was that Berliners have a great deal of cultural trust in each other. They don’t want big brands; they want a local experience built by local brands.

The solution was to emphasise the fact that this local culture of peer-based trust aligned perfectly with the philosophy of Airbnb and the aspect of their service that has made them so popular. Amplify decided to build a ‘Live There House’, a physical space that celebrated the unique identity of the city and featured presentations by 10 local influencers recounting their experiences of what made the city so special and how Airbnb had helped them.

“We used it as a way to strengthen the company’s relationship with the local community, we let the message of Airbnb come through to the people that actually lived there that were going to be using the service,” recalls Cescau. “Not the people that were coming in but the people that would be letting their houses out. We gave Berlin’s most influential Airbnb users a platform to deliver their message in their own authentic way.”

The Live There House is an example of using local culture to inform and shape a marketing strategy that helps a global business work in a local situation, rather than trying to impose a brand’s central narrative on every different geography it comes into contact with.

understand how people’s cultural alliances influence their behaviour and values

The key is having an understanding culture as complicated, shifting entity full of grey areas and capable of incorporating everything from religion to ways of dressing. 

“Culture is complex and it’s really nuanced and its ever-changing and evolving. Marketers that think that they have nailed this one thing well, they’ve managed to do this culture thing and they don’t need to do anymore,” says Cescau. “They end up sitting on it and they end up being like the funky uncle at the Christmas party that no one in the family really want to talk to.

“There is a fine edge of connection with an audience. Its where your realness as a brand is revealed.”

Another example of this is the almost universal ‘Netflix and chill’, which has become a byword for forgoing the loud and brash world outside for a cosy night at home on the sofa. For a brand that had crossed into mainstream parlance so strongly, it would be foolish to try and break this connection with its audience. So, how would this translate when it came to the glitz and glamour of the red carpet at Cannes film festival?

“We had a sofa where people could chill and be, and not have to perform,” says Cescau, “which celebrated what Netflix is about, which is being at home and being comfortable. This was a massive shift in how people approach Cannes.”

All of this leads to the need for brands to use the insights that they gain about their audiences wisely, but also that they shouldn’t be afraid to ask. The easiest way to gain the kind of anthropological and social insights you need to create a lasting and mutually beneficial connection with an audience is go directly to them.

“Understand how people’s cultural alliances influence their behaviour and values,” says Cescau. “Be a facilitator not an appropriator. We would always say to brands ‘put your money where your mouth is’ and invest in cultural trends.”

Another key aspect of any successful campaign is ‘heroing’ the people that matter to its success. Making use of influencers means allowing them to define your brand in their own terms rather than trying to dictate that message to them. “Culture is built on storytelling,” says Cescau. “Until brands tell the whole story they are not going to get it right. Don’t be scared of the whole story I guess.”

“Authenticity is a word that is so overused at the moment, especially in marketing. Marketers really need to careful when we talk about authenticity. Being a facilitator is joining a conversation in a respectful way that allows people to express themselves, helping where you can.

“Being an appropriator is taking the elements that you want to take and leaving the uncomfortable stuff. Also, it helps you because all of a sudden you don’t need to own the whole conversation, you just need to be part of it.”

An ongoing project

In the light of the success that the Young Blood project has had, Cescau is keen to expand the research to continue bringing in insights that can help brands connect with audiences. To her, it almost feels like she has an obligation to carry on, to make sure that they are able to give the brands they work with accurate information about young consumers and what makes them tick.

“We’re having a lot of fun, we’re learning things ourselves that is going to be really helpful at some point or another when we deal with our current or future clients,” she says. “The more knowledge we can get, the better we are as an agency and the more helpful to brands.

“Somebody has got to do it and we don’t think that anyone else is doing it right.”

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