At 2.3 billion, they already account for 32% of the world’s population. Consulting firm Bain & Company even predicts that by 2025, when the oldest among them are at the peak of their purchasing power, they will make up 45% of the luxury market – without doubt the biggest consumer demographic in history. The question being, how to engage a group that thinks and behaves in a completely uncharted way. Brands – any brand – must learn to speak their language so as to adapt not just their marketing but their entire communication. It’s a paradigm shift that has left the watch industry lagging behind – to put it mildly. “The majority of brands are communicating via unfamiliar channels in a language they don’t fully grasp,” proffers Pascal Ravessoud, who is secretary-general of the FHH Cultural Council. “The watch industry has had it too easy too long.” It’s no wonder managers break out in a sweat at the mere mention of these “self-absorbed humanists” or, as they’re better known, millennials.
Weaned on technology
Every generation has something that distinguishes it from its predecessors, be it a historical watershed or a marker of social evolution. Millennials are the first demographic to be defined by a revolution in technology. Born on the cusp of the third millennium (between 1980 and 2000 thereabouts), these digital natives have grown up in a mobile, connected world. This may not seem like much, it has nonetheless profoundly modified their relationship to space, time and also consumption. Authors of Génération Y et le Luxe (Dunod, 2014), Éric Briones and Grégory Casper say they are “the first globalised generation”.
Millennials are a moving target, and so while it is, by definition, difficult to pin down every aspect of this Web generation, marketing research and sociological studies have filled in a number of blanks. Firstly, millennials are more educated than previous generations, but unlike their baby-boomer grandparents they have no guarantee of finding employment commensurate with their qualifications, or any job at all for that matter. Yet despite starting their adult life on financially shaky foundations, they aren’t afraid to put their ideas to the test: Uber, Airbnb, Drivy and BlaBlaCar are just some of the multiple startups launched by and for them.
Though essentially profit-driven, this sharing economy also reflects deeper concerns. Ultra- and omniconnected, hence well-informed despite not using traditional media, 15-35 year-olds are conscious of the ticking timebomb we are sitting on, and the problems their parents have failed to tackle: global warming, ending nuclear power, an ageing population, depletion of natural resources, to name but some. The old ways hardly seem like a recipe for success, and so millennials are less inclined to take what their elders say as gospel and more likely to make up their own rules, whether in the workplace or in society at large. “It’s the way a hacker thinks,” say Éric Briones et Grégory Casper.
Humour is a crucial part of the millennial mindset. Ironic and irreverent, humour is directed at every aspect of life and takes a shot at the establishment: a sense of derision they will just as easily turn on themselves as on political discourse. Or brands. Bombarded with advertising before they even take their first steps, millennials have learned to take a critical view of advertising messages. Information is fact-checked and brands caught lying are named and shamed on social media – the millennial’s natural habitat where he or she posts photos of their latest purchases for others to comment on. It’s a means of interacting with their peers, as well as a way of individualising consumption into something more authentic.
Indeed, despite their reputation for valuing experience over ownership, millennials love brands. What’s changed is how they consume them. They live for the present, and prefer to spend their cash now rather than save years for a future purchase. They are more lucid too, and refuse to pay over the odds for the sake of prestige. As far as watches are concerned, a lot of millennials are turning to vintage timepieces. “In a throwaway world, new generations have developed a taste for craftsmanship, romanticism and mystery,” suggests auctioneer Aurel Bacs, star of the saleroom at Phillips. “They’re looking for adventure and the unknown, but they also expect content and a message. It’s something of a counter-culture that rejects the cold, anonymous perfection of the contemporary pieces that are available in abundance.”
In this light, it seems luxury brands have no alternative than to reboot their communication and adapt their products too, why not. Whereas baby boomers believed in work, social standing and material goods, millennials want immediacy, experience and sharing – values that are embedded in the digital world they grew up in. For watchmakers, it’s no longer about whether or not they should be selling their products online or in physical stores, publishing on Instagram or in magazines, pitting mechanical movements against smartwatches. It’s about resonating, engaging and building a relationship.
Getting there implies more than simply transferring old messages to new channels. A web presence is still important but more as a prerequisite; a platform for communicating ideas, values and a philosophy. “Brands need to become media and publish intelligent content,” insists David Sadigh, founder and CEO of Digital Luxury Group. “We’re in the thick of it now with social commerce. Brands are using social media to drive sales.” Nielsen, the world’s biggest market research company, put together a handy guide to attracting the millennial’s interest in the form of a Maslow pyramid that reads (bottom to top) “Be accessible”, “Hold their attention”, “Be like them”, “Be credible”, “Involve them”, “Enrich their social life” and “Make the world a better place with them.”
Watch brands have got off to a timid start. There are still too many bosses who think they can create interest in their products just by posting photos of their latest red-carpet event. The reality is far more complex, and exposes brands to comments, criticism, derision… and spectacular fails. The question being, are they ready to adjust?
Millennials in five words
GENERATION There are currently 2.3 billion millennials, i.e. Generation Y plus Generation Z. That’s 32% of the world population. By 2025 millennials could well account for half the people on Earth.
CONNECTED Millennials are ultra- and omniconnected, practically from birth. Never before has a demographic been defined by a technology.
EDUCATED Their level of qualification is historically high compared with previous generations. Internet gives them a window on the world that inspires them to choose immediacy, experience and sharing over other values.
CONCERNED They’ve inherited a stricken planet: global warming, a greying population and dwindling natural resources are just some of the challenges that await them – and why they increasingly reject the old models.
IRONIC Millennials thrive on humour, which they use to counter the dominant opinion or to mock established order. When shared on social networks, humour can become a powerful weapon of mass derision.