If You Tell Them They Might Buy

By: Beth Parish and Christina McCale Issue: Conscious Capitalism Section: Collaborator Profile

What the Millennials are Buying and What Conscious Consumerism Means to Them

If You Tell Them They Might Buy

Generation Y, also known as the Millennials, is not a group of young people that are defined by specific dates, but generally are seen as following the Generation X group, born anywhere between 1982 and 2002 and estimated to rival the Baby Boomers in size and buying power. According to an article from Emory University, Gen Y are less violent, less alienated and less selfish than the prior two generations, the Baby Boomers and Gen X. The intriguing question is how do these traits impact shopping and consumption?

Andrea Hershatter, a senior lecturer in organization and management and the associate dean and director of the BBA program at Emory's Business School, Goizueta, and Molly Epstein, an assistant professor in the practice of management communication at Emory University have surveyed more than 800 students at Emory and four other institutions and have found that the Millennials are brimming with self-confidence and have a deep seated interest in doing good.

Millennials are brimming with self-confidence and have a deep seated interest in doing good.

According to Hershatter, Millennials have already shown an unusual tendency toward good works. In the past few years, there has been "an unprecedented rate of high school volunteerism, unbelievable achievement in terms of individuals and clubs gathering together to make things happen," she says. "Collectively, they have already proven to be both socially conscious and very action-oriented with measurable results."

Measurable results indeed. These socially conscious Millennials from 22 high schools and universities were able to help the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a grassroots community organization of mostly Latino, Haitian and Mayan Indian farmworkers, to get Taco Bell to pay more for the tomatoes used in making tacos. According to the Student Farmworker Alliance, these students boycotted Taco Bell for unfair purchasing practices and changed the policies at their academic institutions.

Given the actions of Millennials across the country in the Taco Bell boycott, we wanted to see if the Millennials translated this consciousness into how they made purchasing decisions. To answer the question, what do Millennials think about when they purchase products, we interviewed 20 seniors in a Consumer Behavior class at Regis University in Denver. These students shop regularly for food and staples to fill their apartments and dorm rooms and spend their own money to meet their needs. While these 20 students living in Denver do not represent every Millennial, some interesting trends did evolve from the group discussion.

While price, quantity, convenience and quality were considerations for our students in nearly every purchase, the level of importance for each factor changed depending on the item being purchased. For example, when making beer purchases, if the students were making the purchase, price and quantity were the first considerations; if someone else was buying, then the quality of the beverage was the main consideration with Colorado MicroBrews being top on the list of preferred beverages. For these students there was little initial knowledge of any socially conscious or environmentally friendly activities being done by different beer manufacturers locally, nationally or internationally. If You Tell Them They Might Buy When shopping for ice cream, everyone agreed that quality was the foremost consideration. This group of Millennials was not swayed by a less than great tasting treat. The national and local premium brands were most often mentioned with little knowledge or regard for the brands or companies selling the ice cream, beyond the flavors offered and taste delivered. Again, the product itself was the priority for the consumers.

For lunch, dinner or late night snacking, getting enough food for the right price was a major consideration; many were also concerned with the health of their meal choice. As with the other purchases the social or environmental reputation of the purveyor of the fine food was not known or researched.

When shopping for their staples, these students were most interested in convenience. Again the students did not know much about the  grocery or mass merchandise stores where the purchases were made.

Practicality seemed to be the watchword for this group of Millennials, but that was not the end of the discussion as other factors certainly influenced their decision making. As Dyana Gutierrez a senior at Regis University put it, “Green marketing and social responsibility do not influence my spending habits that much. I buy more often than not based on convenience and price, and sadly the greener the product usually the more expensive it is.” Natalie Adrian a student in the same class agrees, “…I feel that price, quality and convenience are more important especially when the 'green' products are almost always more expensive than the regular product and a lot of the times they’re not much better than the 'non-green' products.”

When we talked about some of the great things companies were doing, the students were very intrigued and admitted if they knew about the good works of a company, and if all else were equal (i.e. quality and price), they would be swayed towards that brand. The students liked hearing about the sustainability focus of New Belgium Brewing they were also intrigued by the fact that the brownies used in making Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream were made by the formerly homeless. Even with raised awareness, many of the students were cynical, as Adrian put it, “I think most companies out there don’t actually care about saving the environment, they care about making a profit.” Gutierrez echoes her classmate’s sentiments,“… companies saw the green trend as a way to make money not a way to try and make a difference. One example I remember is these T-shirts they sold at JC Penney that had all these green sayings on them when the material wasn't even recycled cotton or anything.”

The students were also realistic and talked a lot about the profit making goals of the larger corporations, Brendan Hesse said, “I think it's definitely the primary goal with a business to make the most money, however, while doing that it should be an important influence on businesses to look at the best way to be preservative of our planet's health….”

Our students admitted that they had not heard a lot about the good works of companies they did business with. More often than not they had only heard the bad stories: who polluted, who paid poorly, who did not treat their employees and suppliers well, and who were not great citizens. According to an article in Business Week “… Gen Yers respond to humor, irony, and the (apparently) unvarnished truth.''

Our students certainly echoed the Business Week article loud and clear. Companies must tell the truth about their “green” and social outreach efforts. If You Tell Them They Might Buy

How to Make an Impact With the Gen Y Consumer

Our (unsolicited) advice to companies trying to reach the Millennials, is tell the truth. Be sure your initiatives are strategically tied to your organization’s mission and that the firm is committed to doing the right thing for the long haul. As one senior at Regis said “…big corporations don't really care, they are just jumping on the bandwagon to make themselves look good.” Zachary Blakely, a member of the same class at Regis, could not agree more, “I do believe there are a few small businesses out there that do care about our planet, but any ofthese enormous corporations could care less. They are simply just trying to save face and making sure they do just enough not to be attacked in this environmental McCarthyism that our business culture has adopted.”

these enormous corporations could care less. They are simply just trying to save face and making sure they do just enough not to be attacked in this environmental McCarthyism that our business culture has adopted

A second piece of advice for businesses large and small, is to determine what is relevant to the target consumer. While not all Millenials are the same, and the words of this group should not be taken as the views of every member of Generation Y, letting the consumer know about relevant good works can be motivating. Our students were intrigued by sustainability and social impact and wanted to know more about products that had reduced impact on the environment and positively impacted a social need. As another senior in the class highlighted, “I think that it is a good thing for a company to tell their customers or potential customers about the good ethical decisions the company is making.”

Businesses must also remember that some of our students were also suspicious and did not want to be “green washed”. As Stephen Reyda a senior at Regis put it, “Many companies attempt to green wash in order to make the company look better.” Brendan Hesse put it this way, “I think the mission and impact of socially responsible and environmentally-friendly companies is inherently good for all.  For the company, it reflects well on them, the environment obviously benefits from environmentally friendly business actions and socially-responsible acts such as charity are of course generous. … I am a supporter of greener decisions and being socially responsible but I also am a financially struggling college student.”

Companies must also remember that great works, sustainable products and positive social impact will not make up for a poor or over-priced product. The consumer also will not be inconvenienced or go out of his or her way to purchase greener, more socially conscious products. Joseph Ariniello captured the classes sentiments when he said, “I think I would be "greener" if price wasn't such a big factor right now.”

The last key to motivating students is to reach them where they are; traditional public relations and advertising probably won’t work with this group of young adults. The importance of social media tools, the internet, social networking and alternative promotional mechanisms is magnified when trying to target Millennial consumers and inform them about a firm’s green efforts and positive social impact. Such knowledge of how firms are changing the world could motivate the Millennial consumer towards new brands making an effort to have a positive impact on society and the environment. According to Scott Monty, Head of Social Media at Ford Motor Company, marketers need to,“ … provide value and be contextually relevant to why they're there in the first place. Don't interrupt them (the Gen Y consumer) with your ads and expect results.” On his blog, Mr. Monty also recommends, “Give people updates about your products, perhaps information that they can't get elsewhere, or make it the first put you place the updates. Give them an offer that can only be gotten from the social network.”

Product quality, price and quantity continue to be prime motivators for our Gen Y consumer, but if these consumers knew more about the great works of the companies they were buying products from, our college students could be convinced to change their purchasing patterns. Just be sure to tell the truth and live up to your promises. As Regis University senior John Putt stated “I feel like turning (a) profit becomes a little less substantial if you can't sleep at night.”

Thank you to the Fall 2009 Regis College BA 425 Consumer Behavior Students who helped contribute to this article with their opinions and thought provoking statements.

Beth Parish is Program Manager for the John J. Sullivan Endowed Chair for Free Enterprise at Regis University. For more information on multi-sector partnerships that use Free Enterprise to address Social Needs please contact Beth at bparish@regis.edu.

Dr. Christina McCale is an Instructor of Marketing in the Division of Business at Regis University. Her areas of research and teaching include Marketing Management, Services Marketing, Consumer Behavior, Values Centered Marketing and the incorporation of experiential educational activities to prep undergraduates for their careers. Dr. McCale can be reached at cmccale@regis.edu.