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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn Butler-Madden

Millennials and the 'Purpose' Imperative for Brands

Updated: Mar 24

I recently sat in a meeting with a group of marketers. I was giving a presentation on marketing to millennials. There were a few young women there, probably in their early 30s, but when I suggested that they were part of the very generation we were discussing, their response took me a little by surprise. They weren't too keen to be associated with being a millennial.

I probably shouldn’t have been surprised. Let’s face it, millennials cop a lot of criticism. They’ve been accused of being everything from narcissistic, self-indulgent, selfish and lazy to naïve, unrealistic and downright disloyal.

Today, the oldest millennial is late 30s, so if you’re still thinking they’re the uni students on the fringe of the mainstream, you’ve got some catching up to do. According to Galaxy Research commissioned by Kronos, in just 3 years, they’ll account for 50% of the workforce; and by 2025, that figure rises to 75%.

Millennials will account for 75% of the workforce by 2025.

For all the criticisms that have been heaped upon millennials, it’s worth reflecting that perhaps those criticisms are simply the perspective of generations who have lived through very different circumstances. Boomers and Generation X are comparing the expectations of the up and coming generation with what they themselves have had to do, to get where they are. And there’s a mismatch. Fair enough I suppose, but we live in very different times today, with vastly different problems and opportunities. So why should we be holding the new generation to account based on yesterday’s circumstances?

An alternate lens through which to view millennials?

Arguably it’s all about the lens we look through. Our view on anything can change, depending on the filter we apply to it. So let’s take a look at some of the criticisms heaped upon this generation and see what it might look like if we applied a more positive filter:

They’re described as highly ambitious. But that also means they see limitless opportunities. Not just for themselves, but for the world.

They’re charged with being demanding and entitled. Sure, but they’re just seeking balance in a world that has arguably tilted too far to ‘work’ at the cost of ‘life’.

Self-absorbed and narcissistic? Hmmm perhaps you could argue that they see themselves as citizens that can create change, not just passive consumers.

And how many times have we heard that they have zero loyalty? Yet they appear to be highly loyal when values are aligned.

The perennial millennial quest for 'Purpose'.

All of these traits, viewed through a positive lens, are consistent with the one word that comes up every single time there is a discussion about millennials. That word is ‘Purpose’ and there is little doubt that millennials actively seek it as they make their way through life. They seek purpose in their work life and they also favour brands that empower them, especially those brands that channel their strong desire to contribute positively to society.

So it is interesting to see a range of research studies that highlight some very millennial-like attitudes to business and to brands. The results from these studies suggest that the perennial millennial “quest for purpose” has found its way into the mainstream.

The infographic here shows that "purpose" is becoming a very compelling trend; not just amongst millennials and not just applied in the workplace. It’s a trend that is reshaping the way brands market themselves.

The world is changing and with it, so are expectations.

Today, people look towards business to contribute to society’s needs.

When it comes to accountability for improving people's lives, there is almost equal expectation now on business as there is on government. That’s a lot for businesses to live up to; especially when business success is still typically measured based on profitability, not on contribution to society.

I wonder... how many businesses in Australia recognise that people expect more from their purchase than the simple acquisition of products or services? We're not talking about a small fringe movement here.

81% of people expect more from their purchase than the acquisition of products and services.

What else does your brand offer to consumers? Is product innovation still driving your marketing approach? As important as that is to differentiate your brand, the research suggests that it’s simply not enough.

Those of you questioning this piece of research may want to look at businesses like Unilever, who are investing in and measuring the performance of their brands that contribute to social or environmental good. Or Nestle, who are one of the pioneers of the Shared Value movement. The Shared Value philosophy is based on the belief that business opportunities and growth can be found in social problems. Shared Value is not CSR, philanthropy or sustainability; it’s actually a new way for companies to achieve economic success. You can read more about this movement here.

Alternatively take a look at brands like Patagonia or social enterprise businesses like Toms or the Thankyou Organisation. These are all brands with purpose deeply embedded into their DNA, that are growing and flourishing in categories traditionally dominated by big players. These businesses are the leaders of this movement of brands doing well by doing good. And they’re demonstrating through their success that it's an approach that works, with a market hungry for brands with purpose.

Despite these great examples of brands actively contributing to society’s wellbeing, there’s still a gap between what consumers expect from business and what business is delivering.

72% of people say that business is failing

to take care of the planet and society.

That’s a stat that makes you realise just how much work we have to do.

Brands are losing relevance.

Meanwhile, brands are struggling to connect with their audience. No wonder. Media disruption has played havoc with how brands communicate to their target audience. There is no longer a fixed template for success. As marketers, we’re all feeling our way through this rapidly changing world, with an array of digital channels and strategies to test and refine; test and refine.

In the meantime…

60% of brand content is declared as poor, irrelevant or failing to deliver.

Ouch. And if you want a bigger ouch, here it comes:

People wouldn’t care if 74% of brands disappeared.

That stat, my friends, is what is called a savage indictment. Clearly we need to change things up, because what we’ve been doing just isn’t working anymore!

But wait. Don’t despair. There is good news in the research too. The data supports the success we're seeing from the likes of Patagonia, Toms and the Thankyou Organisation. Brands that support society’s interests will reap the benefits.

What this research shows us is the opportunity for brands to be more relevant to their target market. People, consumers, your market – are crying out for brands to do more. It tells us that if companies address social and environmental issues, they’ll be rewarded with trust, loyalty and a positive image.

And people want brands to support good causes. They will buy brands that support good causes. There’s a ton of research from different sources all consistently saying the same thing.

Cause marketing is a powerful opportunity for new, unknown brands as much as it is for established brands.

For brands that aren't in a position to reformulate their product to be sustainable or environmentally friendly, cause marketing can be an easy and natural first step on the path to purpose. Not the old “let’s turn our packs pink” kind of cause marketing. No, the new age of cause marketing is all about strategically aligned, long-term partnerships that pass the credibility and authenticity test; and enable brands and consumers to collaborate in creating genuine social impact.

As much as cause marketing is an opportunity for established brands, it also offers an incredibly powerful strategy to new, unknown brands.

80% of people are willing to buy a product from an unknown brand with strong social and environmental credentials.

When you understand that 8 out of 10 people will buy an unknown brand if it has strong social credentials, then it's surely time to recognise just how powerful cause marketing can be in the marketplace.

For established brands that don’t have active social credentials, cause marketing used intelligently by new entrants will pose a big threat.

71% of people say they are willing to pay more for a socially and environmentally–responsible product.

How many marketers have I heard lamenting about having to continually compete on price? Well perhaps those marketers should consider how they could position their brand to contribute positively to society. With almost three-quarters of people saying that they are willing to pay more for a socially and environmentally–responsible product, it is certainly worth exploring the opportunity to elevate your brand above the price frenzy.

How about the idea that people will purchase a brand of lower quality, just because it is socially or environmentally responsible? It might seem like a crazy proposition, but apparently not, with an easy majority of consumers – 57% - saying that they would purchase a brand of lower quality or efficacy if it was more socially or environmentally responsible.

Finally, let’s take another look at Unilever, who recently published their report on what they refer to as their Sustainable Living brands. These are brands that have integrated social impact into their purpose and their products. Brands like Dove, Ben & Jerry’s and Omo.

Socially active brands growing 30% faster than other brands.

These brands are driving the growth of Unilever’s business. They accounted for nearly half of the company’s global growth in 2015. Collectively they are growing 30% faster than Unilever’s other brands.

That last piece of data flags an incredibly powerful and positive opportunity for today's marketers. Not just to capture the attention and preference of those purpose-loving millennials, but to meet the desire of consumers generally, for brands to step up to the plate and start making a meaningful contribution to society. And in so doing, build a purposeful, healthy and successful brand.

It’s a brand new world out there. What are you doing to prepare?


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Carolyn Butler-Madden is the founder and CEO of Sunday Lunch | a brand consultancy specialising in cause, community and purpose-led marketing

For more information, please get in touch or visit

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