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Q&A With WDCW On Their Class Of 2012 Study


We’re always interested in Millennials’ attitudes and how they view the world around them, so when we learned that WDCW (Wong, Doody, Crandall, Wiener), an independent advertising agency, conducted a study on the Class of 2012, we were eager to hear their findings. Their study examines high school seniors’ outlook on the world they’re entering and their feelings during this transitional time. Their findings reinforce the idea that Millennials are an optimistic generation. They’re excited for what’s ahead — the college experience, continuing to find themselves, and making more friends, and they value experiences knowing that new challenges allow for growth and learning.

We chatted with Clyde McKendrick, Executive Strategy Director at WDCW, who founded Cultural Capital®, an innovation and insight lab with a pioneering approach to measuring cultural relevance for brands, and Sydney Chernish, Strategic Planner, about their Class of 2012 study, what matters to seniors, and what their attitudes and interests mean for brands.

Ypulse: In your study, you discuss prom and how it’s a time to be with your friends. To Millennials, it’s not about how fancy it is or the details, but the experience and celebration of being with their peers. So how do you see this idea — the focus on experiences over consumerism — playing out, and what do brands have to do to stay relevant with this new Millennial mindset?

Clyde McKendrick: Firstly, there’s an idea among consumers about living now. Just as a personal diatribe to that, when I was working at Pepsi, we were working on the refresh project at the time, and I kept saying that we need to focus on “living now,” which is the brand’s current campaign.

One of the insights of our study is that social media has had a transformative effect on people’s lives. College used to have more of an adventurous feel — you could change who you are from high school to college. But now with social media, it’s more of an expansion of your experiences; you bring your connections from high school and are maintaining them while growing. You don’t change who you are just because you go to college. It’s less about who you were and who you are now, but more about who you are becoming, and the growing process. You’re broadening who you are and deepening yourself as you go on with your life.

YP: Definitely, we are seeing that a lot with the YOLO trend now. It’s tapping into a cultural feeling that Millennials are giving off, focused on the experience…

Going off of the live for now idea, planning their future is really hard for Millennials because it’s such an uncertain time right now. Are you seeing that they are coming at life with low expectations or do they just have no expectations?

CM: I think what comes through is that there is ambition and goals set, but there is a shift in cultural values and means of advancement. They are not trying to carve themselves out with material things. In our forthcoming Cultural Capital book, we talk about a shift from materialism to culturalism and its prevalence with young adults. The focus of the book is on a survey we conducted with young adults in LA and NY between the ages of 18-24, which is why it’s pertinent. We find that that there is a sense that your experiences and choices are more important commodities than necessarily the car that you drive and the material things that you acquire. I think the fact that the economy has put a pinch on things has just helped to reframe and reinforce those perceptions. 

For instance, when we are dealing with research in the automobile category, we are seeing a shift in the associations with car ownership among young adults. There is no longer a sense that I have a right to drive so now I have a right to have a car. The notion of transportation is changing in people’s minds. There is an attitudinal difference that is generation centered. People are looking to explore a sense of meaning and purpose rather than big material aspirations. In some respects, there is a new model archetype. They are more interested in what they are trying to do for the world and the way they are changing things for people than big cars and riches.

One of the people we spoke to, Nickel Grant, talked about a sense of privilege. You have the power of choice — you can be anything but you can’t be everything. Life is no longer about finding options of what you can pursue but editing those options and finding the course you want to be on. There’s lots of opportunity, but it’s a paralyzing factor to have all these choices, and obviously demographics has an effect on those choices.

YP: It seems Millennials are putting a lot of pressure on themselves; they work really hard throughout high school to get the grades to get into college. As you explained in the study, they feel a large sense of responsibility to make things happen, and then you suggested that brands can take advantage of this by giving them a chance to decide and take responsibility. Can you explain this more?

CM: Brands that support young people well understand that they form an enabling factor in their life. A good example is the Swatch MTV Playground Initiative or any initiative that allows them to fuel their own ambition, their sense of expression, or creativity, or provide a platform for them to explore themselves.

I worked for Red Bull extensively in the UK and things like the Red Bull Academy allow people to achieve their own ambitions. But what I think has been different more recently, to go to Pepsi again as a good example, is a sense of collective value — the idea that we are all in this together and we owe it to each other to do the right thing. It transcends this self-ambition of wanting to do what you want to do, but it also involves working together. And brands that understand that do well with this generation. It’s that concept that you can get ahead and in the process, help others.

YP: Your study talks about high school seniors getting excited about having freedom and independence. From our research and Neil Howe’s theory on Millennials, they are very family-oriented and close with their parents. I want to know how those two ideas fit together: how Millennials’ desire and anticipation of getting away can fit with their feelings of affinity and closeness to their families.

Sydney Chernish: I think independence for the future is something different than what it was 20 years ago. This generation can go to the grocery store and get their cereal that they are going to have for dinner that night, but if they want to make their Mom’s famous recipe, they can just call their Mom from the store and ask for the recipe. It’s selective independence. They are very excited to get out there on their own and try to do something on their own and to prove that they have the skills to do it. They are excited to prove that everything they have done for the past 18 years was worthwhile, and they are excited to see those immediate results. But at the same time, they have a very strong support network through their family and through Facebook.

If they moved to Europe, they would probably have a friend from camp or something that they could meet up with. They wouldn’t feel inhibited to contact them. I think they are almost more daring in some ways because they know that they have a support network behind them and they therefore are more willing to strike out on their own and do more because they know someone will be there to catch them.

YP: That makes sense, we were recently conducting a study on risky behavior and we were talking about how Millennials don’t intend to engage in risky behavior. They may be doing things that people would consider risky, but they don’t see it as such because of their strong support network and their sense that they wouldn’t do something that they don’t think they can handle. 

CM: Definitely. We were writing a piece recently on experience, comparing things like Woodstock and Coachella. There are similarities — people always want to get together, but the cultural factors are what change and what impact the experience. Woodstock was just a music festival, but the cultural conditions were such that so many people got together, making it what it was. And I think now the culture is so organized and sanitized that oftentimes things are safer. Probably risk comes through in comparison to previous generations in the exploration of self — exploring your sexuality, your career, how you can start new initiatives, your own businesses. I think I read somewhere that the most popular job title today is founder, so I think there is this different idea of experimenting, but probably with safer boundaries.

YP: Totally. You had me thinking about this idea of cultural currency and experiential currency over materialistic currency, and how the person with the most experiential currency becomes the coolest versus the person with the most things… So how does a brand respond to the idea of their product giving an experience as well?

CM: My book discusses that there are a couple of ways at looking at that. When we talk about the role of cultural capital, it’s about bridging the gap between company and consumer — that the company and consumer have the same set of ideals, which is shared values for society. Brands play up that direct cultural currency in three ways, which comes back to the role that the company plays in that person’s life.

• Utility role – Nike Fuel Band and Nike OD are examples of platforms that allow you to do something. 
• Social role – It’s about experience and allowing you to socialize and share things with others.
• Entertainment – brands fundamentally thinking about providing value.

Those are three check marks that will make a brand more popular and relevant to consumers and people will congregate around those brands like they would a celebrity. In the UK I did a lot of work on brand duality. Ray Band is good at this. Celebrities have an on stage personality — they are an entertainment platform. But you can stand in the background and get a sense of gratitude that brings the meaning with you.

YP: What is one thing that marketers and brands need to understand about Millennials?

CM: The biggest thing I would say is the collective sense. The brands that will succeed most readily are the ones that represent the core values and represent their role and purpose in peoples’ lives. Millennials will like brands that represent their values in a more broad sense.

SC: Going along with the collectivist ideal and thinking about what is going on right now with the Olympics and the election, everyone we talk to now is very excited about both those events. And as far as voting, this generation is very excited to vote and have their voice heard. They feel they must vote to be a part of this system even if it won’t affect the election of the candidate they wish to see in office. They understand that if they want to complain about something they have to vote; if they want to feel a part of something they have to vote. It’s a big priority for them.

YP: There was a similar attitude during the last election, but when it came time to actually vote, a lot fewer Millennials went out to vote than was expected. So do you think that this time around they’ll actually go out and vote or do you think this is a mindset that might change when it actually comes to Election day?

SC: I think we will somewhat have to wait and see but I do think they will go out and vote because they saw the effect the youth vote had four years ago. Also, this age group is somewhat disappointed that they didn’t get to vote last time and they are excited to get a chance to vote now, even though they don’t think it’s as monumental. They do feel that we are living in a bad economy and there is nothing they can actually do about it, but this is one small thing that they can actually do to voice their vote.

YP: Did you get a sense when you spoke to them what their political views are? Are they liberal or are they conservative? Are they behind Obama? Are they going to be behind the republican candidate Romney?

SC: It’s a bit mixed but I think they are a bit more heavily on the liberal side. I did get a sense, I didn’t outrightly ask them, but they seem to be a bit more liberal.

Also, this generation has grown up watching every single Olympic event televised all the time, which is different then previous generations where you had to be near where the event was happening or you could watch one broadcast event a day. So they have grown up really enjoying every part of the experience and look forward to it. It’s the coming together of the US and all the nations to see the best out there working together to break records and to push themselves. It’s a big event for them and has been throughout their lives.

YP: So how do you see social media taking part in that? I heard someone saying that the story of the athlete may actually trump the story of the medals because you can actually get so much closer to an athlete nowadays because they do so much tweeting and streaming and the access is higher than ever before.

SC: Certainly, I think the biggest story of the last Olympics was how many calories Michael Phelps had every day. People love to connect at all different levels and ABC does the heart-wrenching stories of these athletes’ parents and how long it took them to get there. And social media will definitely look at their personalities. Glamour is doing “the hottest swimmers to watch” and I think that will definitely play into who people watch and who they cheer for. But I think at the end of the day, it will be a largely American experience no matter what.

YP: How do you see this senior class’ values playing into streaming? NBC will be streaming every event but it will be a pay-per-view experience or you will have to have to be a cable subscriber. So what do you think of the streaming activities of this generation and what their willingness is to purchase streaming content?

SC: I think this generation is streaming more and more. I think you will see fewer TVs in dorm rooms. It’s funny because we were looking at the show “Girls” and the largest number of people watching are middle-aged men, which seemed a little weird, but it’s not if you count all of Dad’s HBO accounts, which I am sure teenage girls are stealing. I think this is a really resourceful generation, they know how to game the system, to manipulate, to take their parents as resources and why bother paying $90 a month when you can pay $7 for Netflix and rent a few movies and actually pay for them.