Student Spotlight: The Skeptical Millennial


Jackie Bruns, a sophomore at Notre Dame with majors in Finance and Spanish and a minor in International Development Studies, is writing posts on Millennials, cause marketing and other related topics. Jackie spent summer 2014 helping a microenterprise beekeeping project get off the ground as an intern for Foundation for Sustainable Development in Rivas, Nicaragua. On campus, she is involved in the International Scholars Program and the impact investing club Unleashed. She will spend the Fall 2015 semester studying abroad in Santiago, Chile.

When I log into my Facebook, a post on my newsfeed says for every “like” of the picture, 10 gallons of clean drinking water will be donated to someone in need. On Pinterest, a pin invites me to buy a t-shirt that will fund medicine for 14 children in Africa. At the mall, a banner outside a store tells me that for today only, 50% of profits will be donated to wounded veterans.

Millennial statsMillennials have gained a reputation as being more socially conscious than previous generations. Crain’s magazine says that for Millennials, “social responsibility is the new religion.” As a result, businesses have begun incorporating social causes into their business model to varying degrees.  This is exemplified in the rise of cause marketing, which markets the for-profit side of a business as supporting a social cause. Numerous brands have attached their name to a wide range of causes. Yoplait launched the Save Lids to Save Lives campaign, which donates 10 cents to the Susan G Komen Foundation for every yogurt lid that consumers send back to Yoplait.  Dove’s campaign for Real Beauty works to raise the self esteem of young women by defining beauty.

cause marketing graph

At the outset, these campaigns seem to be catering to the Millennials’ interests. Well over half of Millennials say their purchases are either frequently or occasionally influenced by cause marketing. But despite saying they are more influenced by cause marketing, it is reported that Millennials are actually less likely than other generations to buy cause-related products. Only 32% of Millennials say they are more willing to buy a product that supports a cause-program, whereas 42% of Baby Boomers sited they would be more willing. Furthermore, among all generations, less than 1 in 10 people are willing to pay a higher price for a product that supports a cause program. Millennials rank quality as the number one reason they purchase a product with price coming in second.

This has shocking implications for businesses that are employing marketing strategies or building their business model around the belief that Millennials are “more socially conscious.” But if not supporting cause programs with their wallets, are “socially conscious” Millennials a misconception?

Africa t-shirtPerhaps it comes down to something else. In the same survey in which only 32% of Millennials said they would buy a product if it supported a cause program, nearly half of the respondents unaffected by cause marketing cited that they don’t think companies actually follow through on their cause program promises. This signals that although Millennials may desire to support social causes, they have grown very skeptical of brands. This is further supported by the fact that 1 in 4 Millennials responded they would first investigate a brand’s cause program before making a purchase

 Millennials’ skepticism toward brands should not exactly come as a surprise. Millennials are bombarded with several hundred advertisements every day, and they have become pessimistic as many of these advertisements offer lofty claims that don’t deliver. The Kony 2012 debacle is the classic story of why Millennials have come to distrust what they are being told (The ‘Kony 2012’ Effect). What this means for businesses is that Millennials want genuine content, not gimmicks. They want to know that their brands are sincere and will deliver on the values they say they support.

Additionally, companies cannot attach just any cause to their name – it must have positive synergy with the company’s products or services. When KFC decided to donate $.50 to breast cancer research for every bucket of fried chicken sold, there was a serious disconnect between the cause and the company, and the campaign was largely unsuccessful. On the flip side, companies can demonstrate their value by taking action on causes important to their brand name. For example, Chipotle is known for making “food with integrity.” When they decided to take pork off their menu because of the inhumane treatment of animals, they fostered a relationship of trust between the consumer and the company. Chipotle has only grown in popularity.KFC Chipotle

If a company supports a cause, Millennials will make sure they walk the walk. Although quality and affordability are the most important factors in a purchase decision, a lack of genuinity will turn away Millennials altogether. Any business considering attaching a social mission to their name should ensure that their efforts are sincere and consistent with their brand to build a relationship of trust.

Feature photo taken by Sean Hamilton, ND ’15, during his internship with Social Entrepreneur Corps in Ecuador, Summer 2014.

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