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Reaching Millennials through packaging

Eighty million consumers make up the Millennial generation, making it a highly influential and desirable demographic for CPGs. But what makes this elusive group tick?

Millennials are so much more than a demographic, but let’s get their vital statistics out of the way so we can move on to the juicy stuff. The Millennial generation is most often charted as those who are roughly 18 to 35 years of age who “grew up” during the changeover to the new millennium. They are large in both number and influence, topping 80 million in the U.S. population and comprising the most widely networked group the world has ever seen. And Millennials have a reputation: They are known for being incredibly well informed, highly passionate, and incredibly critical.

Much has been written about the woes of employers trying to woo and retain Millennials in the workforce. The story of a Millennial who interviews for a job, doesn’t receive an offer, and then has his parents call to contest the decision has become so widely told it is almost urban legend.

But it’s not just employers who struggle to court this elusive group. Marketers are also casting the net far and wide in order to understand just how to reach Millennials. When it comes to packaging, the plot thickens. If you think Millennials are hard to reach online, imagine what it takes to reach them on-shelf. Creating packaging that appeals to Millennials requires a savvy mix of principles and tools that show empathy and understanding of what this generation is all about.

Let’s start with five key principles in reaching Millennials through packaging:

1. Millennials are value-conscious. Millennials have experienced the “new normal” brought on by the recession in a profound way. According to the Pew Center, one in three adults ages 25 to 29 have moved back home due to economic conditions. For this reason, Millennials are incredibly sensitive to prices and are very savvy bargain and coupon shoppers. While they enjoy good design and aesthetics, they balk at frivolous packaging.

We recently conducted a study with Millennials to test a new beverage container. While they liked the look of the packaging, their value-conscious “spidey-sense” was on high alert. As one of the participants stated, “It looks cool, but I am not going to spend beer money on an over-designed package.” Say no more.

2. Millennials consider the environment…sort of. One word: Plastics. Millennials have grown up in the age of disposable diapers, sippy cups, and a proliferation of plastic toys. On the whole, Millennials feel strongly about environmental issues and have raised much concern, and money, to help eco-conscious causes. However, when it comes to packaging, convenience and ease of use sometimes trump environmentalism. In fact, according to the DDB Life Style Study®, from DDB Worldwide, when it comes to reusing and recycling, Boomers are actually more likely to follow through with using reusable grocery bags, separating their trash, and making a concerted effort to conserve energy. While Millennials feel strongly about environmentalism, their behavior doesn’t always support their convictions.

3. Millennials are not brand loyal. It’s a well-documented fact that Millennials are brand-agnostic. Because Millennials are so strapped for cash, they look for bargains above brands. A recent online survey showed that among young adults ages 18 to 34, 60% will choose a lower-priced item over their usual brand if it will save them money. For manufacturers of consumer packaged goods, this means that seeing a brand name on a package may not reassure Millennials of quality. In fact, brand names can have the opposite effect—making Millennials skeptical of value.

4. Millennials desire an “experience.” When it comes to shopping, Millennials want to have an experience that is both exciting and personal to them. Millennials have an expansive knowledge of the options that are available to them in terms of products, brands, and pricing. This level of consumeristic savviness has given rise to the trend of curation. Millennials are seeking the kind of personalized browsing and shopping experiences they can have online. Their online shopping behavior is having deeply resonant effects on the retail shopping experience. Millennials are accustomed to an online shopping experience that is based on their personal interests and connections.  When it comes to packaging, this requires an approach that is flexible, neutral, and adaptable; it can no longer be a “top-down” style.

5. Millennials expect participation. Perhaps the single most-important takeaway when it comes to reaching Millennials through brands, products, and packaging is Millennials’ desire for involvement in the process. Often dubbed generation “me,” Millennials have grown up in a world that they can tap, slide, and airbrush to their exact likes and specifications. The result? Millennials expect companies to involve them in their process. There is no longer a wall between companies and consumers. Millennial customers expect to give feedback and be heard. They also care deeply about just how they give that input. While Millennials like to give their input, they want to give it in an efficient and convenient manner. Forget about wordy market research surveys, for Millennials it’s all about the conversation.

Tools for engaging Millennials

Following are some tools to consider when engaging Millennials in your packaging process:

Involve them early and often: co-creation
Co-creation is a process in which companies and consumers work together to jointly co-create a concept or product idea. Once a somewhat “fringe” consumer research practice, co-creation is becoming increasingly popular within companies trying to get a pulse on the Millennial market. By involving Millennials in the very earliest stages of a product or packaging exploration, companies are able to garner input early and often. The end result is a concept that will win the trust and buy-in of your Millennial consumers.

Bring something new to the party: innovation
For Millennials, the cultural context and conversation is constantly being refreshed. For this reason, Millennial consumers look to companies to stay fresh and relevant with products and packaging. Consider ways in which your company or brand can innovate your offerings. The innovation process is a rapid, dynamic one that can help you develop new ideas, products, and messaging that will speak to the here and now of Millennials’ ever-expanding wants and needs.

Keep them close: create a Millennials panel
Perhaps the best way to keep up with Millennials is to hire them. You can easily establish a consumer panel to give your company monthly or even weekly pulse checks on what is cool, unique, and important. Establishing a panel requires a database of participants, a survey tool, and a dedicated person or firm that can keep the content fresh and up-to-date. Talk to a market research company about the best way to create and maintain a custom panel that will allow you to engage with Millennials in the context that they are known for: social media and online networking.

When it comes to attracting and retaining Millennials’ awareness and interest, the key is consistent engagement, fresh messaging, and authentic relevance. By meeting Millennials where they are, you have a surefire chance of knowing where they are going and what they want. For now, at least.

Jennifer Axen Karsh is the founder and president of Axen Research, a boutique market research firm located in Los Angeles. Jennifer has spoken widely on the subject of qualitative research and is a specialist in consumer anthropology.

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