Always connected - Or the life around wifi hotspots

[dropcap size=small]N[/dropcap]o millennials actually like being called a “millennial”.

“It’s as if we are one bloc of people, all behaving the same way – when in fact, we don’t,” says actress and webshow host Oon Shu An, 30.

“This stereotype that we’re all spoilt, narcissistic and selfie-obsessed – that’s not true,” declares 24-year-old rapper ShiGGa Shay.

Anyone belonging to the Baby Boomer generation (born between 1946 and 1964) or Generation X (born between 1965 to 1980) can sympathise. They know they can be as different from their peers as chalk and cheese. Yet few can deny the unique privileges of being born after 1981. No generation before this had the benefit of near-omniscient information at their fingertips via Google. No prior generation could make instantaneous connections across the world via Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Tinder, YouTube, Snapchat, Pinterest, Tumblr and Whatsapp.

Everything, it seems, is just a wifi click away.

In recent years, brands have become fascinated with the needs and desires of this generation. Millennials now comprise a quarter of the world’s population. And by 2020, 60 per cent of them will live in Asia. Everything from travel itineraries to Tic Tac flavours to company mission statements are being re-designed to cater to this collective.

Capitaland’s serviced residence business unit, The Ascott Limited, recently launched its Lyf brand targetted at globetrotting millennials. Lyf provides co-living spaces around the world that will be managed by millennials themselves, acting as city and food guides, bar keepers and problem-solvers for the guests. By 2020, Lyf expects to have 10,000 units around the world catering to technopreneurs, creatives and anyone else from the “social generation who craves discoveries,” explains Lee Chee Koon, Ascott’s chief executive officer. “For now, millennials already form a quarter of Ascott’s customers. And we expect this segment to grow exponentially.”

Lyf (pronounced “life”) was launched at the end of November at an event hosted by Oon, who found her first big audience in 2012 with Tried & Tested, an online beauty series produced by ClickNetwork. She now has 77,600 followers on Instagram, but admits: “It’s funny. Before I started hosting Tried & Tested, I was hardly on social media. I didn’t have Facebook for the longest time… But with Tried & Tested, I realised the benefits of being online. Interactions with the audience (who e-mail me or post comments under the video) are immediate. Coming from a background of theatre and TV, this was new to me. It’s much easier to stay engaged with the online community.”

In the same week that Ascott launched Lyf, cognac brand Martell also pushed out its new Martell NCF aimed at millennial drinkers. (NCF stands for “non-chill filtered” which refers to the way this cognac is processed). The drink’s ambassadors are rapper ShiGGa Shay, fashion blogger Rachel Wong and female deejay DJ Tinc – all of whom are under 30 and have a sizeable following among millennials. Martell NCF’s launch party at Infinite Studios attracted more than 2,500 clubbers, many of whom were between 18 and 25. They found out about the party through their favourite influencers on Instagram.

Aaron Yang, senior community manager for Martell, says: “Martell is a traditional cognac house. So when we do something disruptive like this, it’s uncomfortable. But last year, the brand collaborated with the DJ collective La French Touch and Etienne de Crécy (electronic dance music pioneer) to celebrate Martell’s 300-year anniversary.”

He adds, “That collaboration resonated so well with the millennial crowd that we’ve decided to push out Martell NCF, a drink that’s focused on millennial tastebuds. Unlike the original cognac which you tend to drink on its own with ice, Martell NCF is great for mixers, so millennials get to choose how they want to consume it.”

On top of its three main ambassadors, Martell also engaged several micro-influencers – defined as Instagrammers with about 35,000 followers. Yang says: “We specifically pick the ones who go out a lot and will be seen drinking our products… The 18 – 25 crowd don’t look for news traditionally. They look for immediacy in their content consumption. They open their Instagram, and that’s where they get their news – so that’s where we’re going big.”

Jumping on the millennial wagon
Brands that adopted aggressive social media strategies early have reported success. Travel agency Contiki, for instance, has engaged Youtube stars for five years through its #RoadTrip series. By hosting them on Contiki itineraries around the world, the brand has drawn more than a million views to its videos.

The #RoadTrip campaign has won a number of awards, including the British Youth Travel Awards ‘Best Use of Social Media’. But more importantly, after its 2015 RoadTrip to Southeast Asia, it saw a 175 per cent spike in YouTube audiences and a 25 per cent rise in online traffic to its Asian trip packages. A Contiki spokesman even declared its online strategy superior to “traditional advertising.”

This expanded online reach towards the millennial generation does not stop with the private sector. The government sector is also making contact with heavy social media users to ensure its events get maximum mileage on social media.

At the recent Singapore Writers Festival organised by the National Arts Council, blogger Jemma Wei got free passes to blog about the festival’s key events. Similarly, next January’s Singapore Art Week will also see stronger engagement with social media influencers to draw more young people to the arts. As the millennial consumer segment starts to flex its spending power, the influence of social media mavens have risen in tandem. According to Twitter, nearly 40 per cent of its users have made a purchase as a direct result of a tweet from an influencer. When looking for product recommendations, almost half of its users relied on influencers’ tweets. That ranks just below a friend’s tweet, which guides 56 per cent of Twitter users.

In the past five years, many top influencers have seen their sponsorship contracts double or triple in numbers and value. While the earliest stars of social media such as Leslie Tay (ieatishootipost), Mr Brown and Xiaxue continue to see high traffic, more than 100 new influencers under the age of 30 have cropped up in recent years. And unlike Oon and ShiGGA, whose online presence has boosted their entertainment careers, these fast-rising influencers are completely focused on their social media presence.

One of them is Melissa Koh, a 27-year-old business graduate-turned-fashion Instagrammer. In under three years, Koh has increased her Instagram following from about 30,000 to a whopping 193,000. The profile of clients she attracts has also changed within that time. Previously she endorsed household brands such as Colgate and Nescafe. Today her clients include Coach, Kate Spade, Michael Kors, Polo Ralph Lauren, Google, Australian tourism and Dubai tourism.

Koh attributes her fast-rising popularity to hard work, understanding her clients’ needs and strict quality control over the pictures she puts out. She has succeeded so well in monetising her online presence that her fiance has become a partner in her thriving business. He takes care of accounting, operations and liaisons. He also takes that all-important photo that will be uploaded for hundreds of thousands. Meanwhile, she takes charge of the creative concepts for the shoots which she works with her clients to finalise.

After graduating from National University of Singapore five years ago, Koh spent two years “paper pushing” in a bank before deciding to be a full-time influencer, and has “never looked back”. She says: “I don’t feel uncomfortable about having my life online. I think all these images are authentic and part of who I am. Posing in the pictures isn’t narcissistic to me – it’s self-confidence! It’s part of what being a millennial is – daring to dream and taking charge of your life through all the tools and technology available to you.”

Personalities like Koh are precisely whom millennials idolise. Lauren Tay, 25, a communications executive, is a huge fan of Instagram personalities such as Andrea Chong and Velda Tan. She says: “These girls are around my age, but they live such glamourous lives. I follow their posts so I can live vicariously through them. Velda just went to London to drive around in the new Jaguar with her partner. Who wouldn’t want her life?”

Brand representatives say the marketing landscape has become increasingly fragmented in the past decade. They say millennials, who now make up a fourth of the world’s population, may no longer be paying attention to the traditional sports and media celebrities who were once seen as marketing gold. In fact, brands are now applying the same set of critieria they used for celebrities when selecting their new social media ambassadors.

PR director Nicholas Zayden Tan, a 24-year-old blogger who parlayed his online presence into starting his own agency Marque, says: “I help my clients find influencers whose lifestyle and public image dovetail with my client’s image. I look at everything from the number of followers an influencer has, to the engagement rate she attracts. (Engagement rate refers to how many “likes” she gets for each post, indicating how “active” her fans are.)”

For their part, these young influencers are aware of what’s expected of them and put out the right image for the brands they represent. And while their millennial followers are aware that their idols are marketing a product when they pose with it, “it’s a question of how well the influencer can convince you that it’s really part of her lifestyle,” says Tan.

In fact, rapper ShiGGa Shay has this to say of the online world: “It’s fake. It’s not real. You know it. I know it… As an artist who doesn’t spend all his time online, I’m careful to carve out some alone time so that I can actually do things that I love to do – that is, making music.”

Brands say it’s critical to connect with millennials early. Growing up in an age of unprecedented choice, the millennial consumer is harder to impress. Tan says: “Because they have information at their fingertips, they’re interested in finding out what the company stands for. Companies that are fixated on their profits without paying attention to people and purpose get the thumbs-down from millennials.”

What about the perception that infinite choice also makes millennials more fickle?
Yang says: “I don’t actually think that millennials are less loyal to brands. It’s just that everyone growing up with the Internet would have a kind of Attention Deficit Disorder – there’s too much information and everyone’s trying to grab that few seconds of their attention. But Martell believes we can counter that by addressing the millennial market in a targetted way and giving them a lasting experience to consolidate that relationship.”

Oon has a different take on the matter: “Many in my generation have seen our parents lose jobs during the past financial crises. We’ve seen how big corporations can behave to serve their own agendas. And we think, maybe loyalty is a value that needs a rethink.” Still, she insists that there are brands she’s loyal to. She says, “I love Deliveroo (food delivery company) and Honestbee (grocery and laundry service.) They’re good, reliable and attentive. They always call if there’s a small problem, so I know they genuinely care.”

Tellingly, Deliveroo was founded in 2013, and Honestbee just last year. Talk about young.

Selling to Millennials

( Advice from experts )

Target social groups and niches
Millennials are not a monolithic bloc, but broken up into social groups and niches. They trust their niche leaders (or influencers) more than traditional advertising.

Content must be short and catchy
Given how information is consumed on social media platforms, content needs to be short, sharp, relevant, fun, surprising and easy to digest on mobile devices.

They Expect Personalised Service
It’s not true that millennials aren’t loyal to brands. But they do expect quick and personalised service, and they expect their feedback to be taken seriously. In this age of connectivity, loyal consumers of a product infect their social circles with their enthusiasm. Conversely, disillusioned ones can smear a brand’s reputation overnight.

Temporary is now permanent
According to surveys, millennials are extremely comfortable with renting, sharing and bartering – instead of buying and owning. Spotify, Airbnb and Snapchat all thrive on that spirit of temporariness. Brands must get used to how quickly millennials consume, respond and discard.

It’s about living – not buying
As young adults, they want products and information that enhance their life experiences and establish their personal brands.

Support the community
The Holy Grail of any brand is the spontaneous creation of a community that is loyal towards and trusting of the brand. They often become its most passionate advocates in spreading the word. Should you be lucky enough to see that happen, be sure to support that movement through platforms, events and online rewards.

Honesty & authenticity
Following the housing crisis of 2008 widely reported online, smart millennials are wary of corporations that maximise profit without moral restraint. As consumers, they are drawn to companies that are honest, authentic and socially conscious.

This story first appeared in The Business Times.