Allison Arling-Giorgi: For Gen Y, Brands Are Our Peers


February 18, 2014

Allison Arling-Giorgi is a senior planner at Energy BBDO. She previously worked for the Intelligence Group, which conducts youth-focused consumer research. A member of Generation Y, she talked to FRONTLINE about how brands need to reach young people. “They are so focused on what’s happening with their peers, they’re very group-oriented, she said. “They’re doing their own form of market research.” This is the edited transcript of that interview, conducted on July 25, 2013.

[You are a] proud member of Generation Y?

Proud member of Generation Y. Yes, I wear that proudly.

So tell me about you guys. Why is there such a fuss about trying to reach your generation?

There’s such a fuss about reaching our generation because frankly, we’re a large generation. We’re the product of baby boomers. We’re about 80 million in the United States, and that number’s expected to grow, so there’s a lot of us.

And we feel the need to express our thoughts and opinions when it comes to practically everything. So if we say something about a brand or a company or an experience, we have a captive audience. Our peers are listening. They’re telling their friends. It basically can go viral because we now have a way to communicate brands and with people anywhere and anytime.

And is that threatening to brands?

I think for some brands it can feel threatening, because we’re always going to get that criticism, or that’s what they think that form of communication is. “They’re just telling us when they don’t like something.”

But I think what’s good about it and what brands sometimes take a while to come around to is that Gen Y feels a responsibility to share their thoughts and opinions because they like to make things better. They like to have input on the products and the experiences that are offered to them.

So I think when brands shift their thinking of they’re not talking at us, they just want to have a dialogue and want to collaborate, that’s where that mentality can be a nonthreatening one. It’s one that’s opportunistic, and it can make a brand better.

We are now calling that VC, or venture consumers. It’s a new way of thinking, and consumers are feeling like it is their responsibility to engage with the brand and feel like they’re investing in it. And they are investing in it with their wallets. We are saying that shopping is the new form of activism.

Explain that to me as a Gen Xer, where our form of activism is attacking the World Trade Organization in Seattle. How is shopping activism?

Well, it’s interesting. We are talking to consumers all the time with our Cassandra Report research, and we’re always asking them, who do you think has the power to make change? We’ve asked them in the past, is it brands or politicians? And overwhelmingly they say it’s brands or corporations that they think can make a difference over politicians. …

Shopping is sort of the new activism. That’s a jarring statement to people of a certain age. What happened? Explain that.

I think what’s really changed is the access to information that today’s consumers have.

Gen Ys like myself are doing product research on the fore end before making purchases in store. We’re checking online reviews, we’re seeing what our friends think, and essentially we’re doing our research and making sure that brand that we’re spending hard-earned money on [is worthwhile], because for many Gen Ys, they’re perma-lancing. They’re freelancing; they’re entrepreneurs; they don’t have unlimited amounts of funds. They’re really thinking consciously about, what does that brand stand for? Is it something that I believe in? Are they caring about people? Are they listening to people like me? Are they thinking about what I think and how I feel? …

It is a two-way dialogue. It’s really, really interesting, because now Gen Y is saying: “I believe in that brand, and the best way to show support to them is buying that product, and not only purchasing their product but then telling my friends about it and them buying it and it becoming part of our conversation.”

Is there an opportunity there for brands? Is this a positive thing for them?

Absolutely. As I said with this whole venture consumer mentality and consumers wanting to have this two-way dialogue and be much more collaborative, there’s an opportunity for essentially the supply-and-demand model to kind of even out.

We’re seeing a lot of brands and projects go through this Kickstarter-type model. You look at the Veronica Mars example in the entertainer space. There was a need for something. There was a captive audience there. There were people who had a vested interest.

Over 900 people helped fund the Veronica Mars project so that when they go into production, they know we already have over 900 people who have put their money down to see this happen, and they’re going to tell their friends about it because they were part of that, right?

So you already have a group of consumers that have a vested interest, and I think we’re seeing that a lot more with brands who are understanding that this collaborative venture consumer-type mentality is valuable to them, because now they have a real-time feedback cycle with consumers. They know that they’re creating a product there is already a demand for. …

It takes that critical mass to help collaborate and make a product actually come to life, and then they know that the sales are going to be at a certain place because they’ve already had so many people engage with it from the beginning.

So I think it’s a huge opportunity for brands if they just shift their way of thinking and understand that they have all of these people who care about what they are doing and just want to be heard and be part of it.

Essentially brands can not only weave that into their pipeline for development, but then they can also say, “Let’s provide them with some kind of reward or loyalty and then they’ll come back and keep feeding the pipeline.” There’s that two-way conversation.

So essentially the customers are doing their own market research.

Yeah, in a way. They are so focused on what’s happening with their peers, they’re very group-oriented, that yeah, they’re doing their own form of market research. What was your experience with this product? What have they come up with in the news? Is there something that’s come up that’s damning? Is it something that I care about?

They’re really, really informed consumers, and we see that not only with millennials but with the next generation, Generation Z.

“[Gen Y is] used to being marketed to. What’s important to them is what their friends think.”

In addition to sort of doing their own market research, it also seems like they’re very involved in the marketing. Explain that.

By virtue of the fact that Gen Y is group-oriented in nature, and now we have technology that essentially created the perfect storm by creating social media where they can tell people what they think about anything, anytime and anywhere, what we’ve seen now is this continued trend in brands realizing the power in consumers telling their friends about something and standing behind it. There’s much more power in there than a traditional advertising spot or a billboard or anything traditional.

What we’re seeing is a lot more brands who are reaching out and leveraging that peer evangelism that exists and saying, “We’re just going to provide you with a really interesting experience, or send you free product, or engage you in a way that’s different but authentic to the brand. And we’re just going to let you do what you like to do with that information or that experience.”

And they’re finding really positive results coming from it. We’ve seen that on Facebook, where for a long time they were experiencing with imposing someone’s personal photos into ads because they’d be like, “Oh, my friend put their stamp of approval so then I have to check that out,” instead of that brand saying, “This is what you have to do; this is what you have to buy.”

They’re used to being marketed to. What’s important to them is what their friends think.

And is that different from previous generations?

Absolutely. You look at Generation X; they’re much more independent thinkers. They kind of grew up raised by wolves — we use that quite often. For many of them, they were the first products of divorce, they were latchkey kids, they were going home and taking care of themselves, so they were very independent thinkers from day one.

They didn’t have to necessarily worry about what their friends did. It was just very much, “I need to get this done and take care of who I am,” much more individualistic. And frankly, they didn’t have access to technology and social media and tools that could connect them with their friends in such an easy way. Frankly, if they didn’t have people in their immediate friend group who had the same interest or in their town who had the same interest, they didn’t know people out there existed.

So having those brand tribes come together, or people who said, “I had this experience with a brand,” and being able to tell their friends about it purely had to be word of mouth, and that was pretty difficult, I would say.

Now the ease of access is there, and it’s very, very easy for Gen Y to have that kind of communication and tell their friends about their experiences.

“The brands that you engage with say a lot about your personal brand.”

Gen Ys really do take brands as part of their identity.

Yes, they do. The brands that you engage with say a lot about your personal brand. We often say with The Intelligence Group that there are 80 million people, the Gen Y generation, who cares far more about their personal brand than they do about your average brand, because if they are wearing a certain product, they know that outwardly that says something about them. And because there’s access to information, they know that there’s an awareness of that brand in a deeper level.

So we always say something like a Toms shoes or Warby Parker, any of these brands that have a one-for-one model, it very much fulfills that “Brand me” need, because it’s saying outwardly to people, because there’s an awareness of what Toms stands for, that I’m a good person because I bought this pair of shoes, and by buying this pair of shoes I’m doing something good for the world, so that they can create that kind of do-gooder mentality and create that as part of their identity.

Now the brands, these large companies, you’ve got this audience of 80 million people. They’re not all your customers, but say you have millions of customers. I can’t possibly actually really want actual input from millions of people. So how much of it is about having an authentic conversation and authentically making them part of your company, and how much of it is simply about making them feel like they are? Because those are two different things.

I think there definitely is a difference, absolutely. I think first and foremost, it’s making consumers feel like they are being heard, and there’s an acknowledgment there.

So you see brands doing something as simple as acknowledge someone’s comment on social media, so it gives that impression to consumers that maybe not every comment is being answered, or they’re not commenting on every single thing, but there is that impression there that if there’s 50 comments and one’s being replied to, that they’re listening and paying attention and not just tuning it out.

So I think there is a difference between the two, but what we’ve seen is brands who have come up with creative ways to take that to the next level. …

This whole Starbucks idea platform, it’s a fantastic example, because it’s this huge established brand who, yes, they have millions of people drinking their coffee every day, and they couldn’t possibly pay attention and talk to every single one of them, but by creating this platform they’re able to allow the community to engage with each other, and they’ve set up a way for them to do that and to pitch their ideas. …

It’s more of a large-scale way of listening to the audience and creating a way to facilitate it.

… How would you respond [to boomers] if they said, “Your generation, you practically sold out, and you don’t even understand you’re selling out.” There’s this level of consumerism that previous generations had a huge problem with, and it doesn’t at all seem to be an issue with Generation Y. …

I feel like there is a dramatic shift in obviously what’s even possible with a brand relationship. I think in the past with boomers and Xers, there was never a way to have a direct dialogue with a brand.

If you wanted to have any kind of dialogue, it was maybe more recently submitting your question through a form on a website or mailing a letter or something that was very much, “I’m sending it off; who knows what’s going to happen,” right?

With Gen Y, because the barriers have been broken down and there is that access and that one-to-one communication, or at least the impression of one-to-one communication with brands, I think that access brings an awareness, right? So now there is that impression that if I provide some kind of comment or provide some kind of information to a brand that there’s going to be a response.

Beyond that, too, Gen Y grew up with parents [who] were emotionally and physically present with their kids and always involved [them] in the conversation with family decisions. They had a seat at the table when it came to those family decisions. They have grown up sharing their thoughts and opinions as just a knee-jerk reaction with their parents, with their family, with their immediate friends, it’s not really any different with brands. They’re seeing them more as peers, because there is that illusion.

Starbucks has that Twitter handle or is on Facebook or has this idea platform. There is someone there. I’m having a conversation with them, where brands used to exist behind this logo and corporate mission statement, right?

So it’s much more of a peer relationship with brands which never existed in the past, so it’s much more of the access there, and also just how brands have evolved in the last several years and the mentality that Gen Y has.

So it’s like Pepsi is your friend.

In a way, yeah. You can literally friend them on Facebook, so why not? Think about that phrase alone. Friending someone in the past to a boomer and Xer was like, what does that even mean? And it’s such a part of the common language with Gen Ys and Gen Zs in the future. It’s like you can friend something or like something. All of those terms mean something different.

They’re all very positive.

They are.

You follow, you friend, you like.

You can’t dislike something on Facebook; you can only like it. It’s part of Gen Y’s optimism, though, that sense of sharing, that group mentality, having your peers affirm what it is you’re doing, creating that “brand me,” helping to build your identity.

It’s no surprise that all of these social media platforms or digital platforms have now provided answers to those needs. It wouldn’t have existed before.

… It’s like Gen Y is also very involved in the actual creation of its own culture and marketing, branding.

Definitely in a way. What we see, though, is we have started to see a little bit of a war of generations in the workplace in the sense that, yeah, Gen Ys are in the workplace, but their way of working and the way that they’re looking at brands is different.

A lot of Gen Ys aren’t necessarily in those decision-making positions right now. They are trying to make a case in many ways for “This is what we need to do to appeal to people like me,” and I think there is still a learning curve with Xers or boomers who are the ones making decisions, because there’s just a different way of speaking.

It’s almost like two different languages that we’re trying to build a bridge [between], and frankly, that’s what we do a lot at The Intelligence Group is try to translate: Here’s what’s happening with Gen Y. Here’s what you’ve been doing for so many years in your industry because that’s the way it’s always been. How do we translate for both of you to find a common place where we can start making those changes?

But I think we see a lot of entrepreneurs now who are in this Gen Y group between 25 to 35 who are seeing a need that they don’t think is being met and therefore just taking upon themselves because they now have the tools to do it and just create something to fill that.

It seems like in previous generations that advertising and marketing, it wasn’t always the most honest and straightforward transaction. It was sleazy in some areas, and it was a little bit about tricking the consumer into buying your product. Has that changed?

Oh, yeah, it’s changed dramatically. I think the traditional idea of an advertisement where it’s always a happy, sunny, rosy message and the product is fantastic and will make you lose 20 pounds, and all of these, like it’s going to make you the most popular kid on the block, all of that stuff in the past had its place because people didn’t necessarily have access to the information to do their own research. I mean, the fact that “Must See TV” used to exist, and all a brand had to do was get a commercial spot and know that they had a captive audience because everybody was tuning in, it’s always that one-way conversation.

I think it’s changed so much, and there’s so much more of a need for authenticity for Gen Ys, because they do have access to the information. They’re going to go do that research and find out that product isn’t so great for the environment, or it isn’t so great for health, or there’s been some recalls on it, or friends had bad experiences.

So now they think. They’re doing their due diligence. They’re going out, they’re doing the research, so now they’re demanding that brands are more authentic and more transparent because they’re going to find you out anyway.

And because they’re starting to look at brands as more of a peer, they’re more forgivable. You make a mistake, you trip up and say: “Guess what? There are humans behind this brand. We messed up, we screwed up, but we want to fix it. We listen to you, and we’re moving on.” And they say: “OK, I get it. I’ve made mistakes in my life. Let’s just start fresh.”

I think we saw that with Domino’s, a brand who for many years was having complaints on the pizza, and they made a decision to say: “Hey, we’re going to own up. We don’t think our product is great, but we’re going to start from scratch.”

Think about that guy who probably made the pitch: “Let’s just say our pizza sucks and see what happens.” He probably was crucified, but it had an overwhelming response because it made them seem more relatable and more human, and it was authentic. I think we see that a lot with brands, and that’s very much an expectation. It’s no longer an exception to the rule.

What do you do if my product isn’t great? My product’s OK, and it’s not bad. I used to be able to make up for that with advertising. I can sell you on the fact that my product’s great. Am I just doomed now or what? What do you do in that environment? We can’t all be great.

Yeah, that’s true. Not everything can be great, but I think it’s all about the way in which you’re communicating. What need are you fulfilling? Or are you trying to make the product better or constantly improve it? Just want to be relatable and hear from your consumer?

I think the biggest difference is there can be product out there that isn’t great, but people know it fulfills a certain need and that the brand is just being very up front with what it is they’re offering.

I can’t think of an example off the top of my head, but I’m sure that there are examples out there. We hear from our consumer panels all the time when it comes to certain products, like — I don’t even know if I should say this — like Apple. They’ve gotten a lot of press about the working conditions in China. People keep saying: “Well, that’s really important to me. I want them to take care of their workers, but there’s nothing else out there that fulfills the need that Apple does, but for now that’s what I’m going to go to.”

So I think we’re seeing as long as it fulfills a need, it provides that message very clear, and understand that if a brand is trying to improve, that they can work with that.

But you can’t fake it?

You can’t fake that, no. You can’t just say, “Hey, we’re going to try to make this work,” and then consistently deliver the same mediocre product. You have to evolve it and innovate.

I think innovation is more important than anything before, because it’s possible at a much faster pace, so I think that’s always an important part of the equation. Don’t tell people that you’re improving the product or don’t tell people that you’re trying if you’re not, because they’re going to smell that. Six months later, nothing changed. I mean, come on.

So we’re kind of fascinated in this whole industry that you guys are a part of, which is all about understanding Gen Y. And then I come to the presentation and apparently there’s a Gen Z. So everything changes again?

Not everything changes. I think that there are definitely some differences with the generations. We see Gen Z as being far more independent, self-reliant, self-starters than Gen Y, because they have X parents who are trying to instill that sense of independence that they had into their children and, frankly, learning from their peers in the workplace and saying, “Ah, I might want to change this or adjust,” as they’re raising their children.

I think they have a much more of a realistic view of the world. Gen Y tends to see things more with rose-colored glasses, but they’re both using technology in a similar way, although Gen Z is much more savvy.

Frankly, we’re seeing much more the hand-me-up, the parents getting the old device or the Gen Ys getting the old device and the Gen Zs getting the new one, because frankly, they know how to use it better than the rest of us, and they’re retaining that information faster.

But although those differences exist between Gen Z and Gen Y, there are a lot of common areas, too, where it’s just an evolution of Gen Y as well — how they’re using technology, how they’re going to expect from brands that authenticity and that transparency. It’s still going to be incredibly important with Gen Zs, because frankly, they’re going to be much more aware than even Gen Ys are. They’re googling things at the age of 6. They’re very aware and realistic consumers.

So if I’m a brand manager, I don’t need to get completely panicked.

No, don’t panic at all. They’re going to want to collaborate. They’re going to want to give their two cents, but they’re not going to be dramatically different than Gen Y.

They’re not going to give you trouble.

They’re not going to give you trouble. I don’t think so. But they’re under 17 today, so we’ll see what the future holds. We are seeing a lot of interesting things coming out of the generation. We’re talking to 17-year-olds on a regular basis, but as they become 18 and reach their prime spending years and become adults, we’ll see how everything shakes out.

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

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