Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Relating to Gen Y

The generation of consumers born between 1980 and 2000 numbers over 70 million. Many are well into their 20s and in the labor force. All, through their own earnings or through influence over household expenditures are a powerful consumer force. They are a prime target for many retailers. They have been raised on media and the Internet is their chief channel. They are a leading indicator, and often an influencer, of cultural change. Their opinion matters. New York magazine had a provocative article (free registration required)about their values and behavior recently.

I’ve had a couple of interesting encounters with the more broadly defined 18 – 35 demographic lately that have started me thinking. Both center around one of their favorite retailers, Gap.

In a recent class I assigned a short Internet marketing exercise. It started with my usual “select a website that interests you, one that you are reasonably familiar with.” Eight teams of graduate students worked industriously for about 20 minutes, with little or no conversation between groups. At the end, when we debriefed the exercise, two out of eight had chosen the Gap site. Not too surprising until I realized that both had focused on the (Product) Red ™ promotion.

Members of both teams had been following the promotion and gave every indication that it would affect their purchasing behavior and they wanted to encourage others to participate. Cause-related marketing can be powerful for young adults.
Their support of (Product) Red ™ lead to a broader discussion of social issues. The class occurred just a few days after the news about child labor in one of Gap’s supplier plants in India. They had been following that also, including being aware of how and how quickly Gap president Marka Hansen responded to the allegations and how quickly her response was posted on the Gap home page. They are paying attention. And always remember they are communicating. I searched Technorati and found 136 posts for “gap child labor india.” When I broadened the search to “gap child labor” I got 506 posts. I counted 13 video clips on the subject. All this has happened since the story broke in the British publication The Observer on October 28, and the posts continue.

What I heard from this small, unscientific sample is that they were giving a trusted brand the benefit of the doubt. Gap has a pretty good record for dealing with this type of issue and the reaction to this revelation was swift and decisive. So far, so good, but they are being watched.

A few days later a communication from another member of the target demographic revealed that Gap, too, has marketing feet of clay. The opt-in email offers a nice promotion. Unfortunately on the day it was offered, the entire site was down for a scheduled upgrade. Do Marketing and IT talk to one another? Not in this instance! And the site was back up a day later, so the promotion could easily have been postponed. Will the young adult continue to patronize the Gap? Probably, but they likely lost a sale this time.

Whether they are identified as Gen Y, Gen X or the 18-35 demographic, these consumers are connected and demanding. Their demands include the behavior of corporations as well as the products they offer. A trusted brand is built slowly, with considerable effort. It can provide a margin of error for unforeseen events. But news is viral among these consumers and marketers have to react quickly and effectively.
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