I recently came across an article proclaiming the defining feature of the “Millennial Generation” to be entrepreneurship. In The New York Times, William Deresiewicz asserts that the ideal social form of this “Generation Sell” is the small business and that Steve Jobs is our new deity.
A Millennial myself, I’ve certainly observed a small, but visible, subset of my peers foregoing the 9 to 5 route to attempt tech start-ups and caused-based clothing companies. Deresiewicz explains that “the Millennial affect is the affect of a salesman,” suggesting that this has resulted in the entrepreneurial trend. Although a bit of a stretch, I agree to a certain extent that young professionals my age have been taught to market and sell ourselves to a greater degree than past generations. From navigating increasingly competitive college admission processes to attempting to land a first job in a dismal economy, we’ve learned to package ourselves in compelling ways on paper and tell the right stories when interviewing or networking. Call us what you will - Millennials, digital natives, Generation Sell or Generation ME - we know a thing or two about the importance of branding, particularly the brand of self.
Today’s marketers, therefore, face the challenge of defining their brands among a growing sea of newly minted start-ups - to consumers who are more brand-savvy than generations before them. Today’s marketers must also consider the intersecting social trends that produced and resulted from the entrepreneurial spirit of our generation.
I believe my generation suffers from conflicting psychological needs of acceptance and individuality to a greater extent than past generations. We have an innate need to feel accepted, but our desire to be unique and different is even greater than before as Silicon Valley eclipses Wall Street as our generation’s definition of success. Stanley Hainsworth, a former creative director at Nike and Starbucks, explains this paradox: “It's part of our nature to want to be accepted. Yet, at the same time, we have this desire to feel like we're different from everyone else -- which is the complete opposite of that yearning for acceptance, but is nonetheless relevant…No matter how hard we try to look different, we almost always still look like someone.”
The ease of content creation, among other benefits, provides the environmental backdrop for entrepreneurship. Opportunities abound for self-expression through music, blogs, YouTube videos etc. But what happens when everyone can be an artist or inventor? There has always been an inherent conflict when a unique look becomes trendy, but, today, being inventive, unique and having a better story is the ultimate goal. As more individuals strive for uniqueness, competition inevitably increases, diminishing one’s chances of achieving true individuality. Adding pressure to this cycle is the transparency of our generation’s lives. We have the opportunity to express ourselves through our online profiles and show the world who we are through a collection of images, blogs and online resumes but, in turn, we open ourselves up to scrutiny and comparison to millions of others. The world has gotten bigger and online self-expression has become self-brand management.
Today’s generation will struggle to balance the need to belong and the desire to be unique and I believe brands that learn to walk the line between these conflicting unconscious pulls will reap the benefits. Nike does an exemplary job of this through their NIKEiD offering, where fans can customize a range of Nike shoes and apparel on their website. Nike customers can bolster self-esteem and fulfill the need to belong by wearing and participating in the creation of a product by an esteemed brand. At the same time, customization allows them to exercise their creativity and demonstrate their individuality, reassuring themselves and signaling to others that they’re trendy and cool, yet different from everyone else. That is, until customization becomes cliché.
Margaret Baughman is a New Business Coordinator for Interbrand New York.