"The millennial generation has a wider range of choices than any generation before them,”Steve Easterbrook, Global Chief Brand Officer for McDonalds, told theWall Street Journal in 2014. “They're promiscuous in their brand loyalty. It makes it harder work for all of us."
Easterbrook has a point. Many of the world’s most successful consumer product companies freely admit they’re struggling to bond with millennial consumers, the 18-34 year olds now moving into their prime spending years. Today there are roughly 75 million Millennials in the United States.
A.T. Kearney’s “America@250” initiative is exploring how millennials could reshape the US economy by the time America marks its 250th birthday, on July 4, 2026.
We recently conducted a series of focus groups seeking insights into millennial consumers’ beliefs and priorities. In the course of these sessions, millennials told us they can strongly identify with consumer brands “… that have a status, or advertise the lifestyle that I like to live by, or that I would like to live by,” as one focus group participant phrased it. Millennials also said they are drawn to brands that reflect their deeply held personal values: "I like to think forward. For me, sustainability trumps convenience."
Sustainability Worth Paying For
To delve deeper into the value millennial consumers place on sustainability, A.T. Kearney and The NPD Group conducted an online survey. More than 200 hundred millennials told us which (if any) of a company’s sustainability practices are most important to them when purchasing an automobile, food, personal care products, consumer electronics, apparel, and household cleaning products.
Our findings suggest the time may be ripe for consumer companies to take a fresh look at the value propositions they offer millennials. For example, when marketing to young adults, many companies tout their commitment to corporate social responsibility. However, the tangible impact of this strategy is limited because while Millennials clearly do want businesses to be a force for good in the world, many seem to view CSR as mere table stakes.
Of the 149 millennial survey respondents who cited a most important sustainability practice, only 21% specified social responsibility. This is less than half the number who said that the “inherent sustainability” of the product (like products that directly help consumers live sustainable lives) matters most.
Millennials’ demand for sustainable products, not just socially responsible companies, represents an important shift in consumer priorities. For example, when asked specifically about purchasing an automobile, the Baby Boomers we also surveyed most frequently said they would prefer to buy a car that is “made in America” (a social priority). In contrast, millennials most often said they want a car that “uses little to no fuel and is good for the environment”– that is, a product that is inherently sustainable.
Significantly, more than three-fourths of millennial survey respondents who said that the inherent sustainability of products is most important also said they would pay more for products that meet this particular expectation.
In sum, millennials aspire to be personally sustainable. They impatiently await more products that align with that choice. And they are willing to pay a premium.
Scores of companies have staked their futures on products they hope will appeal to sustainability-conscious consumers.
Tesla Motors is laser focused on offering car buyers a viable alternative to CO2-emitting internal combustion engines. G-Star offers clothing made from plastic waste reclaimed from the oceans. 7th Generation has an extensive line of plant-based household and personal care products. Whole Foods offers health-conscious grocery shoppers “the finest natural and organic foods” to nourish a sustainable lifestyle.
Clearly, products and brands intrinsically grounded in sustainability can be commercially viable. Yet they remain the exception rather than the rule. As the U.S. economy races toward “America@250,” when millennials will be the country’s largest adult population group and the dominant consumer segment, consumer companies would be wise to make more bold choices along these lines.
So, to all those established brands feverishly vying to show their benign intentions, yet still wondering if they will ever bond with millennials, we say: Millennials will be loyal to products and brands they can personally use to live sustainable lives. Why not give them what they want?
Daniel Mahler is head of global strategy and management consultant A.T. Kearney’s Americas practices. His consulting focuses on sustainability strategy development and transformation, complexity management, merger integration and general operations improvements.
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