Let’s be real. Millennials have been branded as insufferable narcissists. Based on a cursory review of the Millennial-related articles and manifestos out there in the blogosphere, the general narrative is this: Millennials are an über-connected, over-educated generation of selfie-taking slackers.

Harsh. But is it true? The New York Times‘ Sam Tanenhaus recently illuminated a more empathetic side to this young cohort of Americans born between 1980 and 2000. In an article titled “The Millennials are Generation Nice,” Tanenhaus cites a handful of studies that suggest Millennials actually demonstrate a considerable consciousness of the bigger social and environmental picture—a certain communal sensitivity that has consequences on the way they shop, eat, work, and play.

Millennials’ purchasing power is coming of age, and marketers everywhere have been wondering: what makes this generation of self-centered collectivists tick? When it comes to values, tastes, and habits, it seems to come down to this: Millennials favor innovation over institutions. They’re skeptical of “the establishment,” by which I really mean anything ranging from religion and politics to lifestyle brands and eating habits. Millennial consumers are more liberal, agnostic, skeptical, green, and vegetarian than their parents—and consumers are attracted to brands that reflect their values. As Tanenhaus notes:

“The do-goodish pitch is aimed squarely at millennials, who collectively favor companies that embrace the values of good citizenship.”

So it seems like altruism is what’s cool these days. Whether it means going green, eating organic, buying local, or supporting equality, “Generation Nice” is buying into lifestyles—and brands—that are somehow collectivist in nature.

But is the altruistic “do-goodish” pitch enough? Is that really the magic ingredient that will propel brands into a Millennial-fueled success? Or, from a consumer’s perspective, is saving the world just the icing on the cake?

As a Millennial, here’s my take on it: the new brand magic is less about altruism—it’s about authenticity.

Let’s look to the beverage industry for evidence. In the past decade, we’ve watched the rise of small, independent, place-based brands—or “craft” brands. In the coffee market, craft brands like Blue Bottle, Four Barrel, and Ritual are now competing directly with Starbucks and Peet’s (and Dunkin’ Donuts for you East Coasters). But is there anything explicitly humanitarian about the craft brand angle? Sure, most of these companies offer organic and fair-trade coffee, but the Blue Bottle brand certainly isn’t centered on a promise to save the world.

What these coffee brands promise is authenticity. They promise an intimate, honest, artisan coffee experience—not a loud, canned, homogenous one. Blue Bottle’s founding story offers a telling excerpt:

 “In Oakland, California, a slightly disaffected freelance musician and coffee lunatic, weary of the grande eggnog latte and the double skim pumpkin-pie macchiato, decided to open a roaster for people who were clamoring for the actual taste of freshly roasted coffee…

What the Blue Bottle brand offered, and what consumers loved, was a new, sincere coffee experience that was stripped of the colorful, customizable frills. The authenticity trope can be traced throughout the brand communications of Blue Bottle and nearly every other craft coffee company—from their hand-drawn visuals and we-the-people messaging tones to the spare aesthetics of their brick-and-mortar shops.

Flywheel Coffee homepage
Image sourced from Flywheel Coffee Roasters’ homepage

In a recent piece on coffee shop design trends, San Francisco Chronicle quotes Ian Dunn, principal architect of San Francisco’s OpenScope Studio, as saying:

 “The independents depend on subtler cues of tone, materiality and detailing to build more individualized images about lifestyle, craft, localness…the ideal space is all about flow – natural, efficient, interactive – and these cafes have all designed around it.”

Localness, natural, interactive—all stylistic impressions that impart a feeling of authenticity. As for the big shots, Dunn notes:

Larger chains rely heavily on the usual branding tropes of color, logo and typology to impart a fairly standard set of readings: consistency, value, convenience.”

In tandem with the reshaping of the beverage industry, the coffee shop design paradigm has shifted. And Millennials have everything to do with it. In an article written for the online magazine CoffeeTalk, Mike Dabadie of Heart+Mind Strategies noted:

 “…consumers, especially Millennials, are seeking real product experiences and transparency. They are seeking out these coffee products and solutions that make coffee because they want to have the smart, genuine, and ownable experience of the product…[they] are looking for what can be seen: the real ingredients that go into the product. The real people that make what we enjoy. The plants and animals that are involved and how they are really treated.”

Real products, real ingredients, real people, genuine experiences—in other words, authenticity. It’s that magic brand ingredient. Authenticity is defined as being “of undisputed origin; genuine.” By promising authenticity, these craft coffee brands are implicitly offering that “do-goodish” pitch that us Millennials so love. Being real is being honest and transparent—and transparency is trustworthy. Now more than ever, we’re turning to brands that we feel we can trust.

Image from Blue Bottle's homepage
Image from Blue Bottle’s homepage

Unsurprisingly, the coffee brand giants have wisely caught on. In an article titled “Can Starbucks Make 23,000 Coffee Shops Feel Unique?”, Fast Company’s Mark Wilson follows the efforts of Starbucks’ VP of Design to “foster more of what people call ‘my Starbucks’ and less what people call ‘that Starbucks’…People personally identify them as theirs, they feel some connection to it, and even ownership over it.” Again: uniqueness and localness—so in right now.

The FourBarrel.com homepage
The Four Barrel Coffee homepage

Ironically enough, the authentic brand trope has clearly become a trend. Inevitably, however, trends tend to come and go—and with a generation of skeptics as the new consumer powerhouse, trends can pass fairly quickly these days. The question is, when will authenticity lose its magic on Millennials?

Here, I turn to Shakespeare. His famous Hamlet line “the lady doth protest too much” is a common figure of speech with a lesson that, I think, gives us our answer: by loudly insisting that something about us is true, we inadvertently lead our audiences to suspect the opposite. It’s when authenticity begins to look, sound, and taste forced that the magic begins to fade—and that’s when Millennials might look to call a brand’s bluff.


Sandra Fernandez is a Client Services Manager at MetaDesign San Francisco.


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