'Me:' Brand Building in a New Marketing Paradigm

05/04/2015 01:02 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2016

If you want to build your brand or create long-term brand value with Millennials and Generation Z, then understand the brand they truly value -- themselves. Without question, their No. 1 most valuable brand is "Me." This one insight will fundamentally change how you market to them, your relationship with them and the subsequent results you will achieve through them.

Unknowingly, or perhaps knowingly, Millennials and Gen Zs are building their own tangible network in an age that embraces and accelerates its development. It is a network of people, software and machines that are inter- and intra-linked in singular and plural modes. At the heart of their network is their own growing connectivity, locally and even globally.

Their personal brand value grows as they connect and engage with more and more people. The more people that connect, share, comment and post on their Facebook pages, the more their brand value grows. The more users who view, comment and share their videos, the more brand recognition they achieve. The more their ideas are re-tweeted, pinned and shared, the more influential their brand becomes. This is the Network Effect of brand value, their brand value. This is their goal and their passion. Thus their FOMO -- Fear Of Missing Out -- is what drives them to log 120 minutes on their smartphones each day, which has, in turn, driven our firm to create Tech It Back, a global movement promoting safe and healthy tech use. It is simply what matters most to them: "Me," their No. 1 brand.

The Network Effect is a powerful concept. The term comes from Theodore Vail, the Bell Telephone president who in 1908 first argued that the value of a product or service is dependent on the number of others using it. Entrepreneurs still believe in this concept and actively discuss the ways it can build their businesses.


Professional marketers who understand the "Network Effect" and its importance in building their brands' value will be rewarded with digital natives' loyalty and evangelism. This five-point checklist will transform these natives into brand advocates and active marketing partners. For instance, values, trust and recognition are all examples of human desires that elicit positive mental responses, encouraging them to open and share their networks. In turn, these five strategies can help you build your brand.

1. Value Affinity
Digital natives want brands to have a soul, care and contribute to positive human and planetary change. They give credit to those that do. They actively buy their products and re-tweet their brand messages. This message was reinforced at the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, when a star-studded CEO panel discussed "Purpose," and why Virgin CEO Richard Branson has formed The B Team, a purpose-driven coalition of the top thought leaders and business experts in the world. The "Me" brand wants to align itself with other brands that reflect its values and disassociate from those that do not. Yes they care, but importantly, they also want to protect their brand image.

2. Simplicity Affinity
As marketers, we have access to reams of data about how, when and where youth shop. Both shopping behavior and choices have become increasingly complex, hence consumers value business models that simplify and demystify purchase decisions. We expect, that as their sophistication grows, young consumers will reward brands that provide facts, transparent choices and omni-channel purchase opportunities. This type of information allows them to appear knowledgeable, shrewd and smart--all admired characteristics.

3. Trust Affinity
There is a trust crisis in the world. Everyone is trusted less and basic leadership, which has always been a beacon of hope and trust, is perceived to be limited, lacking and failed. Honesty, integrity and personal privacy of data are going to become even greater concerns. Cybercrime is certainly a global issue. As marketers, we need to build trust reservoirs. Young consumers build their brands around those they trust.

4. Personalization Affinity
Every article I read captures the need for this generation to co-create, give feedback, give input, personalize, have a say or speak freely about the business and the brand. This has given rise to emojis, stickers and much, much more. However, many in this group are far more entrepreneurial; they grew up in startup cultures and nations. Design, curated design and problem-solving are central to the way they approach the world and core to their ideas around innovation. Just look at Instagram or Pinterest. As such, the "Me" brand engages to a greater extent when allowed self-expression.

5. Recognition Affinity
Culturally, Gen Z and Millennials were raised by parents who applauded their every win and fall, encouraging continual celebration and sharing. Yet, Millennials are still the most stressed-out generation, according to research. As such, marketers should inspire them to achieve, showcase success, surprise them, make them laugh, make them cry and in general just make them feel something. They use online networks to build their voice and their community. They are emotive--recognize this. They will share what they can feel.

Many say marketing has changed more in the last two years than in the last 50. For many, this is precisely one of the core challenges they refer to. Brand-building has changed; digital natives now value and focus on building their own brand. As marketers, we must quickly adapt to this new paradigm and put digital and content strategies in place that allow us to partner and engage these self-promoting youth. The five strategic affinity characteristics discussed should enable us to act quickly.