‘Millennial’ is a term that is bandied about with increasing frequency in 2016, spawning a glut of thinkpieces and navel-gazing about the increasingly influential generation and its feckless self-absorption/inspiring entrepreneurial drive (depending on who you talk to). But whom exactly does this rather nebulous word refer to? And how important is it for hospitality brands to take notice?
The consensus definition suggests that a millennial is any person born between 1980 and the mid 2000s. This is the first generation to have had access to the internet during their formative years, and the most cosmopolitan, globalised and broadly educated generation to date. In major economies such as the US, millennials represent over one third of the population. By 2018, they will have surpassed their baby boomer parents in terms of commercial impact, with over $3.3 trillion in global spending power.
Looking at the global hospitality landscape, the impact of the millennial generation can be identified in the increasing number of leading hotel groups incorporating lifestyle brands into their portfolio – including Hilton, Starwood and IHG. These businesses have all recognised a growing demand by travellers for experiences that are personalised and authentic. Cookie-cutter luxury furnishings and opulence-by-numbers fine-dining restaurants have lost their lustre – millennials want experiences that are culturally connected, distinctive and heartfelt. And, given the fact that millennials will become the dominant market force across the international hospitality sector in a few years, neglecting this desire would be commercial self-sabotage.
It’s not just the lifestyle segment that needs to pay attention; the millennial mind-set should be taken into consideration across all market segments – even those grand established names that have been synonymous with luxury for the last 60–100 years.
Take dining. The hotel restaurants of yesteryear were rarely viewed as more than simple amenities for their guests. Everything about them – design, lighting, music, even food – would feel standardised. From New York to Hong Kong, the quality of food and service might have been high, but it was rarely strongly differentiated or particularly inspiring.
Glance over the world’s most successful restaurants and hotels in 2016, however, and it’s clear that what unites them is not just the fact that they tell a story, but they live it too. Brands that are genuinely differentiated and sincere in their approach succeed because millennials respond to their originality and authenticity, and are inspired to live their stories along with them. So how do you encourage millennials likely to embrace a brand story part of their lifestyle? How do you communicate it?
Shotgunning messages through established marketing channels is simply not going to work. The millennial audience is driven by experience; a restaurant or hotel brand might have the best digital marketing presence in the world, but if they don’t live up to that presence when a customer crosses the threshold, that customer will never come back. And they’ll likely tell people too – 70% of millennials feel a responsibility to share feedback after having a good or bad experience.
Music is an essential part of delivering on that promise, but one that’s all too easy to overlook. Every element of the brand experience has to cohere if it’s to be credibly authentic and win the millennial heart. If your brand is trying to tell a particular story and the music you play doesn’t fit, or doesn’t express what makes your brand unique, it will be noticed and your brand will be damaged. The days when a Café del Mar or Buddha Bar CD would suffice are over. Millennials are astute, intelligent and cultured tastemakers who are able to consume music more quickly and through more channels than ever before – playing bland, boring or generic background music that does nothing to differentiate the experience will jeopardise your brand’s chances of being adopted as part of the millennial lifestyle.
Instead, brands should focus on creating a captivating signature sound that embodies their DNA, story and personality – just as they would develop coherent interior-design scheme when considering the décor of their space. Music is a potent sensory expression of brand identity, and brands need music that has been carefully chosen to captivate a guest’s imagination. Music that has the power to transport them through time and place. Music that no one else is playing. Music that they might have never heard before, but will love to listen to and are likely to ask about. Most importantly: music that – whenever they hear it again – will bring them back to their experience in your hotel, restaurant or bar and make them feel a sense of connection and belonging.
In short, hospitality brands have to take music seriously – millennials do. If you want them to believe in your brand, sound should be one of your first steps.