Why Millennial Women Buy: Q&A With Levo and Merkle

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photo credit: Alisa Leonard - Levo

International Women’s Day is a time to celebrate women, point out inequities and check in on progress. One key indicator is to look at the purchasing power of women—and given demographic trends, that means understanding what drives Millennials.

To that end, Levo (the leading professional community for game-changing Millennial women) and Merkle (the global data-driven, technology-enabled performance marketing agency) have partnered to release a new research report, called Why Millennial Women Buy, on the economic power of women born between 1982 and 2000.

The US-focused study found, for instance, that 40% of respondents have a ‘side hustle’ or other form of income as they look to supplement their incomes and launch their own businesses. In terms of purchase decision-making, 88% of the women surveyed cited price as the primary factor and then (83%) a brand’s sustainability practices.

Millennials want companies to not only take a stand but do something—or stop doing business with suppliers that go against their mission statements, as REI and MEC recently did. This means brands have an obligation to help solve social problems and communicate more openly.

As chief earner and spender, they also want a deeply personal experience with a brand, and with that comes high expectations. For more insights on the research and the implications for businesses and brands, we spoke with Levo President Alisa Leonard and Dalton Dorné, SVP of Marketing for Merkle.


Let’s start with the finding that 40% of the U.S. Millennial women surveyed have a side hustle. What does that say about women of this generation?

Alisa Leonard - LevoAlisa Leonard (right): Side-hustles are on the rise as women seek to align their work with their true passion and purpose, as well as increase their income and financial power. A side-hustle can be defined as a passion project, freelance gigs, or an entrepreneurial endeavor they cultivate while employed full-time—we like to think of them as creative incubators for entire new businesses and career paths. Side-hustles are a form of innovation.

On that note, brand-building is a huge focus for Millennial women and their careers. Whether it is building a brand for their business or side-hustle on social media, or it is building a personal brand to boost their careers, this digitally-native, social media generation are savvy brand-builders and marketers themselves.

This is a purpose-driven, design-conscious generation where personal aesthetic, authenticity, transparency and celebrating diversity are key—and we see this reflected not only in how Millennial women build their own brands, but in the brands they are loyally engaged with.

Dalton Dorne Dalton Dorné (right): Millennials often get a bad rap, having been called the handout generation or lazy. What’s fascinating about this stat is that they’re not only working their day jobs, but they’re doing side gigs to generate additional income to fund indulgence or splurge purchases. Essentially, they’re willing to work hard and work extra jobs to get what they want.

What else does the research show that marketers should know about Millennial women—and how are most companies and services falling short in meeting their expectations?

Alisa: Millennial women are an economic powerhouse—we represent a market of approximately $170bn and are both chief earners and chief spenders. 42% of us are household breadwinners and we spend at a higher velocity than other generational cohorts.

While 81% of Millennial women agree that brands are designing products with their needs in mind, the biggest brands that win with this audience tend to be smaller, niche, digitally-native brands they discover through social media and influencers.

There is still a lot of room for brands to innovate against women’s unmet needs and to involve them in that innovation process. We see a lot of brands attempting to create products and experiences for women and fall flat—either because they lean on traditional gender roles and stereotypes, or because it’s not solving a core need, or they simply make a product pink (which doesn’t solve for designing with women’s needs in mind).

Dalton: The research has some rich millennial myth-busters, and reveals that many brands are just scratching the surface of truly understanding and engaging with millennial women.

Too many brands treat millennials as one segment or audience, and over-index on millennial marketing being about tone or a slick look. But the data shows millennial women want far more from a brand experience. In fact, they demand it, and brands that understand this, and can deliver on what they want to create truly personal brand experiences, will win the hearts of millennial women.

A great example that came up in the research is Aerie no longer using Photoshop on their models. This may be reflected in the e-commerce site, ads, PR statements, etc. Millennial women are looking for a connection with brands that understand what they want, show them they’re being heard, and are walking the talk. Over 50% of millennial women told us that a brand’s values matter. As the largest purchasing power segment, you better be able to deliver on those values.

Any best practices of building a great brand that aligns to the company’s culture and values, and understands millennial women? Were any brands cited as ‘getting it’?

Dalton: The most important thing is to be authentic, don’t try to be something you’re not. Also, avoid playing to stereotypes. Dig in to the data, and listen. Millennial women are telling you what they want, what they don’t like and what they expect. As marketers, it’s critical to deliver individual-level, personal experiences across channels. Some brands that were cited for getting it right were Aerie, Nike and Honest Company.

88% of the millennial women surveyed cited price as the primary factor and then (83%) a brand’s sustainability practices. Sustainability is a big basket – CSR, environmental, policies around LGBTQ+, activism, HR policies, etc. Could you unpack this finding?

Alisa: As women rise in economic power, we are becoming a forcing function for innovation and change as we wield that power in how, where and with whom we spend our money.

It is important for brands to realize that in our shifting cultural climate, issues ranging from diversity and inclusion, workplace safety and sexual harassment, supply chain transparency, ethical production, sustainability and policies that impact the greater social good are issues Millennial women care about, and align their spending and loyalty to brands who take a stand on these issues.

One example is Keith Weed, CMO of Unilever, who recently made headlines when he said the packaged goods giant wouldn’t advertise on tech platforms that create societal division or don’t protect children.

woman checking phone

How do you define “deeply personal experience” with a brand? What expectations come along with that?  

Alisa: At Levo, we are obsessed with creating a deeply personal experience with our community, and in turn help brands do the same.

Creating deeply personal experiences is rooted in human-centered design principles, it is rooted in truly knowing and caring about your audience, your customers, your community, and establishing a robust open-innovation model for incorporating their voices, insights and ideas into everything you do.

The methods and tactics for how you do this might change with time—whether it means you establish a consumer council or leverage your social channels for ongoing feedback and testing. But first and foremost, brands must embrace the idea of actively hearing, collaborating and co-creating with women as a strategic imperative.

Whereas women in the past may have been a family’s “chief economist” and influencing purchase decisions, now millennial women are the chief earner and spender. What does that mean for brands?  

Alisa: We are now living in a “Millennial economy” — which, as we define it, is an economic and social model in which emerging value shifts, rapid innovation and new social norms are radically reshaping the future of work, money and life. We are living this radical reshaping right now, and it is being driven by the largest generational cohort in the market today—Millennial women.

Brands must think of Millennial women as not just consumers, but as producers, doers, creators and ultimately agents of innovation and change. Because we live in a world that has been largely designed by and for men, there is a gap in the market for products, services and experiences designed to meet women’s un-met needs that go beyond traditional insights or assumptions about women.

Dalton: It’s clear that Millennial women know what they want, they’re willing to work hard for it and they will vote with their wallets. Brands need to pivot to treat millennial women not merely as consumers, but as collaborators, change-agents and decision-makers. It’s not just an attitude or a trend, it’s an empowered economy.

It may sound like basic manners, but brands need to make it easy for Millennials to engage with them, they need to listen, and they are expected to respond on an individual level. Sounds easy, but it takes the right data, technology and flawless execution. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.

Dalton: The secret weapon is always data. Customer data, channel data on where they like to connect and when, insights gleaned from data that improves every interaction. The data helps you truly know your customers, or potential customers, in this case millennial women. But you have to be able to centralize your data and make it actionable. You can’t afford to not get that right.

woman working in home office computer

How else can technology help with the divide between companies and consumers?  

Dalton: AI, machine learning and tech stacks can enable incredibly personalized experiences between brands and consumers. As Millennial women have a much higher spend velocity than other generational cohorts (19% more likely to spend in a given timeframe), it behooves brands to invest in an infrastructure that can facilitate real-time interactions.

At Merkle, we have a saying, “Informed by data, powered by technology.” If brands truly want to bridge the gap with millennial women, they need to be informed by the data, first and foremost.


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