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Premiumizing for Millennials

Tam Le, Strategist, New York

As the largest generation in American history inches into their peak­ earning years, we’re seeing their demand for higher­ quality, luxury­-esque products grow. And as the intelligent Millennial shoppers that they are, they’re also increasingly seeking these items without the burden of an out ­of ­reach price tag (hence the deluge and popularity of f​lash sales ​and o​ther ways ​to “have it all”).

The demand for luxury has grown so much that it has become commoditized, blurring the edges between the elusive and the readily available. This has created an opportunity for brands to satiate Millennials’ growing demands for extra specialness with new approaches that make the impossible dream possible. In this way, premiumization – elevating a brand offering through strategic positioning and premium design – acts as a bridge between the luxury and the mass­ market worlds. However, the age ­old method of mass brands simply mimicking luxury brands is no longer cutting it, because Millennials are a generation that devours authenticity.​ To premiumize in an authentic way, brands now need to connect (or in some cases reconnect) to their core essence and hero their individual uniqueness in captivating ways.

Here we outline four ways in which brands are successfully premiumizing their offerings, fruitfully tapping into Millennial demand without sacrificing authenticity.

Create a premium line

Have a sub ­brand occupy the premium tier. If there are attributes of the brand that can be leveraged to develop a credible offering, brands can create a premium line.

A great example of this is the AXE White Label collection. ​U​nilever hoped to introduce antiperspirants with dry ­spray technology to the United States through AXE, a line primed to mature along with its target audience. The new technology paired with elevated scents like driftwood, fig, ginger, and praline, made it an opportunity ripe for premiumization. In order to do this, they created the White Label sub ­brand with a positioning that is less about being a woman­ magnet for pubescent boys, and more about being a tool that empowers men with an inner confidence. This is expressed through a clean and simplified design and an ad campaign without a single bikini­ clad model in sight.

In some cases, the new offering’s credibility can be impaired by an association with the master brand. In that instance, it’s better to create a new premium brand that stands on its own. For example, when Pepsi wanted to bring some of the “cool factor” back to cola, they created Caleb’s Kola. The new brand is an artisanal soda made with Fair Trade cane sugar, kola nuts from Africa, a special blend of spices from around the world, and a hint of citrus. To really appeal to the older Millennial craft ­beer crowd, their language mirrors those of microbreweries with an emphasis on the people behind the brand and they re-appropriated brew language, using terms like “batches” and “a distinct foamy head.” Similar to AXE White Label, the design is stripped down to project a quiet confidence. This new offering allowed Caleb’s Kola to move past the mass­ market, big­ brand affiliation of Pepsi.

Partnership with luxury brands

Mass­ brands have the option to borrow caché from luxury brands by participating in limited ­edition collaborations. Converse did this by pairing up with British luxury label Hancock, a brand that reimagines articles patented in the early 19th century by Thomas Hancock, the father of the British rubber industry. If “handmade rubber­ bonded raincoats [produced] in Scotland” doesn’t scream Millennial to you, I don’t know what does. Together the brands created the striking, water­ resistant Wetland sneaker available at select retailers for $150 ­- $200 USD, a steal considering Hancock’s raincoats play in the $1,000­ – 1,200 USD price range, and a respectable up-sell when looking at the $95 USD Converse Jack Purcell Signature Sneaker.

Likewise, cult makeup brand MAC is known for their legendary partnerships with brands and designers as diverse as Philip Treacy, London’s leading couture hat designer, and Mia Moretti, American DJ/fashion icon.

These collaborations are working for MAC—they premiumize the brand and keep it interesting and top­ of ­mind for consumers. And they aren’t exactly hurting sales either; anticipated limited edition collections such as Prabal Gurung’s Holiday Collection sold out in moments. Bustle.com’s Amy Sciarretto writes, “[MAC] does these partnerships often throughout the year…but the frequency never dilutes my excitement for a new MAC x insert­-designer­-name­-here mashup.” 

As Converse and MAC prove, when executed smartly, limited editions can build long term value.

Leverage brand equity

For brands that want to premiumize overall, leveraging premium aspects of the brand can help to shift perceptions and positioning.

Victoria’s Secret avoids completely falling into the mass ­market category of so many other ubiquitous chain­ retailers by really taking advantage of their annual fashion show as an opportunity to showcase their cutting ­edge fashion sense in a way that is more high­ end hedonism than mainstream mall.

Beauty site, I​nto The Gloss​, created a credible brand following through conversational, thoughtfully curated posts, but cemented their lux cult cred with the launch of their own beauty brand, Glossier. I​nto The Gloss’​reputation receives a boost from from Glossier’s very Instagrammable, luxury­ quality products, and Glossier leverages I​nto The Gloss’​ irresistible cool factor and reputation built on years of interviews with beauty icons from Karlie Kloss to Selena Gomez. Together they form a virtuous circle, with each strengthening the premium positioning of the other.

Although they used different methods, both Victoria’s Secret and I​nto The Gloss​ have leveraged the luxury aspects of their brand, premiumizing their overall offering, to satisfy Millennials’ need for a little something extra special.

Elevate the category

Lastly, there is a way to premiumize a brand by elevating its entire category. Chipotle did this with fast food and created an entire new tier of dining—fast casual. By introducing high­ quality, raw ingredients and classic cooking methods more in line with full­ service restaurants, they created a greater ideology: Food with Integrity. Since then restaurants like Shake Shack and Panera Bread have followed in its stead.

Another example of a brand that has raised the bar for its segment is Target’s private­ label Simply Balanced line. Through a range of products free of artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives, Simply Balanced was created to meet consumers’ rising demand for healthy food while keeping in mind the limitations of Millennials’ budgets. Through its strong brand identity, Simply Balanced is far from from the sterile imitations of most private labels; it has created its own bold, unique look and feel, and in doing so, has redefined the limitations of private labels in consumers’ minds.

By elevating, or in some cases, recreating their respective categories, both Chipotle and Simply Balanced were able to premiumize their offering in the minds of consumers.

Th​ese four methods of premiumization are helping brands around the world evolve to fit a more radically luxurious marketplace. More importantly, the brands mentioned within were able to use premiumization to exceed and redefine consumer brand expectations, fostering brand loyalty and mesmerizing the most finicky of consumers. Brands big and small, take note; premiumization isn’t a passing fad and, if done mindfully, can be an excellent way to grow your brand and help meet Millennials’ ever­ growing desires for a bit of luxe everyday.

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