Makers of the new millennium

TRA's Antonia Mann and Colleen Ryan share some findings from The Listening Project, Millennials

A lot has been made of the rise of the maker movement, both as a shift of ‘consumer to creator’ critical to a country’s economic future or as a comedic fad.

In a recent TRA study of Millennials (The Listening Project, Millennials) we saw lots of evidence of this movement – from making and selling preserves to developing specialist interest apps. By ‘maker’ we mean those who engage in “tinkering and making things,” from traditional arts, crafts and hobbies like knitting, woodwork or bee-keeping to technologists using open source software and 3D printing.

The internet has allowed makers to flourish around the world by democratising information and skills and lowering the barriers to knowledge and community. Free, open source and low-cost platforms, tools, software and communities exist to empower all facets of making, from designing and building to selling and sourcing. And the community of makers is world-wide, able to share, teach, learn, exchange, buy and sell on a global scale.

Among key drivers behind the growth of maker culture is a backlash against the same digitalisation of society that powers it. But, just as important, is a shift in cultural values and milestones.

Millennials have more time to make stuff

Traditional milestones such as marriage, children and buying houses are happening later. In 1970, the median age for these events was under 25 and that today they are over 30. This opens up a whole decade for the typical millennial to spend time reflecting on themselves, their relationships and the world around them before familial responsibilities absorb their lives. The Listening Project highlighted the fact that millennials are relentless self-improvers and making is one means of deriving a sense of self-accomplishment.

“In my spare time I enjoy photography and drawing. I try and set myself projects to complete, an example would be a lamp I carved from local stone and a bed made from NZ timbers.” – The Listening Project, Millennials

So when we witness millennials, with their enthusiasm for making and their pivotal role in the elevation of maker culture, there are some important implications for buying behaviour ­that we should consider as well.

Creativity on a pedestal

Creativity is revered. We employ design-thinking, flock to TED talks, and make celebrities of inventors. There is that bunch in Silicon Valley, but they’re also social entrepreneurs tinkering with our systems or bakers adapting recipes for adventurous and gluten-free taste buds. Being creative garners social cachet, often elicited through social media. And the notion of creativity has evolved with the times to engender social and economic advantages. Employers, for instance, are interested in well-rounded, creative employees – an Etsy store on your LinkedIn page brings kudos. Maker culture has been both grounded in creativity and elevated by it.

“This little shop in Australia posted some photos of their unique freakshakes and is now slowly gonna become the next big thing. I mean, a huge chocolate shake, slathered in nutella and a donut on top…droolz.” – The Listening Project, Millennials

Millennials seek fulfillment and purpose

“Success to me is nothing more than doing what you love, being good at it and being happy! It’s about finding that!” – The Listening Project, Millennials

Contrary to the infamous label of millennials as entitled, The Listening Project found that millennials are actually a hard-working lot. But work is not everything. Millennials take a holistic approach to life, seeking balance and fulfillment. Dabbling in creativity and entrepreneurship is not only an antidote to work stress and sitting in front of a computer all week, it’s also a source of meaningful accomplishment and social cachet.

Media is full of stories of people turning their maker hobbies into successful businesses, escaping the rat race and being their own boss. With the amount of online tools and support available to us, there’s never been an easier and less risky time to start your own business.

“Seeing young people (around my age) succeed against all odds really inspires me as well. It just reminds me that if I work hard for something I really want, I can get it.”– The Listening Project, Millennials

Millennials like to buy from creative makers

The Listening Project showed that preferences around sustainability, authenticity, value, heritage and experientialism converge to make maker culture highly relevant when it comes to shopping, too.

Reinvention, repurposing and supporting locals speak to their values of creativity, less waste, hard work and craftsmanship.

Considered and conscientious shoppers, buying from startups and artisan producers fulfill both a pragmatic and emotional investment for millennials. Something made with care, skill and thought and chosen with equal effort has longevity in terms of emotional resonance and functionality.

“I think little brands have your best interests at heart. I went to this boutique shop in Lyttleton and the guy gets NZ made skateboards from all over NZ and you wouldn’t find them at Cheapskates and he gives you really personalised service. I would definitely go back and I would recommend him.” – The Listening Project, Millennials

As a business owner, there is an opportunity to tap into this empathetic mind set by telling the personal stories behind the business.

Putting the founders in the foreground – think Nadia Lim and My Food Bag vs Lewis Road Creamery. Lewis Road is respected as a cool and authentic brand but without a ‘hero’ maker it does not have the same resonance to this group as more personality led products.

It’s difficult for bigger brands to authentically impart personality but some have succeeded by, for example, highlighting the creators within their ranks. Jenna Lyons, the creative force behind the rise of J Crew, drew fans not only through her style prowess but the completely human face she put forward on J Crew’s blog.

Opening up the creative process and providing opportunities to learn and collaborate are more engaging for this audience, too.  FKA twigs, for instance, invited fans to watch her create her new show over seven days.

But beware, our millennials shun ‘show off’ brands, so there is a fine line to walk between self-promotion and being an admired maker – artisan brand promotions need to be less of a selfie and more of a mirror.

Especially, little and local.

“I like small town places - like local meat shops, local vege shops, and old school jewellers. I specifically go to Honeybuns in Howick 'cause he's old school and will fix it on site in front of you and he's free/cheap.” The Listening Project, Millennials.

And, local wins every time. Millennials relate to local makers because they represent the thought and care, and sense of experience and provenance, that can’t be found in the mass market. Millennials assume local business owners are fulfillment and accomplishment outside of the normal route.

The localism movement continues to resonate with millennials because it represents a major shift in what they expect from their investments today: a future relationship with the brand or business based on talent, innovation and integrity.

There is a good opportunity for local artisan brands to engage with millennials, but the big brands are not sitting complacently on their hands. For instance, Levi’s promote creator Alice Saunder’s recycled bags under the Levi’s Makers tag.

Millennials might be doing their own making but they are also doing a lot of buying.  Being local, New Zealand artisan producers and startups are well placed to be the seller of choice, and they can amplify emotional resonance with millennials by highlighting the human faces, challenges and stories in their businesses, and promoting openness, collaboration, learning opportunities and experiences. 

The Listening Project, Millennials – an immersion study of 20 to 30 year olds by TRA. Email thelisteningproject@tra.co.nz for more information. Main image c/o ImageThink.