Charlie Caruso, director of Puggle Media, presenter at Curiosity Productions, and editor of Understanding Y, joined the Brand Newsroom team for an episode about Gen Y that created a lot of discussion and ruffled a few feathers. She generously agreed to an interview with Sarah Mitchell to further explain what motivates Gen Y and how brands gain influence with them. Take notes; Charlie provides candid insight to anyone who genuinely wants a better understanding of this huge demographic.

Listen to the podcast now:


1) In episode 38 of Brand Newsroom, you say Gen Y doesn’t trust traditional forms of media. Do you think it’s something specific to your generation or is Gen Y simply taking advantage of advancements in technology?

I don’t think its specific to my generation, but it’s worth noting that Gen Y have had access to a significant amount of non-traditional media and peer-to-peer information via the internet during our “cynical 20’s”. Perhaps we have had better access to confirmation of what previous generations might have guessed or assumed, like Wikileaks, for example. We have social media and multiple platforms that have allowed us to report injustices or keep poor journalism to account. We have always had choices when it comes to the consumption of media, unlike our parents whose choices were limited. We also have a very well-honed bullshit radar as we have grown up with advertising and from children were exposed to advertising messages at an unprecedented rate.

As we’ve grown up, we have learned to adjust to the ever-changing ways in which we consume content, digital or otherwise. I mentioned in the book, Understanding Y, that while we grew up watching Disney films on VHS, we quickly embraced the DVD, which allowed us to skip whole chapters. It meant we didn’t have to keep our fingers down on the fast-forward button to skip the disclaimer section of the film. I think such transition to “efficient” consumption has become synonymous with the changing times and need for speed often associated with Gen Y.

I also don’t feel the need to consume media traditionally; it usually is contradictory to my lifestyle. I don’t watch a lot of TV, if I do it’s ABC and SBS on demand. I don’t buy newspapers; I consume written content via Flipboard. I don’t listen to the radio; I listen to podcasts or music. That works for me and for many people I know.


2) You say Gen Y isn’t loyal to any sort of content producer and nothing can make you loyal. What can brands and traditional media do to influence people like you?

Interesting, I can only speak for myself in this instance, although I have many peers who are similar to me.

I think part of the reason I’m not loyal to any content producer is that I understand content producers are human. They can be wrong. They can write, publish, or endorse messages that disappoint me. They can be influenced by sneaky, side financial endorsements. I don’t really trust anyone, but I like content producers who embrace that - embrace the fact they can get it wrong, and don’t know everything - and who want to shake things up and bring attention to what’s being ignored by the mass media. For that reason, I am a big fan of Russell Brand, I find him refreshing. I like Jon Stewart, and I am LOVING The Guardian’s podcast series The Biggest News Story in the World. I am a massive fan of Facebook pages like A Mighty Girl and Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, Women You Should Know, Upworthy, and movements like Global Citizen and GetUP! and the content they produce. Thus, I am influenced by many, but I won’t say I am particularly loyal to any of them.


3) With the advent of services like Flipboard, iTunes, Pinterest, and specialty websites like Yummly, people of all ages are self-selecting content without the benefit of exposure to a wider body of work from an artist or author. When I think of artists like The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen or Stevie Wonder, the collective experience of an album was far more valuable than just the hits. The same is true with cookbooks. Do you think this self-selection is ultimately a detriment and you’ll never get the full benefit of content? 

I happen to be the biggest fan of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen - have seen both live - as well as the other artists you mentioned. But I don’t feel like I am “missing out” on a particular content contributor’s full body of work. If I like them, what they are about and what they write about, I will actively search for more content they have written and be more engaged and interested with anything they do in the future. I think social media plays a big role in exposing me and many others to work and information and writers that I might have not otherwise come across, via the fact that others “share” and “like” such content on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Flipboard. I feel sufficiently positioned to be exposed by new content through such platforms.

Aristotle is credited with the idea of ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,’ and while I appreciate that sentiment, I feel in the information age such an approach to the consumption of media and content is unrealistic. Bob Dylan’s best-selling album, Blood On The Tracks, was released in 1975. In 1975, the media landscape was very different to today. In fact, 1975 was the year colour TV was introduced to Australia by our four TV channels that existed then compared with the hundreds – if you include online, thousands - today.

Experiencing content in its entirety rarely happens these days. When it comes down to it, it’s a luxury. I don’t have time to consume content in its entirety. I have a fabulous yet neglected Kindle Library and there is literally too much worthy content to consume than I can manage. So I am happy to stick with self-selection and accept I might be missing out on certain elements of the experience by choosing to.


4) How important is the customer experience to Gen Y? Is it instrumental in combatting the loyalty issue?

I think it’s as important to Gen Y as it is to any other generation. We humans are simple creatures really, not as complex as we might like to think or seem. If I experience great service - whether it be in person, or simply through a well-thought-out app or e-commerce system that seems to have spent a lot of time and attention thinking through the user experience - I will be happy and likely tell everyone I know about it.

Does a great user experience guarantee loyalty? The answer is no, but it definitely increases the probability. It’s more than great experience; it’s convenience as well. For me there is a moral element also. My consumer behaviour, content or otherwise, is certainly influenced by my understanding of efforts in the community, in being a conscious producer, in the environment, to its people. If I found out that Russell Brand was secretly the benefactor of funds from fracking or people trafficking, no matter how much I loved the experience of listening to his content, or how convenient it was to listen, I wouldn’t. But that’s just me; I can’t speak for everyone at that level. This is also a significant clue as to why I refuse to consume mass communication media.


5) What do you wish brands understood about Gen Y? What are they getting wrong when trying to connect with your demographic?

Some brands are nailing it; others are not. I like it that way - battle of the fittest.

I think the trick to getting my attention - I don’t feel I can speak on ALL of Gen Y here, but research supports what I am about to say - is as follows:

  • Be Authentic - In your brand, in your content, in all communications. Be real and you have us interested.
  • Be quick - We’re “busy people” and we don’t usually have all day to read an essay, unless you’re Angelina Jolie or Sheryl Sandberg or someone who writes essays we want to read. Dot points are great. If we are keen for more, we will read more. Give us a quick summary that’s to the point and don’t waste our time with waffle.
  • Be factual. A recent article published by HuffPost Women about Iggy Azalea was hideous and enough for me to stop following the HuffPost Women brand. The article read like an angry, mean ladies’ Facebook rant, not a well-rounded, clever article articulating the issues of cultural appropriation. Have a solid argument and back it up with facts, not bullshit or narrow opinions.


6) As a generalisation, Gen Y seems to abhor being pigeonholed as a demographic, which exposes these kinds of discussions to criticism. Why do you think they chafe at mostly genuine attempts to understand them?

Because it’s impossible to generalise 950 million people in any other way than “they were born between X and Z”, and even that is contentious! I mentioned in the forward of the book that “Gen Y’s or Millennials” as a concept is a flawed, potentially damaging stereotype. Also when we talk about “‘Gen Y’s are addicted to tech” ’ or whatever headlines are shoved our way, we are talking about an extremely narrow portion of the “‘Gen Y” ’ cohort - typically privileged, Western Gen Y - so I understand the critique entirely.

Yet so many people ask me to help them better “understand” Gen Y, so clearly there seems to be at least some perceived differences in the cohort who now find themselves in their mid- to late-twenties or early thirties.

For economic reasons, for governments and organisations to plan to adapt to changes in the population, demographics matter. But when you talk more about social or behavioural similarities beyond “Y amount of people are about to have W amount of kids while looking after B amount of parents with little retirement savings” - beyond that it’s a struggle because it’s a matter of clutching at straws and a lot of assuming. But studying consumer behaviour of any cohort, studying or discussing any groups of the human species at mass has to utilise enormous assumption. There is no other way. Assumptions happen, sometimes they are damaging, but I honestly think they don’t matter all that much to the average person. I think it’s easy enough to de-bunk any labels or misunderstandings placed on us because of the year we were born.


7) Gen Y now spans the ages of 20 to 33 but many brands still treat them like children. Why do you think Gen Y is having a hard time shaking the ‘kid’ image?

This is funny, I’m not sure I agree.

You know what? I think our lives are passing us by at an unprecedented rate. Whenever I hear anything about something that happened in the ‘90s, I still feel like it was 10 years ago, not 25 years ago! Perhaps that’s why; perhaps some people have forgotten that Gen Y aren’t teenagers anymore? Who knows, but I couldn’t say I have encountered that particular issue so I’m likely not the best person to comment about it.


8) Do you have any final advice or comments to help business understand better what Gen Y wants?

Ask them. Shocking really, but I’m genuine. Ask them about what they want, what they are looking for. Gen Y is likely to be honest, especially so if they think it might benefit them in the long run. I like being “heard”; we all do. It’s a matter of asking the questions.


How do your views differ about Gen Y? Where are they the same? Leave a comment and let us know.


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