A generation happy to be nerdy | Just Drinks

With the job title consumer futurist, Will Higham has made a career out of telling companies what direction their consumers are heading in. Earlier this month, just-drinks met with him to learn how he goes about forecasting the trends of the future. In part one, we look at how Higham makes his predictions, and the ongoing obsession with Millennials.

just-drinks: What is your job and how do you go about it?

Will Higham: I call myself either a consumer futurist or a behavioural futurist. When I first started off, back in the early-2000s, it was all about cool-hunting – what the kids were doing down in Sao Paulo, for example. What I’m doing now is trying to predict what a client’s customers are likely to want in the future. It’s less about hanging out at skate parks and more about reading spreadsheets.

We’re constantly reading news and summarising it. What we’re looking for is anything different, then asking why it’s happening and what it might mean for the attitudes of consumers. It’s a mix of ground-up – what’s happening out there – then working out what it might mean.

j-d: Who have you worked for in the field of drinks?

WH: I’ve spent time with brands such as Miller Lite and Budweiser, as well as with companies like Diageo. With all of these, they had observed changing attitudes among younger consumers. All three were looking to find out what was next. It was less about hedonism, it was more about exploration and adventure. ‘Make tonight exciting’ rather than ‘let’s go crazy’.

j-d: All the talk within drinks companies these days is about Millennials and younger consumers. Are they focusing too heavily on the younger end?

WH: I think that’s the case not just in drinks, but across all sectors. There has been too much emphasis on young people. Older people might not seem as interesting; that topic might not seem sexy, but older people are the ones with money. They are also much smarter at bypassing the commercial ways of doing things.

That said, we currently have the most interesting new generation of young people in decades: The biggest change to youth and early-20-somethings since probably the early-1950s and the arrival of the teenager, as it were. This young (15-25) generation – I call them the Recession Generation – is much more earnest, serious, conservative, risk-averse.

The older Millennials grew up during the start of the Millennium, a period in which everything was free, everything was possible, you could become famous overnight, there was plenty of money around. You didn’t need to make an effort for anything, everything was being handed to you on a plate. When you grow up in a situation like that, you tend to assume you’re going to get everything. They were slightly less hedonistic, because there was a safety culture and risk-averse-ness from their parents, due in part to 9/11.

What’s coming through now with the younger generation is they know they can’t get something for nothing. When the recession hit, they were quite young. They hadn’t lived much of their lives before suddenly their parents started saying no. The pressure was now on them to get a good education to get a good job. So, these consumers know they have to do things themselves, to make their own way in the world.

This is what is driving the shift away from hedonism and away from binge-drinking attitudes. They feel they can’t afford to be hungover when they’re at work, for example. So, it’s become more about quality than quantity.

That’s probably true across a lot of demographics at the moment, but it’s particularly true of the younger generation and it applies across the globe – although not so much in markets like Russia or southern Europe, where we’re still seeing a hedonistic culture.

This is a generation that wants to be nerdy. They’re proud to be called nerds. They know you need to be smart to get on.

j-d: What effect does geography have on this younger generation? Does it matter where they come from?

WH: It matters less than it used to. In terms of trends generally, one of the things that makes my job slightly more difficult is the fact that trends are being picked up quicker. It used to be fairly clear that something would start off in one place and then it would take potentially decades to move to another area. Now, we’ve got global media and commercial marketplaces. When I was younger, it could take up to a year for a film to open in the UK after opening in the US.

Globally, then, this younger generation broadly shares many attitudes, and has more in common with each other than they do with their parents. Teenagers in Hong Kong, Berlin, Sao Paulo share sensibilities.