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Amy Zhou: Welcome to the Brandboom Podcast where we discuss trends and share tips and stories from the savviest retail brands. My guest today as Nicolas Cole Mather. So he goes by the name of Cole. I’m just gonna keep calling him Cole for the rest of the podcast. He’s an expert on branding and marketing to, specifically, Generation Z. And he’s an amazing, prolific writer with more than 200 columns for Inc. Magazine alone. Cole, I’m super excited to have you here. Welcome to the podcast.
Nicholas Cole Mather: Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.
Amy: So Cole, I’ve been reading a lot of your columns and your pieces and you’ve written a lot about how people feel about millennials in general, and how they’ve undoubtedly changed the perception of the workforce culture from Big Fortune 500 companies to every little startup out there. But in your point of view, before we go into Gen Z, how do you think millennials have actually changed their expectations of how marketers from a brand perspective have shifted? How have they been changing their strategies based on this concept of millennials and their behaviors and their responses to brands, in general?
Cole: So I think the best way to think about it is to frame it in the context of access. Really, the millennial generation, I’m a millennial. If you noticed, the big controversy is that everyone says millennials want what they want, when they want it which is usually right now. But if you… From my perspective, because I’ve written about millennials in the workplace a lot and I’ve interviewed all the go-to millennial experts, and I’ve talked to the Fortune 500 CEOs. And I really try, and whenever I get interested in something I like to tackle it from every perspective.
And the biggest thing that I’ve noticed it has to do with this idea of access where I think, the millennial generation they wanna know things when they wanna know them or they want to meet people when they want to meet them or they want to create their own schedule when they wanna create it. So it’s having the freedom, yes, that’s kinda how everybody else frames it, is like millennials just want freedom and that usually means in that context like not working.
But the way that I’ve come to see it as it has a lot more to do with access and if you see a lot of the companies that are trying to attract millennial talent, what they do is they misunderstand that idea of access and try and replace it with things like, “We’re gonna provide Ping-Pong tables,” or “Everybody can sit in a nice comfy chair while they work on their laptop,” or “We have an open bar on Fridays.” And like, those things are cool and they certainly maybe make the environment feel a little bit more comfortable or even younger, but in reality, that’s not really what a millennial “is after.” What they’re after is, it’s access to things that they might not be able to get on their own. So for example, if a company goes, “We wanna be very millennial driven.” If you will really go after young talent, maybe that access is, “Hey, once a quarter we take everybody to a cool, like, vacation spot and do our work there for a long weekend.” Like, that’s not just a getaway or a vacation to a millennial, that’s access to a spot or a place that they wouldn’t be able to get you on their own necessarily. Maybe it’s too expensive or none of their friends wanna go there, so with their company, it makes sense. And so, if you kinda flip the equation too on the other side, access isn’t just from a pleasure perspective but also knowledge. A lot of millennials are kind of boxed in and coined as these people that they don’t wanna learn, they just scroll through Instagram all day. But really, they do wanna learn. And if you can give them access to people that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to, they’re gonna feel really appreciative of that. And so you have these like huge companies that instead of sitting back and thinking, and I’ll admit, Gary V. [SP] does a great job. You have to give him credit because he has understood this idea and he goes, “Even though I’m the CEO of this huge company, I’m still going to find little ways even if it’s 5 or 10 minutes to connect with the most entry-level person there.” And that’s access. And so you have these massive companies that instead of thinking about how to do that, they just throw money at the problem and go, “All right. Well, let’s just buy a bunch of Ping-Pong tables and we’ll have kegs on Fridays. And let’s make it a super fun young environment.” But that’s really not what it’s about.
Amy: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense when you put it that way because the kegs and the open bar and the Ping-Pong tables sounds like a fat party to me, rather than someplace that you can actually have to access to. In your perspective, it sounds like access to resources, access to a learning environment that can help them grow in ways that they would not have otherwise. Is that correct?
Cole: Yeah, 100%. And it’s kind of like just thinking about what kind of millennial do you want to attract. Like if you’re using those things to attract millennial talent, I’ll tell you what kind of millennial you’re gonna attract, and it’s not gonna be the workforce that’s willing to stay up until 2:00 in the morning and grinding out a project. It’s gonna be the person that thinks they’re still in college.
Amy: Those are really, really good insights from you. And honestly, myself as a millennial, I feel the same way. And I value a lot in what my company can provide to the employees who are Generation Z and millennials that are working with us. We give them great benefits but we definitely don’t have kegs on tap and everything, but we have lunch where everyone sits around we have our all-hands meeting where we actually share data around what we’ve learned about the company and such and the CEO’s right there to answer everyone’s questions if they have any. So those are the things that I think really brings about the workforce that will really motivate this generation.
So if we kind of turn this around to think about from a marketing perspective, because a lot of our listeners from Brandboom are brands that are building, not only a company culture that probably full of millennials and Gen Z, but they’re also trying to, at the same time, market their products to the millennials and the Gen Z demographic. So, you’ve written a lot about that as well. You said a lot about how they are receiving information through their mobile devices, but they, as you have said, as an analogy to the workforce, they also very much value the credibility factor that they receive from their entertainment sources such as YouTube. They are going there for entertainment but they’re also going there, for instance, as a learning opportunity to increase their knowledge on a specific topic. So when we’re talking about marketing to this type of generation and this demographic, what are your thoughts around how can a brand come out as more authentic or really speak to this generation through these type of channels and mediums?
Cole: First, let me frame where I come from with my perspective, because as much as I’m a marketer and over the past few years, I’ve really established myself in the element of personal branding or speaking into millennials or Gen Z and what not. I’m really an artist first. That’s really how I got started. I went to school for creative writing. I just wanted to write books. That was really it. I didn’t study advertising. I didn’t grow up thinking I was gonna be the next Don Draper and play Mad Men. I wanted to write books and I wanted to share my story and in order to do that in today’s day and age, I needed to learn how to market myself. And in the process of marketing myself in my writing and because I really learned and understood digital writing, specifically how to write on the internet, once I started getting momentum there, then I had all these people coming and being like, “Wow, you really understand marketing. You understand how to market yourself.” And now like, this podcast is a perfect example, right? Now I’m on a marketing podcast explaining my perspective, but where I come from, is this whole idea of make something that matters first and then figure out how to market that.
So if you go back to the whole idea of access, to me, there are so many quick wins that huge companies are missing out on. I don’t think the big, big brands are fully… I don’t think they fully get it yet where if someone that’s a millennial, and I’m 27. So if someone 27, 30 but like below, like 22 or 15, if they go to your site and it doesn’t load properly for 15 seconds, they’re gone. I will go to a certain site or I will go and like, “Oh, that’s a really cool article,” and then I’ll click on it and it’s like, and now my phone is spazzing in front of me because there’s four different ads trying to load at the same time. I’m gone. I’m never coming back. And that’s like, there’s this huge knowledge gap where brands and… I mean, like everything, right? Like publishers, even YouTube is like they’re struggling with this. You’ve got digital ad fraud going on. They’re all trying to figure out, “How do we stay alive?” specifically if you’re monetizing through ads like that. And also like, “Where do we invest our money?” If you have your main thing being a site or a product or an app or whatever and the usability of it, the actual experience of it gets compromised just so you can put an ad there or you think that like that’s the better way to reach someone. It’s almost like they’re still not hearing it, that no one’s paying attention to that ad. No one. So when you talk about reaching these younger demographics, it’s like, “Okay, well, where…” The older mentality is, “Well, let’s just keep pumping money into ads because the more times we hit someone then they’re more likely to convert.” And really, it’s like the complete opposite. The younger that you get, the less it has to do with seeing an ad and the more it has to do with what’s the experience of me actually using the thing and then that’s gonna determine me telling someone else about it or me being really loyal to it.
Amy: So you’re coming from our perspective that work on your core product and offering first and make sure you get all the basics right. If it’s a newcomer’s website where you’re selling products, make sure it does all of that. But at the same time, it sounds like the product itself, like if you’re selling merchandise that the content on what you put on the merchandise itself needs to somehow resonate with the fan base in a way that they will not only just continuously see your product through an app but also go out of their way to kind of do this word of mouth type of referral.
Cole: I would say this is the biggest shift in terms of selling, right? And this is something that I’ve seen even from myself. In the process, I’m building a company right now that offers thought leadership to CEOs. So what we are is it’s a ghostwriting agency and we hop on the phone with the CEO or an entrepreneur or a keynote speaker. We bring questions to the table that they want to answer that we think would make for great articles, we’d listen, we write it for them, and then we give it back to them, and then we post it. A great example of how to “sell” in today’s economy is like, you’re not telling someone, “Go buy this,” you’re sharing something of value and then saying, “And by the way, it’s here if you want it.” And so if you look at the press world which is a perfect example, you’ll have all of these PR companies that it’s a very old in the industry, and they go, “Hey, the better way to sell your company or sell your product is to go get some other person to write about how great you are.” Okay, nobody’s reading that. Like, literally nobody. And then the opposite, which is what I’ve done for myself, and now I’m starting like, it’s what works. It’s what people do wanna know, is if you have the CEO themselves telling the story or saying, “This is how I built my company. This is what it was like when I didn’t know if I was gonna be able to bring this idea to fruition 10 years ago. Oh, and by the way, this is what we do. It’s here if you want it. Anyway, back to my story…” That’s how you sell something today. And people don’t get that. And so if you go to younger generation, Gen Z, like, the reason influencer marketing is becoming so popular is because it is one of the first marketing strategies if you will, where you’re not telling the consumer, “Go buy this.” You’re saying, “You already like this thing. Here’s my story. First person. This is me. And, oh, by the way, this thing’s here if you want it. Anyway, back to the story…”
And that’s, like, that’s what makes it so compelling and it’s not disruptive or it doesn’t step on the toes of the consumer. They don’t sit there and go, “My experience was just bothered by an ad.” It’s just part of it. It’s there if I’m on it. And so, when you’re talking or explaining to big brands how do you reach the younger people, it’s like, you have to completely change your mentality. It’s not just this single voice outward being like, “Go do this. Go buy this.” It’s, you have to figure out what they’re already willing to pay attention to and finding a creative way to weave your brand or your story into that narrative. And unfortunately, most people, they are not that creative.
Amy: That’s really one of the biggest challenges. And it’s interesting that you bring up influencers because they’re…I personally feel like there’s a saturation of influencers promoting products, every other post that they do on either Instagram or YouTube channel or Facebook. How do you feel about that? What is the right balance how you and I, millennials, Gen Z, they’re smart? They know when these things are happening. How can a brand actually make sure that they are finding the right influencers for their own brand and that the influencer marketing strategies is actually effective?
Cole: I’ve been an influencer in my own right for the past few years and even I knew from the beginning, like it’s kinda common sense, right? Like if you… It’s like dating, right? If you’re in high school and you’ve dated every girl in your grade, that’s…you got a reputation now, and that’s… I always saw it that way when I was trying to build myself as an influencer or wanting to work with brands is, okay, if you work with one brand and you say, “This brand’s amazing,” and then two weeks later, you go to a competitor of theirs or an entirely different brand that doesn’t even have anything to do with what you’re all about. Now, peoples are like, “Okay. Well, whose team are you really on? Are you loyal or are you just bouncing around? Are you just dating every girl just for the sake of dating every girl?” And that’s like…for me, that’s such common sense. I don’t think that a lot of people get that. And unfortunately, a lot of influencers, once they build themselves to a certain point, it’s like, “Oh, I can get paid to do this. Yup, I’ll take it. I’ll take it. I’ll take it.” And that’s when you see them promoting something every other day. Again, it’s shortsighted thinking, right? Like it’s shortsighted for the brand who saw that person and if they did any sort of due diligence at all, they would see that this was already happening, and they’re like, “Well, we’ll just squeeze we can out of this one too.” That’s shortsighted on the brand side. And then for the influencer, they’re not even thinking about the fact that they’re saturating themselves.
Amy: Yeah. Yeah, it’s about re-framing it in a way that you can kinda show people and help them visualize how to use it, how it kinda, in the context of their lifestyles, how it’s being used and how it could actually add value, right?
Cole: Going back to your original question of how do you speak to these younger people and younger generations? It’s like… It’s just, again, like, it just seems so obvious. I don’t understand where there’s so much confusion still on a branded level is the fact that people go online for two reasons, they either wanna be entertained or they wanna learn. That’s pretty much it. And so, you either need to speak the entertainment language and find a way to make your customer laugh or be engaged and then find ways to weave your brand into that without like, “And now a cut from our sponsors.” As soon as that comes on, everyone turns off.
Amy: Yes. That is 100% what this takeaway should be from this podcast if anyone’s listening out there. Because a lot of people have tons of products that they just wanna test, test, test, test, and it becomes like what you’re saying, shortsighted, if they’re not thinking more strategically about what this brings to the audience that’s consuming this ad, like how does it fit into their life, what value does it bring, because that’s what they’re thinking about, especially the Gen Z and millennial generation, right?
Amy: Great. Well, Cole, I wanna know what’s up next for you, what you’re excited about working on next so then our audience can also follow you along on that journey if they’re interested?
Cole: Yeah. I always do updates on my social, Nicolascole77. I usually do recaps on my site as well, nicolascole.com. And right now, I’m psyched to be building Digital Press. It’s my first real company. I launched it about six months ago. It’s been a ride, ghostwriting for executives. I get to learn from some of the smartest people out there. And that’s really why I started it, is I feel like the smartest people in their industry don’t have the time to sit down and write articles anyway. So for me, the thing I wanted to solve is like, if you have these younger people that go online and they wanna learn about entrepreneurship or they wanna learn how to build a company, the people they really wanna learn from aren’t the one sitting there writing articles. So the problem that I’ve really set out to solve is bringing my writing expertise and going to these really smart people in their fields, taking a little bit of their time, learning what they know and then helping them craft articles that they can share online so then young people like me, when we go and search for it will actually be learning from them.
Amy: Great. Sounds really amazing. And congratulations, again, for launching Digital Press, six months now. And yeah, all the best to that and I’m sure you’re gonna do amazing job as you already have done and have shown through all of your work. Thank you so much, Cole.
Cole: Thank you. I really appreciate it.
Amy: So that’s the Brandboom Podcast for today. Visit us on SoundCloud for new episodes and go to brandboom.com for show notes and more. I’m Amy Zhou and thanks again for listening.