Today’s twentysomethings find themselves in an in-between place: they’re out working in the world, but unlike previous generations, they’re not yet considered full-fledged adults. Most don’t have the assumed perks of adulthood, like a stable paycheck, a place of their own, or a life partner. And yet, they feel the first hints of age catching up to them–suddenly, it’s harder to lose weight, shake hangovers, bounce back from all-nighters. Many report feeling like their skin is quite literally losing its youthful glow.
The above findings come from the skincare company Origins, which spent two years interviewing hundreds of millennials, trying to see the world from their point of view. Origins already has a strong following among women in their 30s and 40s, but it wanted to make inroads with millennials, an 80-million-strong demographic that spends $1 trillion a year. “We wanted to see what would resonate with a 25-year-old woman, since we are looking to her as our next consumer,” says Rachel Martino, assistant manager of global social media at Origins, and a 24-year-old herself. “We wanted to catch her at a time in her life when we could really speak to her and draw her into the brand.”
But trying to target a new market is no small feat; it requires investing in research to produce new products, marketing campaigns, and even new brand design. Origins’s leadership believed that the best way to gather this knowledge was through co-creation, a buzzword popular in management circles, which means bringing consumers into every stage of the business process. The idea is not just to create products for a particular kind of consumer, but with that consumer. So Origins set up workshops in the U.S. and China, inviting hundreds of twentysomethings to discuss their lifestyles, dreams, needs, and desires–and not just as they relate to skin care.
“In a traditional focus group, you already have a product or a campaign you’re testing with your target demographic,” Yann Marois, executive director of global market at Origins, tells Fast Company. “Co-creation is the opposite: you’re going into the room with nothing. You’re starting from scratch.” The theory is that co-creation allows you to discover entirely new insights, rather than simply gathering feedback about your existing ideas. This kind of in-depth knowledge gathering comes at a steep cost. While Marois didn’t give an exact figure, he said that Origins spent more on these co-creation efforts than it had spent on any previous consumer-insight research.
Origins decided co-creation was worth the considerable investment because it might yield a groundbreaking insight or two. And eventually, a gem of an idea did emerge. The Origins team kept hearing twentysomethings lament the loss in their skin’s radiance; this was a problem the brand felt it had the ability to tackle. “Again and again, in co-creation workshops, they described biological changes that were happening in their skin,” Marois says. “But they didn’t know exactly what was going on or how to describe it. They shared this feeling that their skin used to bounce back a few years ago, but now, after long hours, it was no longer recovering.”
Origins’ scientists set out to understand the biological processes that result in these subtle skin changes. They identified a process called carbonylation, which causes the skin to appear duller as it ages. “We now have research showing that skin is in transition in the decade of our twenties,” Wendy Brooks, director of global product development at Origins, explains. “Skin loses its translucency; this literally means that less light is able to reflect through skin and back out of it, resulting in an overall loss of glow.”
Brooks and her team tried to find ways to reverse this process. They invented a serum called Original Skin, which includes Willowherb, a plant extract that Origins believes has the power to restore the skin’s radiance. The product also targets other concerns that emerged from workshops, such as enlarged pores, roughness, and dullness. “This was a new approach for us,” Marois says. “Speaking directly to millennials allowed us to create a product that met real concerns–not just assumed concerns.”
But developing the right product is just one part of co-creating. It was also important for Origins to learn to speak millennials’ language and get their vernacular just right before marketing the product to them. Besides using co-creation workshops, Origins’s leadership tapped their millennial employees to work on the campaign. Martino spearheaded that internal millennials focus group. “We felt like we had a finger on the pulse of our target consumers, because we were that consumer,” she says. “Brands don’t often use their youngest employees in smart ways, so we were so excited that the senior team gave us the opportunity to make a big impact on this campaign.”
In that meeting, the term “quarter-life crisis” kept coming up as a playful way to describe twentysomethings’ sense of being constantly in flux between childhood and adulthood. (A similar term in Mandarin also bubbled up in millennial meetings in Origins’s China offices, highlighting the universality of the sentiment.) And the idea also had wider cultural traction: the hashtag #QuarterLifeCrisis regularly pops up on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram connected with funny portraits of everyday life as a millennial. The Origins team felt the phrase would be the perfect motto for the new Original Skin serum. It was specific enough that it would resonate with millennials, but it was also broad enough so that everybody would have their own personal take on it.
Those internal meetings also made it clear that the best way to engage with millennials was online, rather than through print, radio, or TV ads. “People in our generation expect to engage in a one-to-one dialogue with brands,” Martino says. “Social media is a great way to engage with twentysomethings who may not be visiting stores, since they live their lives online.” Origins launched an all-digital “quarter-life crisis” campaign, sharing news about the serum on social media, and through a wide network of bloggers and YouTube influencers. But Martino and her social media team didn’t just make a hard sell for the serum. They also posted quips on social media about what it’s like to be a twentysomething: “When life gets real and you miss college”; “When you make plans to go out. But you really want to stay in, stream videos, and eat takeout”; “Marry him or break up? Maybe travel the world, find a hot Spaniard, and live on the coast of Ibiza.”
These messages started a broader conversation with customers, spurring them to respond with their own quarter-life crisis stories. The Origins social media team worked hard to respond to every comment to make the brand feel personal and intimate. “Millennials are looking for brands that get them, beyond just what their products can do,” Martino explains. “This approach was more about creating a millennial lifestyle and a place where they can talk about all the things that are going on in their lives. We were inserting ourselves into an existing conversation, rather than creating our own, which we felt would be more authentic.” Martino points out that her team also took care not to alienate older consumers by running targeted Facebook ads for women in their thirties and forties with products and posts that are a better fit for them.
As a final step, Origins wanted to make sure that the campaign design was perfectly tailored to the sensibilities of millennials. That’s a hard thing to pin down, since aesthetics are so subjective. But the co-creating workshops yielded one valuable piece of information: twentysomethings spend a lot of time on the internet, surrounded with computer-generated fonts and graphics, so the images that stand out to them are often not digital, but hand-drawn. Millennials are more likely to notice calligraphy or illustrated images.
In the end, the imagery for the Origins “quarter-life campaign” came about by serendipity. Mark Ferdman, a VP at Origins who happens to draw in his spare time, noticed the work of Bee Stanton, a 25-year-old artist from Nova Scotia, on Instagram. Stanton is fascinated by typography, and her work often features beautifully hand-lettered quotes, surrounded by pictures of things like boats, mermaids, or flowers. Soon the two started commenting on each others’ work, and Ferdman thought Stanton would be a great fit to create the look of the campaign. “After taking my doodles to groups of twentysomethings to see their reactions, he offered me the whole campaign,” Stanton says. “I was over the moon. I was absolutely beside myself.”
This is not typically how brands secure artwork for large-scale, big-budget campaigns. But this is precisely why it resonated with the millennial co-creation groups. They seemed to like it because it felt personal, rather than like the work of a large corporation. Stanton’s work is naturalistic and not over-thought, since she is unable to iterate with hand illustrations as she would with computer designs. “We’ve been submerged in the online world right from the start,” Stanton tells me. “There are so many images competing for our attention, so we have a finely tuned sense of when things are different or authentic. Origins seems to get that about millennials.”