In the modern fairytale of family life, what constitutes "happy ever after" no longer automatically equates to the "2.4 children" archetype that so much of the marketing industry is built on. In fact, the increase in blended families and step-parenting means that 2.4 parents might be more accurate.
We are in the midst of a quiet revolution in the aspirations and experiences of modern family life and how this relates to brands. As the generation brought up embracing the beautiful truth that all love is created equal continues to grow, attitudes to family life will only evolve further.
Even Disney Princesses are broadening their horizons; following the announcement that Frozen 2 is in the works, consumers have taken to Twitter to call for a different kind of romance for everyone’s favourite ice-princess, Elsa. After Feminist Culture founder Alexis Isabel used the hashtag #GiveElsaAGirlfriend, the campaign quickly gained momentum. In a post for MTV, Isabel explained: "The entertainment industry has given us girls who have fallen in love with beasts, ogres who fall for humans and even grown women who love bees: but we’ve never been able to see the purity in a queer relationship."
Allowing people, fictional princesses or otherwise, the space and support to be themselves is a significant motivating force in modern families. This is a shift that makes reappraising marketing to families a business priority.
The family collective
If the history of family life has been based on the premise that the needs of the family must take priority over those of the individual, millennial parents are demanding that the family and, by extension brands and businesses, flex and expand to accommodate individual needs.
Caroline Whaley, co-founder of women’s leadership consultancy Shine For Women, believes that each member of the modern family wants to be treated as an individual. "Un-traditional is the new traditional," she says. "The family has become a collective – it is not just held together by blood."
At the same time, social media has both built up and washed away the sandcastles of the idyllic family life so often focused on by advertisers. Millennial parents are rejecting the airbrushed image of the "perfect family" with spotless houses, children effortlessly groomed and mothers who "ping back" to pre-baby weight as if moulded from elastic.
Jenny Smith, head of planning and strategy at Maxus UK, says advertisers should ask themselves why they are still resorting to a rule of thumb that is no longer relevant or, perhaps, even true. "There needs to be a greater emphasis on tackling the unconscious bias that exists when developing a specific strategy for a campaign," she contends.
Embracing the new normal
The composition of the family is increasingly diverse and multifaceted; children are being raised by single parents, same-sex couples, grandparents and relatives from the wider family. According to Mintel, a quarter of UK families with dependent children are now headed by a lone parent. Two-parent families are also under pressure: in almost half (49%) of couple households, both parents work full-time.
This has brought new pressures. According to Working Families’ Modern Families Index 2016, a third of parents (29%) reported feeling "burned out" often or all the time. Millennial parents are the most likely to work full-time, flexibly, and to share caring responsibilities. However, they are struggling with this and are the most prone to exhaustion (42% said they felt burnt out most or all of the time).
"Tag-team parenting" is at the heart of modern families. The term encompasses not only two-parent households but also lone parents juggling childcare and work. Millennial parents express discomfort with the expectation that women must be the primary caregivers. As writer Miranda July explained to New York: "We give fathers permission to focus on their work but mothers with that same determination make everyone uneasy."
"Mums and dads are no longer defined by gender roles and stereotypes"
All too many brands are guilty of leaving fathers on the sidelines by focusing all their attention on an often mythical – or at least outdated – vision of motherhood. This is a woman who is primarily pigeonholed by brands on the basis of whether she works outside the home – a broad-brush division that grates on millennial parents. As one of the respondents to Future Thinking’s Our Families study declared: "I’ve never heard anyone refer to my partner as a working dad yet women are always a working mum. I’m not – I’m someone with a career who also has children."
For millennial parents, allowing their contemporaries and their children to be who they want to be is non-negotiable. You need only look at the furore that has blown up around gender-specific toys and clothing for babies and children to recognise the impact this trend will have on marketing and new product development.
Alec Dobbie, chief executive of FanFinders, the consumer insight agency that owns and operates mother-and-baby community Your Baby Club, says: "Mums and dads are no longer defined by gender roles and stereotypes; the depiction of a mother wearing an apron and welcoming her husband home from work would be lost on millennial parents. This is why marketers need to find out exactly who millennial parents are and what they are all about."
Families have ever-increasing expectations of the brands they interact with. When both time and money are under pressure, more consumers are demanding that businesses flex to better accommodate their needs.
James Lohan, co-founder and executive chairman of travel brand Mr & Mrs Smith, says that millennial parents have higher expectations when it comes to travel. They are hungry for authentic experiences and have an eye for unique, personalised design. "Technology makes it much harder to switch off and all of us – especially parents – have far less time than we used to," he says. "So when we treat ourselves to travel, it’s important to get it right."
This means brands need to be more thoughtful, Lohan explains: "Look after families from toddlers to teens so everyone can enjoy those special moments together. Small attentions to detail can make a big difference."
Tessa Mansfield, content and creative director at trend consultancy Stylus, says brands must be mindful that millennial parents are juggling complex plans, so they must be pragmatic about the utility and convenience they can offer. However, simple must not equate to boring. "Beneath their exhausted shells lie open-minded, optimistic consumers who seek well-being, nurture and fun," she adds.
A new clutch of digitally powered start-ups are already embracing this drive for utility, from Mush, an app that connects like-minded mothers, to Hoop, an app that helps parents find fun things to do with their kids. These young businesses are stealing a march on mainstream brands with a simple, empathetic approach capitalising on the smartphone’s omnipresence in parents’ lives.
Max Jennings, co-founder of Hoop, says the influence of mobile on families is likely only to increase: "This generation has a far more intuitive relationship to technology and its role in life compared with previous generations."
The growing influence of extended family and friends supporting overstretched parents is another factor brands must take into account. According to the TUC, nearly three in five grandparents provide regular childcare, yet many brands ignore their growing influence on family purchasing.
Mansfield says that influence over purchasing shifts within families, as progressive parents allow their children to have more of a say in family decisions and teenagers drive the music and fashion preferences of their parents.
With the increased number of media channels, Jennings believes the challenge for brands is to attract parents’ attention. "Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook; the list keeps growing," he says. "The influencers speaking to families have also grown from a handful of media networks to a wide mix of social media profiles."
While the structure of the family might be evolving, the nature of what it means to be part of a family has not
Bridging these divides is key to better connecting with the modern family, and a small number of brands globally are successfully challenging the generational tensions that are increasingly apparent in intergenerational households.
In China, skincare brand SK-II crafted a compelling and powerful ad that simultaneously stood up for the country’s sheng nu ("leftover women" – a derogatory term for unmarried women over 25) and encouraged their parents to rethink their entrenched attitudes.
Meanwhile, in India, Procter & Gamble detergent brand Ariel has galvanised consumers with its celebrated "#Sharetheload" campaign, in which a father apologises to his daughter for having set the wrong example by not pitching in with household chores.
"It’s not about eschewing tradition, it’s about creating new traditions," Elizabeth Thompson, strategist at creative consultancy Bluemarlin, explains. "If you want to stay relevant as a brand, you have to evolve as society evolves. If you want to engage with consumers in a meaningful way, you have to reflect the reality of their daily lives and experience."
Key to this is understanding the daily negotiations of family life. Rebecca Ironside, managing director of qualitative research at Future Thinking, spends a lot of time with families as part of her research. "One of the key things we have observed and learned is that, while the structure of the family might be evolving, the nature of what it means to be part of a family has not," she says.
Indeed, the daily investment of love and attention implicit in caring responsibilities crosses social, economic and gender boundaries. In this sense, the experience of parenting can be a uniquely bonding one.
"My mobile rang during a client meeting yesterday and up popped ‘School’ as the caller ID. Parents everywhere will know this usually means one thing: a sick child who has to be collected within the hour and kept home for the next two days. Parents will know the panic that follows," Ironside says.
Empathy must be placed at the top of the agenda or the ad industry’s growing love affair with "trendwashing" (using trends to put a gloss on negative shifts) could sweep the pressures faced by modern families under the carpet. Make no mistake, millennial parents and the often-derided Generation Rent are not avoiding home ownership because they are "embracing the sharing economy". Neither are they thrilled with below-inflation wage increases because they "want to embrace a bigger purpose".
As journalist Daisy Buchanan spelled out so eloquently in a recent article for The Pool: "Being part of Generation Rent isn’t just about losing money that could be spent paying off a mortgage – it means that the future feels completely out of reach."
The continuing financial uncertainty for many families is a reality that brands need to address for the foreseeable future.
Millennial parents are claimed to be the most open-minded in history, affording brands a unique opportunity to push the boundaries of advertising. Nonetheless, the overall picture remains one of many families that are only just managing, and conflict is most keenly felt where parents are navigating the boundary between work and family life.
According to the Modern Families Index 2016, almost half (46%) reported that their working life was increasingly stressful, and more than a third (35%) felt that work negatively dominated their family life.
Brands must reconfigure their advertising to better reflect family life and reconfigure their businesses to support it. As Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg wrote in a post on Mother’s Day in the US: "We need to rethink our public and corporate workforce policies and broaden our understanding of what a family is and looks like. We need to build a world where families are embraced and supported and loved, no matter how they fit together."
Modern families must be celebrated for their flexibility, their inclusivity and their ability to retain their individualism and thrive in a time of economic and social flux. But brands and businesses face a number of challenging questions as to how to better embrace today’s multifaceted families. For the risk remains that as we flex and fold ourselves into tighter corners, there will be nothing left of us but creases.