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The lesson in Swift vs. Apple? Millennials rule

If today's labor movement wants to find a way to be more relevant, it might think about shaking it up on social media. Because when it comes to standing up to big corporations for the rights of workers, the new heroine on the landscape is none other than a Tumblr-wielding Taylor Swift.

The Nashville pop star's stand against Apple Music wasn't a classic David and Goliath match (Goliath and Goliath, maybe), but she took that stand on behalf of the many songwriters and artists who don't have her fame or clout. And in only 492 words, she outlined a cogent – and winning – argument that convinced the world's most valuable company to change its stance.


Taylor Swift performs during 'The 1989 World Tour' night 1 at Lanxess Arena on June 19, 2015 in Cologne, Germany.
Getty Images
Taylor Swift performs during 'The 1989 World Tour' night 1 at Lanxess Arena on June 19, 2015 in Cologne, Germany.

It's easy to take this as just another story about the shifting demographics of the music industry, but it's something bigger. Swift may be one of the world's biggest recording artists, but the 25-year-old singer/songwriter is also a millennial. And while the shopping and consuming habits of that oft-mentioned generation are constantly discussed, their impact on our corporations and our business landscape will be even bigger and more far-reaching.

What Swift lays out in her letter to Apple could be a manifesto for what millennial consumers expect from companies and how they plan to interact with them. They're no longer OK with "being sold to" or even being "engaged by;" they're not looking at your offering in a take-it-or-leave-it way, even if you're the biggest game in town. Some of the expectations outlined in Swift's letter that could apply more broadly to the way millennials interact with corporations include the following basic concepts.

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Fundamental fairness: Swift uses the logic that many suppliers to big companies use everyday: We support your profit-making efforts, but you must support ours. As your supplier, we're in this business together and your size/power/heft in the marketplace doesn't allow you to forget that. Consumers are increasingly looking at how companies treat their employees, their suppliers and their partners — and they are making buying decisions based on their findings.

This issue also plays into a fairness concern that millennials have expressed strong opinions about: income inequality. The world's biggest companies are owned and controlled by a relative few and the profits those few reap may come at the expense of many in ways such as paying the lowest wages possible, polluting the environment or squeezing their suppliers, which is the complaint Swift has against Apple. Companies that demonstrate care and concern for all stakeholders, not just their customers, will win more easily with this generation.

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Transparency: Swift basically negotiated for the thousands of artists doing business with Apple Music. And she did in full public view on Tumblr and Twitter. And the world's most valuable – and notoriously "close-to-the-vest" company — engaged in this negotiation on the same social media platforms, with an old-media telephone call or two thrown in.

Imagine if Procter & Gamble negotiated its Walmart relationship like that or if the United Auto Workers got a new Ford contract that way. The day is coming where those things will happen — companies will invariably do more and more of their business in full view of the public. And the public will hold them accountable.

The "real" sharing economy: Millennials are widely credited with bringing us the "sharing economy," supporting ZipCar, Uber, Airbnb and countless other "sharing" companies. But what ignited this sharing economy was the actual notion of sharing: using resources wisely and when necessary and working with others in your city and community to achieve common goals that helped all.

It's that same millennial impulse that Swift is acting upon: She's sharing her clout (and fame and success) to reach goals that help all in her musician/artist/songwriter community. Companies that understand this will be able to more effectively connect with (and profit from) this generation and those that don't.

Read MoreApple u-turns after Taylor Swift slams music policy

We vs. me: While Swift is definitely exerting her personal power by threatening to withhold her product from Apple Music's service, that threat is delivered in a way that shows she understands the symbiosis of their relationship. Unlike the labor movement of yesterday – either the worker wins or management wins – today's millennials realize that all parties involved have to prosper for any single one to prosper. If the company doesn't profit, neither do its workers. It's the flip-side of the income inequality concern and, like that issue, one that requires a balance that the millennial generation member expects.

Every generation makes an impact on society and the world as it passes through, and the largest generation to hit adulthood will undoubtedly have an impact commensurate with its size. But as more and more members of the millennial generation move into careers and corporations and demonstrate the kind of leadership and values that Swift did in standing up to Apple, they may be the first generation in a long while to leave the world not just richer, but actually better.

Commentary by David Melancon, CEO of btr., measures companies' performance beyond their balance sheets to make better companies. He is former CMO at Benjamin Moore & Co. and also led communications efforts at Visa. Follow him on Twitter @DavidMelancon.