63/300: The Millennials Myth

Working in marketing there are three words you hear all the time: Social, Mom and Millennial.

Social media is what it is. Marketers will never really be successful in social media until they stop treating social media as a channel and start thinking of it as a human behavior – a way we do things, not just a place we go to.  I could go on here, but won’t. That’s a topic for another time.

Moms? When you work in consumer packaged goods, moms are the golden ticket. I might (and probably will) that go after moms to the exclusion of dads is a big mistake. I might (and probably will) make an argument that dads are a relatively untapped audience that could revolutionize marketing. But not here. Not now.

I want to talk a little bit about Millennials now. It seems like every brand -from diapers to financial services – is becoming Millennial obsessed right now. They have been, to be fair, but now more than ever. Why? Part of it is our increasing obsession with youth. Part of it is good business – focus on future customers and you help ensure the longevity of your brand. But mostly, it’s because brands are afraid of being seen as obsolete.

In general, the idea of generational demographic broad strokes makes me cringe. There are no hard, fast lines between generations. Instead, we look at cultural milestones, historical events and social phenomenon and define backwards around it. The Greatest Generation had WWII. The Boomers had Woodstock and Vietnam. The Yuppies had the bond market. Gen X had President Bill Clinton and Kurt Cobain. Millennials had the internet and technology-driven lives.

My dad is a Boomer. Born in the years after WWII, he came of age in the sixties. Demographers would make some big assumptions about him. But he never attended a sit-in, volunteered for the Army and was listening to folk music you’ve never heard of instead of Jimi Hendrix and the Stones. So, I don’t put a lot of faith in the broad sweeping generalizations.

And it seems like Millennials have more generalizations ascribed to them than most.

We assume a common experience because people were born at a certain time. We assume a common frame of reference and set of priorities. But look at the marchers outside Trump and Sanders rallies. Are all those young faces the same because of their age?

Not at all.

So why, then, do marketers put so much emphasis on Millennials? Because they don’t have a word for what they are describing. When they say Millennials, they mean digitally adaptive technology users. They mean people who define their own career path. They mean people who have come to rely on having ready made social networks and information at their finger tips. They mean people who have come of age in the time of terror and economic instability.

They mean people like me. I’m a Gen Xer on paper, but I spend half my life online. I was in junior high when President Clinton was elected but have never, to this day, listened to a Nirvana album. I remember getting my first email address in college, but have designed my own career path since high school. I am outside the demographic, but still remember the smell at Ground Zero, the fear of the 2008 crash and how natural it is to turn to Twitter for more information.

My point is not that generations should not be defined. It is that marketers should not fall subject to the definitions. We need to stop our obsession with the idea that a person being born in a certain time frame defines who they are and start defining our targets through how those people have defined themselves – in words, in beliefs and, most importantly, through behavior.

Millennials sounds good in the title of a conference presentation. It sounds better than “digitally adapted self-starters.” But it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. There have always been those inclined to adapt; there have always been the greedy and entitled; there have always been those who take an assertive approach to life. Let’s find better ways to identify the people we want and stop being generationally obsessed.

2 Comments +

  1. Interesting. Here in the UK, millennials are being defined from a marketing viewpoint as people with no money who don’t own anything. Don’t buy cars (driving rates are falling), don’t buy homes (property prices mean homeownership is beyond many in the south east, at least) which means they don’t buy insurance or home improvement products. The one thing they are buying, however, are travel and entertainment experiences. The memories of which have the advantage in their transient lives of being portable, lasting, and don’t require physical storage space.

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