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Marketing to Millennials: hype and stereotypes

Since the term first emerged in the 1990s the marketing industry has been abuzz with conversations about ‘Millennials’. Marketing to millennials is expensive and time-consuming, and to do it successfully we apparently need to overhaul our strategies and start from scratch.

But what do we really know about Millennials? Are they just a stereotype? And how much of the hype around them is just that: hype?

The Millennial demographic

The first thing to note about the Millennial demographic is that there is little consensus around what it is or who it represents. According to Neil Howe and William Strauss, you’re a Millennial if you were born between 1982 and 2004. For the US Census Bureau, the boundaries look more like 1982 -2000. The London Business School and PwC, on the other hand, put the dates as 1980 – 1996.

There are no hard and fast definitions for who or what a Millennial is. What we have instead is loose consensus around the idea that:

  • Millennials are distinct from Generation X, and from the most recent generation (those born since 2005); and
  • Millennials are the ‘worst,’ whatever that means.

It’s easier to find stronger consensus about the values and traits of Millennials. Here, marketers and the media have played a bigger role in ‘defining’ the demographic than statisticians.

Understanding Millennials

Marketers have been busy building a profile of the Millennial consumer in recent years, building narratives built around goals and values as you would for a traditional buyer persona. Ogilvy & Mather, for example, summarise Millennials as being:

  • ‘Spirited’ entrepreneurs
  • Individualists
  • Socially responsible and civic-minded
  • Optimistic realists

Generally, Millennials are viewed as being creative and optimistic (if not a little naïve) and preoccupied with social issues and technology.

Millennials: mad, bad and dangerous to know

Marketing to Millennials: two girls taking a selfie in the street

The idea that Millennials have a strong sense of community and civic duty is widely held. Paradoxically, so is the idea that they’re narcissistic, lazy brats.

For every ‘positive’ trait assigned to the demographic there is a negative one to boot. Over the years we’ve learned that Millennials are self-absorbed, entitled and narcissistic, that their loyalty is hard to earn, and that their short attention spans make it difficult to get them to focus on content or even stay in a job .

Millennials are also racist, uninformed and not concerned about free speech or national pride. Even Millennials hate Millennials: the Pew Research Center found that Millennials willingly ascribe negative traits to themselves, more so than Generation Xers and baby boomers.

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We hate Millennials

At this stage we have to ask: where does all this angst and apathy toward Millennials come from?

Scott Hess at TEDxSF thinks it’s a classic case of jealousy: non-Millennials (in particular Gen Xers) are envious of the way the digitally literate, highly-connected Millennials have overcome the crushing isolation and loneliness of adolescence.

This could be true, but it’s more likely that the attitude towards Millennials is a classic case of ‘kids these days’ syndrome. The profile that marketers have built of the Millennial demographic has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: marketing plans have to keep up with the evolving interests and behaviours of consumers who are supposedly bored, preoccupied with social issues and obsessed with technology.

Marketing to Millennials now means running ‘cause-related’ campaigns, moving faster and using technology in innovative, interactive ways to empower and delight. It’s expensive, it’s time consuming and it’s difficult.

We’ve worked ourselves into a state of thinking that Millennials are ‘changing the face of marketing forever.’ While it’s true that traditional methods and strategies don’t work on Millennials, there’s no need to completely ditch our strategies in favour of ones that make room for memes, social media and references to Netflix or HBO programmes.

M is for More of the Same

Marketing to Millennials: young people protesting the Vietnam War in 1966

The truth is that there is nothing hugely special about Millennials, and their uniqueness is overstated. Narcissism, caring about social justice, ‘breaking the rules’ and bending social norms are the hallmarks of every youth culture.

Mark Ritson sums this up nicely:

‘For starters, if you have been around longer than two years, you might have noticed that the ‘unique characteristics’ that define millennials are the bloody same traits we were ascribing to Generation Y not that long ago, and Generation X before that. You know the bit about how millennials want to ‘give back to society’? Or their ‘discomfort’ in traditional career roles? Or how they have a more ‘global mindset’ and ‘egalitarian principles’? And their literacy with new technology? These are not radical new psychographics, they are part of what sociologists refer to as ‘being young.’

Millennials are a diverse group of digital natives who can’t be marketed to when treated as a stereotype. Other qualifying demographics – such as education level, income, ethnicity and religion – play huge roles in shaping and influencing the behaviour, and buying patterns, of these individuals.

You should care about Millennials

They may not be the ‘special snowflakes’ we think they are, but Millennials still matter.

They’re the biggest, most diverse demographic with $200 billion in annual buying power in North America alone. They’re relevant because they’re coming of age and entering life cycle stages that involve major spending on things like tertiary education, property and children.

Millennials also wield influence over the purchasing and behaviour patterns of older consumers – their parents – whose buying power is also on the upturn.

Generalise at own risk

All things considered, it is important to keep Millennials in mind when you’re coming up with your marketing strategy and developing content. But you need to avoid sweeping generalisations about traits and behaviours. In reality, there's no such thing as 'marketing to Millennials'.

Rather than relying on stereotypes, build real and relevant personas based on the customers you do have (not the ones you want to have). Do your research, draw on real data and keep your personas fresh and up-to-date. You’ll have more success drawing and retaining Millennial consumers this way than you would by making grand assumptions.

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Hat tip to Elizabeth Hahn, Garry Knight, Tommy Japan and musyani75 for the images.

Grace O'Brien

I'm a writer by nature and an economist by training. In addition to well-written prose I like charts, coffee and small dogs.