“What the heck is wrong with the young people today? Why aren’t they buying the same way their parents did?”
That’s quickly becoming a common sentiment among business owners large and small as Millennials continue to gain dominance in the workforce and other social spheres. Earlier this year, a number of media outlets reported that Millennials in the United States now outnumber Baby Boomers.
Forbes estimates that by the year 2017, Millennials will be collectively spending $200 billion per year—in the United States alone.
As Millennials have come of age and the world economy has recovered from the recent recession, the Millennial generation—typically defined as people born between 1985 and 2000—now wields the majority of economic power in North America.
For businesses, that means the Millennial generation is simply too large to be ignored.
And that’s creating a major problem for businesses all around the world.
One 2015 article published in eMarketer (and later referenced in Forbes) reported that Millennials—who are now the largest age demographic in the United States, according to Pew Research—are no longer responding to traditional advertising.
After growing up in a society dominated by ads, Millennials haven’t just developed ad blindness—they’ve developed ad immunity.
And while the Millennial generation is quite different from previous generations in a variety of ways, it’s also quite similar. The core human psychology that drives Millennials is still essentially the same, with a few minor differences in the way that psychology manifests itself.
Comedian Adam Conover explored the many flaws in the traditional concept of Millennial marketing during his “Millennials Don’t Exist!” talk at the 2016 Deep Shift conference, in which he posits that the only commonality among Millennials is that they are young.
But the fact that Millennials have been grossly misrepresented hasn’t stopped the proliferation of a deluge of articles talking about Millennials as if they’re a total enigma, defined by unprecedented narcissism, technology addiction, and zero motivation to get out of their parents’ basements.
Perhaps the most notable example of this trend is TIME Magazine’s 2013 piece “The Me Me Me Generation”—which reads less like well researched journalism and more like a generational hit piece based on bad science, cherry-picked data, and unfiltered bias.
(One example of this garbage science is the NIH study referenced in the TIME article, which the Atlantic thoroughly debunks. Check your sources before you wreck your sources!)
My detractors will quickly point out that as a Millennial, I’m biased. And to them I say: Guilty. Of course I’m biased. Everyone is biased. Just ask Harvard psychology professor Mahzarin Banaji, who literally wrote the book on bias.
But this isn’t about me.
(Insert your preferred Millennial narcissism joke here.)
This is about the business value of accurate data, the importance of validating your assumptions, and the fundamental disconnect between mainstream Millennial marketing strategies and the most prevalent Millennial buying behaviours.
Quite simply, business owners who wish to remain in business over the long term can’t afford to buy into the stereotypes and ignore the data. As Millennials continue to age, their considerable economic power will only grow.
That’s why it’s important to start laying the groundwork for a Millennial-friendly marketing approach now—because the longer you wait, the harder it will be to catch up later.
So what do we know about how Millennials’ minds work and how they make buying decisions? The answer might surprise you.
Millennials and Baby Boomers: Substantively Similar, Superficially Different
One of these things is actually a lot more like the other than you’d think.
In his Deep Shift speech, Conover makes the controversial statement that generations in general don’t exist, and that generational dividing lines are arbitrary social constructs.
Says Conover: “Generational thinking has always been reductive and condescending.”
Conover states that generational thinking itself is overly simplistic, and has been since before the rise of the Roman Empire.
Hesiod, a Greek economist who lived circa 700 BC, once stated that the Greek youth of his day “only care about frivolous things. When I was a boy, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly…impatient of restraint.”
And in the 1960s, Life Magazine writer Ernest Fladell wrote about Baby Boomers: “Even as I said it, I knew the phrase ‘to make a living’ could have absolutely no meaning to these children of the affluent society.”
Both of these sentiments have also been applied to Gen X-ers and Millennials in codger-esque diatribes with little grounding in actual research.
The takeaway here? The assumptions that we carry about other generations are simply unfounded stereotypes that the media regurgitates every 20-some-odd years.
To put it simply: The mainstream news outlets are like that one old crotchety man in the house on the corner who sits on his front porch all day and yells at the neighbourhood kids whether they deserve it or not.
And the more rabid this generational get-off-my-lawn-ism becomes, the less grounding it has in reality.
Says Conover: “If you look at the demographics, you know what really exists? People…the (United States) Census Department themselves say, ‘we do not define generations.’ Generations are a convenient lens through which we look at people, and the question is, ‘How explanatory or how useful is the lens we’re using?’”
Conover’s point is that there are any number of possible division lines between groups of people, and that date of birth and personality characteristics aren’t necessarily the best division lines. Generational thinking, he says, is arbitrary, reductive, and condescending.
Conover also presents a strong case that the originators of the term “Millennials”—Neil Howe and William Strauss—invented the concept primarily for commercial gain.
Howe and Strauss are the founders of Lifecourse Associates, a consulting firm that provides marketing advice to Best Buy, the National Rifle Association, Merrill Lynch, and Nike, among others. By establishing the concept of Millennials (and Millennial marketing), Howe and Strauss have built the foundation of a lucrative business.
So if the traditional concept of Millennials is a social construct with little bearing on reality, what does that mean for Millennial marketing?
What Psychology Tells Us About Millennials
The first major finding about Millennials that psychological research has produced is one that will fly in the face of traditional notions about the Millennial mindset.
In a 2015 article published in the New York Times, writer Teddy Wayne examines a California State University study that found social media use is one of the driving reasons why Millennials are highly empathic, compassionate, and selfless.
This finding stands in stark contrast to the stereotype of Millennials as narcissistic, and is an important factor that has undergirded the success of major companies like TOMS Shoes and Patagonia.
In the case of TOMS, a “One for One” donation policy that provides a free pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair sold has positioned the brand as trustworthy and won TOMS a loyal Millennial following.
Millennials are also passionate about sustainability. In 2011, clothing manufacturer Patagonia ran a highly successful Black Friday advertising campaign for its jackets called “Don’t Buy This Jacket” that increased the company’s revenues by 30 percent in just one year, and almost 40 percent in the following year.
The campaign’s message was that Patagonia jackets are built to last, and therefore it’s simply wasteful to buy a new one every year. This emphasis on sustainability is arguably the driving factor that saw Patagonia’s sales surge—especially among Millennials, nearly three quarters of whom are willing to pay more money for a sustainable product.
But beyond concerns about social issues, Millennials also share certain priorities and traits relating to their own personal lives. In a 2014 interview with Forbes, consumer strategist and Millennial marketing expert Katie Elfering describes three key strategies that brands can use to appeal to Millennial values in an engaging way.
Millennials value personal fulfillment and discovery, Elfering says, and that sort of identity work is a core element of the Millennial mindset. Appealing to that drive for fulfillment is a strong way to align a brand with Millennials’ priorities and wants.
Elfering also says that it’s essential for brands to understand Millennials’ actual everyday experiences and lifestyles—not just caricatures of them—and to find ways to augment their lived experiences.
Making a product or service part of a customer’s lifestyle is, arguably, one of the best ways to make that product or service indispensable.
Finally, Elfering touches on a point that cannot be overstated. Millennials want to feel informed about the purchasing decisions they make and to be involved in the purchasing process. They have little patience for being “sold to.”
It’s not enough to simply talk at Millennials——you have to talk to them.
They’re tired of being told to sit down, shut up, and listen. But that hasn’t stopped a deluge of tone-deaf ads that denigrate Millennials while simultaneously asking them for their (limited) dollars or otherwise exploit stereotypes about them.
One prime example is Bloomberg Business Week’s (now defunct) “BBW Gets You Ahead” ad campaign, which invited Millennials’ parents to send their children 12 free digital issues along with a cheeky (or offensive, depending on who you ask) e-card.
Available e-cards included greetings such as “You’re a drain on this country’s economy, sweetie pie,” “Our American dream is for you to move out,” and “You’re not a professional YouTuber. You’re just not.”
Entrepreneur and writer J. Maureen Henderson harshly condemned this style of advertising in Forbes, stating that “Millennials who live at home aren’t doing so because they’re pampered and it’s just so much darn fun hanging out with Mom and Pop…they’re doing it because they don’t have the means to move out.”
The bottom line: Businesses of all sizes have wasted considerable time and money marketing themselves to and around caricatures of Millennials. But caricatures don’t buy things——people do.
Marketing to Millennials the Right Way
According to Elfering, effectively marketing to Millennials ultimately boils down to demonstrating how a product or service serves a practical purpose in Millennials’ lives.
Millennials value utility above brand or status, Elfering argues, which is why a service like Uber is finding great success among Millennials, while Pizza Hut continues to see a decline in sales and McDonald’s strives to pivot away from talking about Millennials as a homogenous group.
That means if you want to target Millennials, you should stop talking about your brand and start talking about your product or service’s benefits.
Content marketing is another highly effective means of appealing to Millennial buyers, in particular because it lends authenticity to a brand —— it’s not just hype.
Millennial marketer Kyle Wong lays out a few simple tips for marketing to Millennials the right way:
“Don’t just create any content just to get someone’s attention. Create content that is relevant, authentic, engaging, and helpful. And most importantly, be consistent! For example, don’t create campaigns to ask people to add your brand on Snapchat if you’re not going to invest in ongoing content for the channel. Instead, spend more time improving your entire customer experience and defining an authentic brand story. One great campaign doesn’t matter if you’re delivering a poor customer experience.”
Others who have advocated in favour of authentic content marketing as a means of reaching Millennials include Meaghan Moraes of HubSpot, Adam Tabachnikoff of Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, and Sujan Patel of ContentMarketer.io.
The first step to creating a compelling content marketing campaign usually involves a content audit.
There’s also a major push to create a more experience-centric marketing approach for Millennials. One Eventbrite white paper concludes that Millennials care more about experiences than things, are highly motivated by a fear of missing out (FOMO), and want to spend more of their money on experiences.
Turning processes into experiences and overhauling offerings to be more experience-based is a great way to appeal to Millennial values. An easy first step? Start hosting events related to your industry that will be of interest to Millennials. It may also be worthwhile to consult a user experience designer.
Millennials are People, Too
With the mainstream media’s all-too-common grousing about Millennials, it’s easy to buy into the stereotypes and forget the facts.
Magazines like TIME would portray Millennials as near-mythical creatures originating from some kind of parallel universe where not handing out participation trophies is a crime against humanity, where Twitter followers are the new currency, and where the dominant form of entertainment is twerking while holding a selfie stick.
Huxleyan doomsaying notwithstanding, Millennials aren’t all that different from the generations who came before us.
And when you can base your Millennial-targeted marketing on statistically proven facts and deftly avoid the stereotypes, you can foster a real connection with your Millennial audience—one that will win you their loyalty and their tightly held dollars.
What kinds of strategies are you using to reach your Millennial buyers?