Millennial Marketing Reconsidered: Is the Idea of a Discrete Millennial Consumer a Marketing Fantasy?

on Wednesday, 16 September 2015.

What’s a Millennial? Is it a generation? A target market? A mindset? Increasingly, I am wary of defining them any of these ways. In fact, the idea of a discrete “Millennial” consumer may be a marketing fantasy, and one that needs to be put to rest before it does more harm. At best the term is a crutch, and at worst, it’s misleading. 

How We Got Here

In the beginning Millennials were noticeably different from young adults of other generations. Pew Research showed that young people born in the late 80’s and later held different attitudes than their parents and grandparents at the same age. Global research showed young people were on an upward trajectory fueled by optimism, technology, a booming economy, and unprecedented levels of education for both men and women. They were a new phenomenon. They elected a President.

 With the  2008 recession, Millennials’ story became one of hopes delayed, deferred or redirected, and many early predictions about how different this generation was turned out to be just plain wrong. Today, young adults are marrying and having children, aspiring to buying automobiles, suburban homes and a middle class lifestyle. Today, an 18-34 year old consumer might have more in common with Gen X’er or Boomer than one of their Millennial peers. The term “Millennial Mom” derives more meaning from “Mom” than “Millennial.”

Where Do We Go From Here?

When I’m asked to speak on the topic of Millennials, I try to ignore the label and ask clarifying questions: What aspect of Millennials is of interest? Why the interest in Millennials? What is the marketing problem?  This approach paid off a few years ago when Sprint asked us to help them explore how Millennials use mobile phones while shopping in stores. The issue was showrooming and the hypothesis was that Millennials were more aggressive about finding alternatives online, merely using stores to research their online purchase. Fortunately we did not limit the investigation to young people. We found showrooming behavior among older consumers, and many Millennials were not participating. Instead, we found an interesting vanguard of consumers that cut across ages. 

 Here are some ways to clarify the thinking when the topic turns to Millennials:

1.     Define your terms – Are you describing a population based on age, attitudes, behavior or some other dimension? How does using the term Millennial help or obscure a more precise definition?

2.     Identify the issue – What is the problem to be addressed? Is it truly Millennial specific or symptomatic of a wider issue?

3.     Generate hypotheses  - What makes you think Millennials might be unique in ways that matter to marketing?

4.     Determine what you would you do differently if Millennials turn out to be truly different - Would you execute a Millennial-specific initiative, or would it be better to address the Millennial mindset and reach a broader target?