Marketing To Millennials: Should You, Shouldn’t You And What Does That Mean?

By May 26, 2015 October 30th, 2017 Marketing Insights & Strategy, Podcast, Readings
Marketing To Millennials: Should You, Shouldn't You And What Does That Mean?

Generation X. Generation Y. Millennials. Boomers. The Silent Generation.

Leave it to marketers to label and box everything – including people – into groups that make them feel better about their ad spend.

It seems as if you can’t run a business nowadays without someone insisting you need to “tap into the millennial” market – that demographic of human being that is apparently so uniquely snowflake-like that they confound the rest of us.

I’ve been percolating on this idea of millennials for a while so today I want to explore with you what that means, how it may – or may not – affect your marketing and what to do about it the next time you hear the word.

What Is A Millennial, Anyway?

To sum it up in fewer words than are used in this rather confounding Wikipedia article, a millennial is anyone born between 1982 and 2004, depending on who you ask, or, I suppose, who’s spending money on the ad campaign.

More specifically, and paradoxically more generally, it refers to a set of character traits that define a generation of people. What traits, you may wonder?

Well, apparently everyone else is wondering, too. Millennials have been called everything from civic-minded and collaborative to disengaged and lazy. From socially liberal to proudly conventional. From entitled narcissists to community loving altruists.

If you’re trying to reach that market it sounds like your job just got a whole lot more complicated.

But Does The Designation Matter?

I hate labels. It’s a personal thing and whether that makes me a good marketer or a bad one, I really dislike putting people into categories. I know it’s a sometimes-necessary evil. You need your avatars and your ad sets.

But do we really need those delineations to be based on the year we were born?

Think about the date range: 1982 through 2004. That’s nearly 25 years! Twenty five years ago there were no cell phones. I spent Saturdays at the mall or on the phone with the very long curly cord so I could lock myself in the bathroom and talk to my friends in private.

Now I spend more time texting than talking, sleep with my smart phone and have a lot more friends whom I’ve never met than I’ve ever had a cocktail with in person.

Twenty five years changes a lot – not just from generation to generation but within an individual person. Are you the same person that you were 25 years ago?

So to mash a group of people into a 25-year time span and call it a demographic seems rather arbitrary to me.

Think about this as a business owner for a moment. If you’re into this idea of generational marketing, you’ve got to cover a range of people from 11 years old through their mid-30s.

Your job just got really complicated.

I’m A Millennial, Too

Actually, my official designation is “Generation X” which was taught to us as “the Me Generation” back in the days before character limits.

But lately I’m starting to feel the years being stripped away.

Just yesterday I had a conversation with Kelly Kranz, a cohost on the Superheroes of Marketing podcast, about what it means to be a millennial and what they want.

She actually is one, according to her birth year, so where better to get insight than from the horse’s mouth?

According to Kelly, millennials avoid phone calls and prefer text.

I avoid phone calls and prefer text.

I even text my mom. And my husband, who sits across the room from me every day of my life.

Look at me being young!

Kelly also says millennials avoid meetings.

I avoid meetings.

I really, really avoid meetings. I like to have scheduled, structured meetings with my clients (which we call “workshops”, by the way, because none of us likes meetings) but if you’re a vendor, sales person or someone who wants to have a meeting with me I will remind you that God invented Skype for a reason.

I’m feeling 20 all over again.

Finally, here’s an interesting tidbit for you. In preparation for writing this article I took a quiz put out by the Pew Research Center.

It’s only 14 questions so go have some fun and then report back to me what you find.

Here’s what I found: on a scale of 1-100 where 1 leans toward “the Silent Generation” and 100 is millennial, I scored a 72.

I’m going to put on my dancing shoes right now.

In case you’re wondering, I’m also 45 years old.

If this isn’t starting to make your job as a business owner and marketer sound really, really, really complicated then I don’t know what will.

It’s About Values, Not Age

Times they are a-changin’.

No doubt people are growing into a more socially conscious age – and by “age” I mean epoch, not the physical date on the calendar.

We’re seeing a shift in attitudes towards race, sexual orientation, family, religion and lifestyle choices.

This is where we typically expect older generations to lament the good old days while the younger ones come up to usurp our dominance of the cola market.

But I know plenty of “older generation” folks – from mine in our 40s to my parents in their 70s – who have adopted similar changes in attitudes.

We live, we learn.

My grandmother, who was 94 when she died only a few years ago, left us insisting that it’s important to enjoy your life, that dogs are people too, and that if you’re gay then so what? Live your life and be who you are.

This from a woman who grew up before women were seen as anything more than child factories with cooking skills and when “gay” was something you were on a Saturday night with your friends at a dinner party.

Twenty five years ago it didn’t occur to anyone to give a crap about the planet, except maybe to stop using aerosol hairspray. Which we did – all three generations of my family.

Today, one might think that “environmentally conscious” is the domain of the young.

Twenty five years ago it didn’t occur to us to have “relationships” with brands. Without access via social media or email, our comments and complaints were constrained to the living room.

Today, my “Silent Generation” mother is the first person to go to Twitter with her annoyances when she wants a company’s attention.

These attitudes are generational insofar as they shift over time. Some values we’re born into and some we learn as we go.

But ultimately if you’re a business owner looking to market to a “younger” generation then it might be time to stop thinking about their age and start thinking about their values.

Your Brand, Your Values

I don’t have an answer to the “how to market to millennials” question because it’s more complicated than drawing a line on a calendar.

People are more complicated than that.

I hope I’ve given you some idea of how values, expectations and attitudes cross generational lines and how difficult it would be to use that as your marketing baseline.

But here’s what you can do: target values, not generations.

Decide what it is that your product or service does. What problem does it solve for your customers? Does it save them money? Does it appeal to their social consciousness? Does it improve their lives? Does it make things simpler for them? Does it appeal to their sense of the world and how they fit into it?

And remember that you can’t target values that your company doesn’t hold, no matter how badly you may want to tap into a specific market. Ultimately you have to be true to yourself and your company. You have to know what you stand for and what you can add to people’s lives, whether they are 30 or 70.

Don’t Be Lame

Is it cool to say lame these days? Is it lame to say cool?

My parents said, “Groovy.” My friends and I said, “Like, totally awesome.” Today’s whippersnappers say things like “Fleek” or some such nonsense that I’m too old to master but am smart enough not to try.

And this is where I think businesses and marketers go awry. They think they need to hit some “young” market – which as we’ve already demonstrated can mean anything from wheelie-popping eleven-year-olds to career oriented 30-somethings.

That leads people to try to do things, say things and be things are not – namely cool, hip, young, trendy or whatever word is on fleek these days.

That leads inevitably to a glaring inauthenticity that will get you zero sales – from young or old or anywhere in between.

So while it would be foolish and just bad business to think that people today are exactly the same as they ever were, that doesn’t mean you have to obsess over whatever it means to tap into a millennial market.

In my opinion, you’re better served looking inwards rather than outwards – at who you really are as a business, how that has evolved – how it can evolve – and how you can best express that to the world to build a fan and customer base around your true values.

You’re better served, if you’re going to be categorizing, by knowing your avatar – and you can have more than one – and what each one wants and needs from you.

Talk to your customers. Listen to your prospects. And treat them as people, not as age groups.

What do you think? Have you done anything specific to appeal to a “younger” generation? Have you even defined what that means? Can you think of ways to evolve your brand to be more inclusive and to adopt and express the cultural values that are true to you and your audience?

I’d love to hear your opinion. And if you take the quiz, I’d love to hear the results and whether you find that being a “millennial” is more a state of mind than an age.