‘It’s like saying everything living in the ocean is a fish’: Marketers obsessed with millennials are making a mistake

The marketing industry is essentially obsessed with one word: millennials. Brands, and many publishers, can’t stop talking about them. The problem, of course, is that it makes no sense to approach a group of some 80 million Americans as a single monolith.

Millennials, the demographic cohort to follow Generation X, by definition are 18- to 35-year-olds. But with a wide age span of nearly 17 years, millennials vary: They can be a single parent, a college student who is in debt or a company CEO who owns a fortune. Therefore, it’s becoming problematic for advertisers to recognize patterns, similarities and mass trends for this age group as a whole.

“It’s like saying everything living in the ocean is ‘fish,’” said David Measer, svp and group strategic planning director for agency RPA. “The problem is, we study millennials like animals in the world. When we stereotype great numbers of people for the purpose of selling them stuff, it comes off as, well, condescending.”

Many marketers think that millennials can fit into one neat bucket: They are digital natives who should be reached via mobile and social; they are all about progressive causes and, therefore, will only gravitate toward brands that pay attention to the public good; they prioritize “authenticity” (unlike the rest of us who prefer inauthentic brands); and they want to have conversations with brands on networks like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, according to a new research from brand consulting firm First The Trousers Then The Shoes Inc..

And yet, the research analyzed 76 North American (U.S. and Canada) case studies of effective marketing to millennials and found that those stereotypes don’t necessarily track. “The stereotyping is getting so bad that millennials themselves start to reject this label. That’s usually a clear sign that mentalities are changing,” said Ulli Appelbaum, the company’s president and chief strategy officer.

Successful millennial marketers, on the other hand, use a combination of online and offline channels, the research found. And they don’t target 18- to 35-year-olds as one homogeneous segment. Instead, they focus on sub-segments defined by ethnicity, geography, hobbies and other variables.

Go micro, not macro
Brands like creating relevant messages for their target audiences based on their shared characteristics rather than individual traits. Chipotle, for example, reportedly went GMO-free last year because the company thought that millennials were willing to pay “a little more for something they recognize as better.” Business publications, on the other hand, only feed the beast, with articles like Mashable’s “5 effective ways to market to millennials” or Hubspot’s “8 modern tips for marketing to millennials.”

“Articles on millennials are often clickbait for marketers, and marketers are biting,” said Adam Wiese, associate director of strategy at agency Giant Spoon. “‘Millennials’ as a target audience is pretty much like saying ‘everyone’ is your target. You’re likely not going to appeal to all millennials, so identify a subgroup that best reflects your beliefs and passions as a brand.”

Instead of targeting informed solely by age, advertisers would do well to appeal to subcultures because great content transcends generational divides, added Pablo Rochat, brand director at Humin, a contact management startup that was recently acquired by Tinder.

DJ Khaled, for example, is one of the most influential celebrities on Snapchat. He’s not a millennial by definition, but he creates content that millennials love. Meanwhile, “First Kiss,” a video ad for clothing company Wren, became a bona fide viral sensation on YouTube when it was released in 2014. It featured 10 pairs of strangers kissing for the first time, some passionately while some clumsily. The scene addressed a universal human experience and thus it was relatable and sharable. (Although the video was later considered deceptive by some because the “strangers” were reportedly trained actors, but the inevitable backlash actually contributed to the ad’s success as it got more people talking about the brand.)

“It’s not about the age group you are trying to target. A hilarious cat video can entertain both a 7-year-old girl and her 70-year-old grandfather,” said Rochat. “The goal should be to create content that organically extends beyond your target demographic, tapping into a human emotion that everyone shares. That adds sustainable value to your brand.”

While we’re at it, stop saying Gen Z, too
Even as marketers insist on pursuing millennials, another demographic is just around the bend. Gen Z (ages 11-16) is emerging as the next big thing for trend forecasters and market researchers. Ford, for instance, has created trend reports to highlight Gen Z and the company’s “Futurist” Sheryl Connelly constantly addresses the importance of this generation at major industry conferences.

The burgeoning interest in Gen Z is reminiscent of the millennial obsession — but it’s not too late to break the cycle. While Matt Paddock, general manager for agency Grow, thinks that these labels are generalizations and tend to have porous borders, he believes that there are some age-related broad tendencies and behaviors worth paying attention to. “It’s easy to say that what’s good for millennials is going to be good for lots of other consumers,” he said. “There’s plenty of targeting [data] available. The challenge is turning all that into strategic insights brands can use to create better experiences for consumers.”

But RPA’s Measer holds a different opinion. The industry should ban buzzwords like Gen X, Gen Y ( “millennials”)  and Gen Z, he told Digiday, because the more advertisers are trying to categorize millions of people and capture them under a shared mindset, the more they are going to create “stupid stereotypes.” And at the same time, it’s interesting to think about how advertisers would communicate with their clients without those catchphrases.

“I’d be all for banning all generation labels,” said Measer. “They’re mostly thought up by a bunch of old white guys anyway. Aren’t we kind of sick of old white guys making the rules?”


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