Why You Shouldn’t Market to ‘Millennials’

“There’s no such thing as millennials.” This bold proclamation by ad intelligence firm Exponential Interactive at Advertising Week yesterday will likely elicit scoffs and outrage from marketers who have made careers out of targeting Generation Y over the past decade. Of course millennials exist — just not in one neat, unified demographic.

In his presentation “Marketing to Millennials? You’re Doing It Wrong,” Bryan Melmed, vice president of insights services at Exponential, explained that most marketers fail to effectively target millennials by relying too heavily on stereotypes about this generation as a whole.

“People who want to target [millennials] have no idea how,” Melmed said. “They’re using preconceptions … and not getting at the underlying values of the millennial generation. Demographics are simplistic and patronizing, [especially] because millennials are more diverse and heterogeneous than any [generation] before. The millennial experience is so vastly different” from person to person.

To study these differences, Exponential analyzed data collected from 4 million millennial “poster children” to discover significant trends in behaviors, interests and lifestyles among members of Generation Y. The company’s research revealed that three major forces have shaped the millennial experience: the economy, globalization and social media. These forces define important millennial populations, and within each of these categories are several subgroups, each with its own specific needs and preferences. While there is some overlap across categories, it’s important that marketers know which groups they want to target, and how to appeal to each one individually. [How to Capture Gen Y Consumers]

Economy: A millennial’s economic status is perhaps the most important consideration for marketers, since the millennial individual’s career and income level sets the stage for the other subgroups he or she may fit into. Ambitious go-getters, which Melmed described as “boss babes” and “brogrammers,” have steady careers and relentlessly push themselves to get ahead. Women in this group are very aware of their self-brand: They are more likely to care about projecting a professional image with the right clothes and makeup, and to purchase home décor items and accessories to match their ideal lifestyle. Men tend to embody the “frat boy” culture, and are heavily invested in technology, gaming and sports.

Many Gen Y stereotypes are based on this subset of millennials, but Melmed noted that this is not the norm for most of the generation. Many of them are stuck in “economic purgatory,” and unable to secure jobs that allow them to use their full potential. Overeducated, underemployed millennials who haven’t achieved their career goals typically avoid risk and economize by living with multiple roommates and using coupons. Millennials who couldn’t afford to attend college often end up living with their parents, and don’t earn enough money to make the nonessential lifestyle purchases their peers make. The one exception is technology, which even low earners consider a necessity.

Globalization: As technology continues to shrink the world, the millennial generation has gained access to global, local and even temporal cultural experiences that shape their goals and aspirations. Nostalgia is a strong force among members of Generation Y, and many of them seek refuge from the harsh realities of modern life in either their own childhoods or past decades that they never could have experienced themselves. “Nostalgics” are interested in crafting and DIY projects, and enjoy using modern technology like photo-editing apps to mimic past aesthetics.

Many millennials also want to take in everything the world has to offer, but there are two very distinct ways of achieving these global experiences. Millennial “foodies” go out to restaurants that serve exotic cuisine like Korean, Japanese, Middle Eastern and Indian, and view dining out as an event. Other millennials prefer to actually travel to these locales and immerse themselves in foreign cultures to truly experience them. Surprisingly, Melmed said that underemployed millennials who are less invested in their careers are more likely to travel, while higher earners prefer the more vicarious foodie experience to avoid the career risks associated with taking time off.

Social media: Thanks to the rise of social media, Gen Y has essentially grown up under a microscope. With every tweet, photo and status update, millennials open themselves up to public observation, for better or for worse, and this has had a tremendous psychological and sociological impact on the way they live their lives, Melmed said.

Most millennials’ social media use falls into one of two categories: “Exuberants,” active users who take pictures of and blog about everything and are constantly projecting themselves and their experiences out into the world, and “collectors,” the 80-plus percent of social media users who passively take in the vicarious experiences of others. While collectors are the most receptive to marketing messages, their lack of engagement means they’re less likely to spread your brand message. A hybrid of these two groups, which Melmed called the “millennial Marthas” (i.e., YouTube star Bethany Mota) are the generational trendsetters who collect items, experiences, etc. and then tell others what to buy and do. These millennials have widespread influence among their peers, making them great targets for marketers.

Read more: Why You Shouldn’t Market to ‘Millennials’

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Author: Travis Esquivel

Travis Esquivel is an engineer, passionate soccer player and full-time dad. He enjoys writing about innovation and technology from time to time.

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