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Why fascination with Millennials says more about the marketer than it does the generation

Technology & Data

Why fascination with Millennials says more about the marketer than it does the generation


Marketers and brands have been obsessed with understanding Millennials for some time now, but Mark Ritson smells bullshit.

This article originally appeared in The Generation Issue, our June/July 2017 issue of Marketing mag.

We’ve been doing the generational thing a long time. From Cicero to Malthus, demography has been used to chart and measure the structure of society. But in the 20th century we began to emphasise and exaggerate the generation bands that existed within the overall population.

Ever since Marlon Brando became The Wild One in the classic 1953 movie and led his gang of itinerant bikers through the post-WWII streets of the US, we have conceptualised the generation behind the mainstream as a cultural ‘other’.

We named them as a discrete group. We ascribed traits to them. Dressed them in new fashions and gave them new idols. Most importantly, we used their emergence as a signal of a change to the cultural order and a commercial challenge for marketers who must now adapt their game.

MK0617 cover generationFrom the Greatest Generation through Baby Boomers all the way to Generation X, the themes and traits have changed, but this cohort logic has remained remarkably uniform.

Despite the long and winding road that different generational cohorts have taken us on, however, nothing compares to the demographic theatre of the most recent generational group to enter popular culture, stage left.

The term ‘Millennials’ refers to a loose cohort of people who became adults in the brave new world of the 21st century. Born between 1982 and 2000 they have come to represent the most distinctive and described cohort in the history of marketing.

The bullshit, expounded by the likes of Simon Sinek and a diaspora of armchair demographers, is now well established and sits steaming in gigantic piles all over social media. As employees Millennials were said to be more socially aware, more driven by the search for meaning, more entrepreneurial, but also more likely to unrealistically push their case for promotion and personal benefits.

The Millennial consumer is similarly driven by meaning and looks for more than just a product, but also
the company behind the product and its operating ethos.

Supremely networked, the Millennial consumer can research things in detail and is super-connected to other like-minded souls. They are more fleeting in their affections, however, and much less likely to remain brand loyal.

You’ve probably read something similar yourself. You may even have seen the conclusions ‘proved’ with
a survey of Millennials in which they agree with statements that confirm most of them are concerned with brand purpose or social connections.

It’s easy to take bland anecdotes and mysterious waffle about young people and start to believe it, especially when there is an infographic with 86% or 92% or some other apparently persuasive number attached to it.

But, as a marketer, it would serve you well to remember what a segment actually consists of. A segment of the market is not a group that share similar demographics. A segment of the market is a group of consumers who think, behave or respond in a similar fashion. Claiming that your target segment is the 18- to 35-year-old female is about as impressive as saying you will only target Librans with your new campaign.

Unless you can prove that this demographic group actually thinks and behaves differently from others, your segment is not a segment at all. It’s just a crap stereotype on which you will first pile a bunch of assumptions and then later your product.

If the definitions of the Millennial consumer are to be believed there are approximately five million of them in Australia. If you pause and even think about that massive army for longer than two seconds it should become obvious that this group cannot, on any level, qualify for the required homogeneity that is necessary to render them a segment.

Look down from your vaunted, stupid marketing chair at the group you have been blithely referring to as a single segment and you will see that some are sporty, some are goths, some single, some divorced, some married.

Hunters and vegetarians. Cyclists and smokers. Gay, straight and unsure. They have myriad different shifting interests and outlooks. They are – take a breath – not at all the same.

A segment requires only two key criteria to successfully qualify as a segment. First, within the segment this group must share homogenous traits and behaviours. Second, externally we must be able to see significant differences in those traits versus other segments.

When a wide range of researchers have set out to properly identify the Millennial segment with data and empirical comparisons with other demographic cohorts things get tricky, fast.

The survey data, when it’s collected from a representative sample of different demographic groups, inevitably confirms that Millennials want different shit from each other. Even worse, Millennials as a whole rarely differ from the Gen X cohort they are meant to contrast with. In survey after survey any difference in most of their attitudinal scores does not exceed the confidence interval of the instrument being used.

What happens next is a constant source of amusement. Either the authors of the report go on to say that Millennials are so important and influential they have changed the behaviour of all the other cohorts too, or they turn tack on their paper and use the data to show that the Millennial consumer is a myth. Either way, the conclusion is the same: Millennials are much like the rest of us.

Of course there are differences. A love of tech, a greater involvement in sport and other social pursuits. But these differences aren’t part of some extraordinary evolution in human needs and behaviours. They are part of a phenomenon that biologists refer to as ‘being young’.

Take the most conservative, moribund Boomer and then go back in time and interview them when they were 23 in 1968. You’ll see they too were into sport, social connection and recreation. It takes more than a few brief decades for the nature of human desires to alter and shift.

The real reason we have overstated the deviations of the Millennial consumer has got very little to do with their inherent differences and everything to do with the way modern marketing works. We have turned the profession of marketing into a death cult. Every existing theory and technology is dying. A new revolution in buying/ advertising/consuming is just around the corner. Brands: dead. TV: dead. Advertising: dead.

Despite these fatalistic predictions it’s apparent to all that none of the above appears to actually be happening. So to sell that radical vision of everything old being dead and everything in the future being its replacement marketers need a generational shift – a scrape across the LP of time to get to the revolutionary next track.

They need that because, despite all the talk of 3D printing and virtual reality and the death of TV, it is ireasingly apparent that none of that shit appears to be happening anything like as fast as they predicted. Millennials are the answer because they can be the prototypical future consumer that the rest of the real market is not. They are the wet dream of the marketing zealots who are determined to sell us on a new vision of marketing that will now replace the old, irrespective of what the trend lines may suggest.

The concept of a Millennial generation tells us virtually nothing about consumers, but provides very significant insight into marketers hell bent on selling us on a future that looks nothing like the one we currently inhabit.



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Image copyright: rawpixel / 123RF Stock Photo

Mark Ritson

Professor Mark Ritson is an internationally renowned marketing consultant and teaches marketing and brand management on MBA programs at London Business School, MIT Sloan, the University of Minnesota, Singapore Management University and Melbourne Business School. Tweet him at @markritson.

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