The millennial dilemma: generation, mindset or irrelevance?

It's tempting (and useful) for marketers to put people in neat demographic boxes. But, as consumer lives become more fluid, age-agnostic and globally minded, is it time to put a stop to generational generalisations, asks Rebecca Coleman.


Netflix’s vice-president of product innovation, Todd Yellin, described traditional demographics as "almost useless" at last year’s SXSW festival. His reasoning? "Here’s a shocker for you, there are 19-year-old guys who watch Dance Moms, and 73-year-old women who are watching Breaking Bad and Avengers." 

To support Yellin’s point, BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra’s outgoing head of music, George Ergatoudis, observed that there is a 40% overlap in the musical tastes of 60-year-olds and 13-year-olds, going by the lists of each age group’s 1000 favourite artists.

Despite contradictory information and some, like Yellin, decrying the significance of targeting using established marketing means, there still seems to be an industry-wide obsession with millennials and their younger siblings. In fact, a new ‘gen [insert cleverly chosen letter here]’ seemingly appears with greater frequency than common sense would tell us we can spawn them.

Not only that, but the argument against these demographic groups is bolstered further by the increasing fluidity with which people live their lives. This could be seen as a ‘millennial trait’, or it could be that, enabled by advances in technology, we are all , regardless of age, able to explore new ways of doing things that humans have always wanted to do, but hitherto haven’t been able. Our behaviour has changed, but the underlying drivers haven’t.

So, is the seemingly never-ending list of new kids on the life-stage block – millennials, Gen Z, Gen X, Gen i – simply down to trends agencies trying to sell their wares, or is there still real value in looking at age-related nuances? 

The millennial fallacy? 

The generation that seems to have attracted the most attention from marketers keen to reach the newest high-disposable-income group is, of course, the millennials. This troop of consumers is defined as those born somewhere between the 1980s and early 2000s; however, as with much of the research used to characterise millennials, these parameters are somewhat blurry.

In a 2012 Nielsen report on Gen X (the ones before millennials), the researchers stated: "Unlike other demographics, such as millennials, real-world situations and authenticity appeal most to consumers between 35-54." Now, three years on, they say: "Millennials place a premium on authenticity – from the products they buy to their interactions with brands." Similarly, mention has been made of Gen Z’s love of authenticity and exper-i-ences. When companies promote their insights into each generation as revelatory, yet also conclude that they’re pretty much all identical, it quickly starts to lose meaning and value.

Phil Barden, managing director of strategic marketing consultancy Decode Marketing and author of Decoded: the Science Behind Why We Buy, has been one of the most outspoken opponents of generational research and, in particular, the idea that millennials are any different from other consumers. In one tweet last October, he wrote, "What is all this Gen Y, Z, millennials bullsh*t? Brains don’t change in a decade. We’re still driven by the same goals as our ancestors." Following this up in January, he dismissed an article on what millennials want in the workplace with: "Waste of research. No surprises at all. Why? Because Millennials want what other humans do. Simples." 

At the time of writing, these tweets had garnered just 10 retweets in total. This is not to say he doesn’t have a point, but it doesn’t seem to have stirred as much agreement among his 933 followers as one might expect of what sounds like a call to arms.

"What is all this Gen Y, Z, millennials bullsh*t! We’re driven by the same goals as our ancestors"

Phil Barden, Decode-Marketing

Tracey Follows, chief strategy and innovation officer at strategic consultancy The Future Laboratory, and a Marketing columnist, believes that any current backlash against the millennial moniker is mostly down to exaggeration and a desire to kick back at trends. "[Millennials] are not that different, but they
do have different values [and] perspectives," she says. "They’ve grown up being influenced by a completely different environment to the environment I was brought up in the 70s and 80s."


One point of view that seems to be gaining popularity is the idea of ‘millennial’ as a mindset, rather than a specific age group. This is something Isabel Massey, head of media and futures at Diageo Europe, says its brands subscribe to. "We use the word ‘millennials’ a lot, but it tends to be the attitudes and expectations of that particular demography, rather than being about their age per se. When it comes to old-fashioned targeting, we wouldn’t say we’ll target only people within one age bracket, but we certainly use what they stand for, and their attitudes, to define how we behave in our media and advertising."

Andrew Gill, IBM’s global managing partner, social consulting, agrees. Despite being in his 40s, he describes himself as a millennial. "It is a nice stamp that marketers use, but it’s not
necessarily about age. It’s more about looking at the things you have an affinity with, regardless of age," he says. "I’m 47, but I class myself as a millennial because I have millennial tendencies. I’m a lot more active on social than my peers, for example."

This flies in the face of research that suggests that millennials are very much a product of their upbringing. As a report from Goldman Sachs put it: "A different world, a different worldview. Millennials have grown up in a time of rapid change, giving
them a set of priorities and expectations sharply different from previous generations." 

So, if millennials exist only as a result of being born at a specific time, then how can those that fall outside this bracket behave in such a similar way? It calls the whole concept into question.

Hyper-targeting: triumph or tyranny?

Karmarama’s executive chairman, Jon Wilkins, believes that targeting is useful only when it is predictive of behaviour. However, he says: "Demography is becoming less relevant in predicting human behaviours, attitudes, needs and interests." 

He thinks that marketers now have much more useful ways of determining how consumers will act and what they will buy. "We can now see at the individual level how people engage, share, seek, think; the content they read, the brands they buy. Now data is big and media is individual, and we can connect it all together to deliver more human, helpful, useful and engaging content in the context of the consumer," he says. 

In Wilkins’ view, the effect of this increase in data and media targeting will be more efficient spend and greater consumer engagement. "It is far more powerful than demographics because we can interact, not only broadcast," he explains.

This idea of being human and interactive is vital to successful hyper-targeting. Unfortunately, however, most targeted advertising is not yet achieving these ambitions. 

Charles Vallance, founder and chairman of VCCP, warns against bombarding people with online ads. "If I’ve been in a pub quiz, and cheated to find out the capital of Cyprus, I don’t want to be inundated by [ads for] package holidays to Cyprus for the next week," he says. "It is hyper-targeted in a sense, but it’s at a word or a particular action online – it doesn’t mean it understands me. A lot of people find it frustrating. It’s just hyper, rather than hyper-targeted. It’s counterproductive."

Vallance frames such ads as the modern version of classifieds, especially in terms of the artistic acumen involved. "They know – or think they know – they’ve got the right person, in the right place, at the right time, with the right message. In that circumstance, you don’t need to be that creative. Some ad-servers throw in the product for free. That’s how much they value creativity."

Universal targeting

Vallance proposes using wider brushstrokes and appealing to more universal human impulses. "Targeting can become a tyranny," he explains. "Of course it’s necessary to figure out where you’re going to concentrate budget and have some targeting definitions; I accept that. But it’s almost incidental as to what people’s motivations are, which are much, much more primal and universal. We laugh at the same things and cry at the same things, and it doesn’t really matter what age we are. There are generational nuances, but they’re massively overplayed."

Vallance cites his agency’s work with easyJet as a case in point: "Everyone is ‘Generation easyJet’. You can be 89 or eight and be part of it." He believes it’s not always vital to chase the coat-tails of youth. "It’s great that we can celebrate grandparents and parents and children. It’s quite refreshing, because you don’t often get grandparents in ads, unless they’re the ones that we weep at for John Lewis. Normally they’re accompanied by feelings of deep melancholy, rather than having fun with their family."

When it comes to media, he subscribes to a similarly broad strategy, citing Rolex and Chanel as champions of "getting seen". He adds: "I worry sometimes in conversations with modern media people that they don’t understand that waste is good – as in, ‘overshow’ and having your brand ‘over-seen’. If no one knew about Rolex, if it had no display value, it would have no value."

Passions and mindstates

"Demography is becoming less relevant in predicting behaviours, attitudes, needs and interests"

Jon Wilkins Karmarama

When looking at some of the most successful brands right now, they are, broadly speaking, age-agnostic. Brands such as Apple seem to have an element of cultural "blanding"; they are likely to have customers from grandads in Surrey to teens in Tokyo. 

Virgin Holidays customer and marketing director Claire Cronin believes that the way to create non-demographic-specific marketing is to create segments based on ‘passion points’. 

"We delight in being populist," she says. "However, we also have a well-developed segmentation model and curate our offer for different segments, but they’re more focused on attitude and passions. If people love cycling, we’ll tell them where they can feel free on the open road. If they love food, we’ll tell them where the best street-food markets are. It’s about inspirational guidance."

Diageo’s Massey agrees that this approach is a great way to connect with consumers, but also backs targeting by mindstate. "Advertising to the mindstate, rather than the behaviour, is be-com-ing increasingly important," she explains. "We’ve had great success in personalising activations to occasion." She cites an example for Pimm’s, where sensors were installed in bars. Advertising outside shifted according to changes in weather and how full the bar was. If it was raining and the bar was empty, the message communicated that there were lots of seats inside in the warmth.

This is all very well for brands that sell leisure and pleasure, but what of more mundane product propositions, and those that are prospering through generational targeting? 

At Ad:Tech London 2015, Unilever chief marketing and communications officer Keith Weed delivered a keynote speech in which he outlined the success of the FMCG company’s partnership with Vice Media. "We have been inspired by Vice to connect with a millennial audience… We are learning a huge amount about creating content and how to connect with them authentically, different to other target markets," he said.

Both Unilever and Vice are doing very well in their pursuit of the millennial. However, members of that cohort find it incredibly annoying to be lumped together with their peers across the world, merely because of the year in which they were born. On the other hand, maybe it’s just that they are a narcissistic bunch. But they’re also fickle, so ask them on another day and they might have changed their mind.