To listen to the marketing world, the so-called “Millennials” are the only demographic worth paying attention to anymore. To be fair, marketers have always targeted the young, and this is a huge group of young people – 80 million to be exact, even more than the Baby Boomers whose tastes and culture have until recently dominated the marketing world. On Sunday, June 21, the New York Times even ran a front-page article entitled “Oh, to Be Young, Millennial, And So Wanted By Marketers,” in which the author highlights the “millennial mania that is overtaking all manner of businesses, and seems to be getting more obsessive by the day.”
On the one hand, this obsession makes sense. After all, millennials are now officially the largest cohort in today’s workforce, according to the Pew Research Center. They are just beginning to enter the acquisitive phase of life, where they will be buying homes and furniture and baby clothes and all the other things we buy as we settle into adulthood. By contrast, the Baby Boomers are retiring at the rate of 10,000 a day, trading in empty nests for more manageable townhomes and family-sized SUVs for more sensible cars. For the marketing world, the choice seems simple: leave medicine and reverse mortgages for the Baby Boomers, and direct everything else toward the sexy (and hopefully profligate) young.
However, this attitude suffers from a fundamental flaw: the notion that today’s Millennials are somehow completely distinct from every other generation. Thousands of consultants have spent untold millions researching the tastes and habits of the youngest members of our society, trying to tease out the nuanced specifics that make the Millennial unique, distinctive – and an easy marketing target. They have learned a lot; to quote the Times, Millennials are technologically dependent and most easily motivated by the twin emotions of anxiety and empowerment.
But let’s step back for a moment. Is there a single person in the developed world today that is not technologically dependent? Anyone who watches too much news knows that the media is constantly marketing anxiety about crime, terrorism, recession, global warming, privacy and just about everything else, and they’re doing it to all of us. And seriously, is there anyone alive anywhere in the world who doesn’t want to be empowered?
The marketing world is attempting to find secrets about Millennials that will unlock their wallets, and they’re paying consultants untold millions to help them discover those secrets. But today’s Millennials are not an unprecedented group of never-before-seen individuals; they are Young People, pure and simple, and they respond to the same messages that Young People the world over have always responded to. Think back to the characteristics of young Baby Boomers of the 1960s – carefree, rebellious, militantly individualistic, devoted to their friends and suspicious of authority – and you will see an exact copy of today’s Millennial generation. The only effective difference is the technology, but guess what? Baby Boomers have also figured out how to text.
What this means is that marketers are spending millions of dollars trying to find answers that they already have. The marketer’s job is to make the world seem enormously complex in order to justify their efforts at targeting particular “hard-to-reach” populations. But people go through very predictable stages of life, and we are more or less susceptible to marketing messages depending upon what stage of life we’re in. That is the only secret, and it’s an open secret.
So if you want to market specifically to Millennials, highlight the qualities that the young have always valued – freedom, individualism, rebelliousness, and quirkiness. (If you happen to have more money than you know how to spend, there are consultants who will happily tell you the same for a sizeable fee.) If you want to market exclusively to Baby Boomers, focus instead on simplicity, reliability, and a disregard for base faddishness. And if you want to market to everyone, drill down on those qualities we never tire of – economy, empowerment, intelligence, and utility.
Oh, and make it fun. Because – another bombshell surprise coming – everyone likes fun things. Even those crusty old people nobody markets to. You know, the ones with all the money.
Check out my newest book on generations in the workplace, US vs. THEM!