Adam Conover is a YouTube-personality-turned-TV-celebrity that is known for blowing minds and destroying everything we hold dear and true through humor and facts in his show Adam Ruins Everything.
As a marketer, I loved hearing his insights on old marketing tactics that have shaped many of our strongest cultural concepts. Listerine, for example, was originally a floor cleaner until the company invented the term ‘halitosis’ in the ‘20s and marketed the product as the only cure.
Conover’s insights into our modern culture have always been fascinating, but I was floored when he broke the concept of millennials during his speech at Deep Shift in early 2016. In it, he proclaimed that Millennials Don’t Exist. You mean the generation that I ‘specialize’ in discussing isn’t real? The group that I tout as my own, doesn’t exist?
But he was right: millennials don’t exist, and marketing to them through the special lens of ‘millennial’ could make our attempts at reaching them pointless.
Breaking the ‘generation’ mindset
Generational names are not scientific. As Conover describes in his video, even the Census Bureau doesn’t use generational names on the U.S. Census.
Why? Because the dates and associations are always arbitrary. They change constantly, and the names are always created by marketers. Baby boomers, gen X, the silent generation, and millennials were all coined by writers and marketers with the sole intent of making money off these groups.
The very people we are trying to reach are simply a concept in our head. We do this so we can clump them together and make them easier to understand, with the sole intent of selling them our product in whatever way this new generation might find appealing.
This makes sense, as many of the common associations with millennials are almost universal within the generation: raised in the technology boom, avid social media users, and generally burdened with a lot of debt coupled with slow wage growth (hence the millennial reluctance to move out of their parents’ houses and buy homes).
Yet this can also be really dangerous to use as a basis for a marketing campaign. These stereotypes, although true in some senses, often lead down a dangerous road that generalizes and alienates this young audience. As marketers, we have to break this generational mold other marketers have been trying to sell us for years.
The real identity of millennials
Although the term ‘millennials’ is often used for marketing tactics, there are some facts that can be attributed as truth about the younger generation.
For one, they are the most diverse generation in America to date. A 2015 report from the Census Bureau explains: “Reflecting these younger age groups, the population as a whole has become more racially and ethnically diverse in just the last decade, with the percentage minority climbing from 32.9 percent in 2004 to 37.9 percent in 2014.”
Additionally, they do enjoy the new media that is available at their fingertips—social media—just as any past generation enjoyed their popular media. Whether that be television, radio, newspapers, or even books.
Millennials, or the younger generation, are also not as self-centered as many (especially the news media) seem to assume. As Conover points out in his speech, referring to a study, all young people are narcissistic. When you’re a baby, you have a narrow view of the world around you. As you grow older that view changes and adjusts, often breaking your own personal narcissistic tendencies. This doesn’t make the millennial generation any different, and the generations before it were deemed just as self-serving and immoral by their parents.
Take for example this excerpt from an 1843 House of Commons speech on the immorality of the youth: “…a fearful multitude of untutored savages… [boys] with dogs at their heels and other evidence of dissolute habits… [girls who] drive coal-carts, ride astride upon horses, drink, swear, fight, smoke, whistle, and care for nobody… the morals of children are tenfold worse than formerly.”
The younger generation has also always been seen as the more progressive generation, often despite the antagonism of their predecessors. As the University of Southern California notes in their research on marketing to millennials, companies that focus on ‘green’ or corporate social responsability draw the majority of their support from millennials.
This ‘modern concept’ associated with climate change is being spearheaded by younger generations that have been immersed in this new concept from an early age, but those other generations are getting on the bandwagon, too. It’s just taking them a little longer to adjust to this new, progressive worldview. Just as support for ending the Vietnam war was spearheaded by baby boomers, but eventually supported by the majority.
No matter what name has been given to young generation of the day, those that came before them will always find a way to nitpick their actions and stereotype their behavior. Breaking those mindsets for ourselves will help us become better marketers for everyone.
The secret to marketing to millennials
So where does all this information leave marketers? Obviously your business—whether big or small—will want to reach out to this large demographic of young and eager shoppers.
The truth is, the best way to reach them is the same way you would want to be reached. The golden rule applies to marketing just as much as it does to real life. Treat your target audience as intelligent, eager, and trustworthy shoppers, and they will treat your business in kind.
I’ve written before about marketing to millennials by having your content reflect your values. Millennials don’t want to be marketed to through emoji or clickbait titles. Ads that fall flat are those that think the millennial generation can be reached through some secret code of emoji, when in reality they just want you to talk about what the product can do for them.
Create content that is shareable and valuable to the shopper, and you will succeed with any generation that is in the market.
In marketing, we have to be certain that we don’t fall for the stereotypes, and that we don’t become cynical to other generations. As the trends change, so will the generations, and we can’t let molds box us in.
Break your understanding of generational concepts, and market to people as people. You’ll garner respect and loyalty if you can show it in return.
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