Why Marketing To Millennials And Other Generations Is Pointless
Generational labels amount to divisive, reductive stereotypes. You’ve heard them bandied about: Millennials are delusional, Gen Xers are cynical, baby boomers are digitally inept. Poor management and marketing decisions based on such stereotyping lead to misunderstandings, missed employment and commercial opportunities, and all the usual negative ramifications that poor communications breed. We can’t continue to narrowly label and define individuals according to broad cultural trends.
That said, a well-researched, fact-based understanding of broad cultural trends can be useful. Market researchers, for example, have always segmented populations into categories of individuals with common interests and priorities in order to design targeted marketing strategies.
In our internet-based, privacy-starved culture, this segmentation has become ever more precise: new moms in urban centers, affluent New Yorkers who love Crocs, and chief HR officers are some examples.
A Better Way
Marketers know that they’re making assumptions and generalizations even about the people in these segments. They know they can’t be 100% accurate in their market assumptions. They’re aiming for the trend and don’t concern themselves with “outliers.” Andrew Robertson, CEO of ad agency BBDO Worldwide, shared in a 2014 panel discussion that there’s an easy defense for using stereotypes in marketing: It often works. But, he added, “there is a better way.”
During the days portrayed in Mad Men, when television and print were the main advertising channels, demographic groupings such as “young mother” and “older male veteran” were useful for classifying broad audiences into narrower niches. Today, self-defining social networks and technological advances have made a huge amount of behavioral data available for ever-more targeted campaigns.
We now have readily available, intimate details of consumers’ lives, including their hobbies, friends, job interests, and vacation plans. Companies can target consumers based on much more specific and accurate information, rather than on outdated and unsupported stereotypes.
My point is that a generation—whether it be millennial or Gen Xer or baby boomer—is too broad of a category to be a truly effective marketing segment. Although some millennials are still in high school, others are divorced parents. While some millennials are waiters in the Midwest, others are CEOs in Silicon Valley.
Unifying a Generation
It’s hard to think of any unifying cause that rallies an entire generation. Generalizations about millennials and other generations no longer are efficient enough marketing shortcuts to be truly effective. Marketers are better served segmenting desirable consumer groups using a variety of other qualifying demographics, such as education and income.
For example, a 2015 study by market research firm Futurecast examined only affluent millennials—defined as those with an annual household income of over $100,000. This group makes up only 7% of the millennial population. Futurecast further segmented these affluent consumers into four target markets: big city bachelors, forward-thinking families, calculated go-getters, and active influencers. These are excellent examples of like-minded segments that are not overly broad and can be useful to marketers. Other useful subtargets could be determined by media use, geographical location, or profession, to name just a few.
Unfortunately, some marketing consultants continue to embrace generational labels as a way to package up their expertise and sell it to a wide audience. The wider the group, the wider the audience, goes their flawed thinking.
This group of consultants, who I refer to as “gen-experts,” perpetuate generational stereotypes by writing books and articles highlighting the false truths of all personalities that fall into age brackets.
Because generational labels have become so deeply associated with often unfair stereotypes, we need to correct our course. A collective commitment to avoiding labels will remove the stigma associated with each generation and put us on firmer commercial ground when targeting consumers. While generational labels may be useful in marketing, there are much more precise ways to appeal to consumers than by lumping them into a homogenous, 20-year-wide age bracket.