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Millennials are diverse but not that different

Introducing GenY

Born in the early 1980s up to the early 2000s, Millennials are a unique cohort, profoundly different to all previous generations. The Baby Boomers are the free spirited, idealists, Gen X the me generation of the 1980s, whereas GenY are the civic-minded neo-liberal cohort – the generation where uniqueness and self-identification are imbedded into their DNA. The so called boomerang generation.

For some, GenY are the digital natives, the professional consumers, the ambitious and collaborative idealists determined to change the world. To the harshest critics, GenY are the apathetic cohort, entitled, self-centered and naïve.

One thing is for certain, everyone seems to have an opinion on this generation, most notably marketers.

GenY or Millennials span a broad range of life-stages, from those just starting secondary school to those in a young family and with the financial pressure of a mortgage. Millennials share remarkably similar traits. Their intrinsic motivations, lifestyle and of course overall aspirations are incredibly similar. We know them, understand them and they are part of one broad brush stroke. A colorful but ultimately homogenous group. Or are they?

This is the narrative marketers for the last few years have bought into. Is this the reality, or an over-simplification about arguably the most diverse generation we have ever seen?

GenY are formidable

At 20m million strong, 18-32 year olds are one of the largest generation in UK history –which means, like it or not, they are hugely formidable and remain immensely important to understand. The sheer scale of the generation is staggering. According to Time Magazine, in 2025 GenY will constitute 75% of the Global workforce.

The emergence of Generation Y presents marketers with countless challenges. This is unquestionable, as is the need to challenge ourselves into thinking smartly about this formidable generation. The cost could be immeasurable.

A distinctly heterogeneous generation

“There’s no such thing as millennials.” was recently claimed by ad agency Exponential Interactive. Such an assertion will undoubtedly cause outrage amongst marketers who have spent the last decade attempting to make sense of the so called professional consumer. Of course millennials do exist — just not perhaps in one neat, unified demographic and homogenous group.

The early 1980s was marked by a severe global economic recession that affected much of the developed world. Thatcherism was taking force, it was time of influential politics, shoulder pads and the Sony Walkman. VHS triumphed over Betamax and PCs showed explosive growth, we also experienced the first development of the internet. By 1989 the Soviet Union announced the abandonment of political hostility toward the Western world and the Cold War ended – the Berlin Wall fell. The 1990s was characterized by the rise of multiculturalism and alternative media, cable TV, Microsoft Windows operating systems became ubiquitous on PC, the widespread popularity of mobile phones and the emergence of New Labour. Important people, significant events and developments influenced these periods which in turn shaped the people that were coming of age. The cultural, political and social landscapes were so distinct.

How can a generation born this far apart possibly be so similar?

In his presentation “Marketing to Millennials? You’re Doing It Wrong,” Bryan Melmed, vice president of insights services at Exponential, explained that most marketers fail to effectively target millennials by relying too heavily on stereotypes about this generation as a whole. “People who want to target [millennials] have no idea how,” Melmed said. “They’re using preconceptions … and not getting at the underlying values of the millennial generation. Demographics are simplistic and patronizing, [especially] because millennials are more diverse and heterogeneous than any [generation] before. The millennial experience is so vastly different” from person to person.

GenY behaviours are unique

A collection of forces, influences and trends that GenY have experienced highlights how distinct this generation is. This context has resulted in displaying behaviors that are so remarkably different from that of any other generation.

From a demographic point of view GenY are hugely significant, at 20 million the cohort just in sheer numbers is comparable to only the baby boomers and of course dwarfs the apologetic GenXers.

The economic context of GenY is complex one and full of contradictions. The rise of social media, digital marketing and e-commerce has unlocked unparalleled opportunities for millennials, with the top 10 in demand jobs in 2010 not even existing in 2004. This elevated opportunity and GenY being told by their parents ‘you can be who you want to be’ has resulted in a generation full of optimism, and hyper-elevated expectations.

Unfortunately, the economic climate has restricted this dream being realized. Youth unemployment in the UK stands at 2.3 million, therefore it is no wonder that millennials are questioning key decisions in an ever-changing world. Pre-global economic crisis, all that millennials were exposed to was progress, they had never experienced an economic slow-down let alone full-on recession. This collection of economic forces and trends have caused generation Y to be obscenely risk-adverse there-by gravitating to traditional and robust values and choices. Their expectations have not be fulfilled, the reality has hit resulting in disillusionment and frustration.

Generation Y epitomize the term ‘digital natives’, grown up in a world surrounded by technology, experiencing technology developing at a faster rate than ever before. A worldwide survey discovered that 90% of Gen Y check their emails, texts and social media accounts using their smartphones before they even get out of bed. Gen Y are, by far, the most agile, responsive, and informed generation thanks to their internet use, smartphones and other gadgets. However, to GenY technology does not define their generation, it has shaped the world around them which they are a part of.

This is without question the first truly influential generation where peer-to-peer and inter-generational relationships are truly valued, symbolizing the age of collaboration and communication we now live in. Clearly this is a lesson for brands regarding how they empower and also engage with GenY. They continue to be a great source of knowledge and influence for brands with their parents. GenY are influential amongst themselves, influential across generations and influential with brands. The rules have changed, consider the rise of vlogging amongst this generation which the retail industry estimates at £21 billion.

Gen-Yers have been exposed to more marketing and commercial messages than any other generation — they have grown up as professional consumers and have learnt to filter these messages. For brands, it remains a tough order to get it right. Super high expectations and a marketing savvy mind breeds a ruthless bunch of brand critiques.

Human motivations are very similar to previous ‘young’ generations

Whilst the behaviours and context of GenY may be very unique indeed, their motivations less so. I would argue that the millennial generation display similar motivations and instincts as any young generation has done so in the past. GenY are still just young people. They are interested in exploring new opportunities, idealistic, ambitious and eager to fulfill their potential, yet perhaps daunted and anxious by what lies ahead. This must have been similar to other younger generations at specific times. Although these themes might be expressed or manifested in a different way, their intrinsic human motivations are very similar.

The context and trends around the influential factors that have shaped this generation are unique which has caused specific GenY behaviours – but the origins of the intrinsic human motivations are very similar.

As marketers it is crucial to understand and unearth the motivations, needs and key forces that drive this formidable generation of 20m people. At the moment marketers place far too much emphasis on how radically different the behaviours of GenY are, and consequently miss the point. Yes the behaviours and attitudes may be unique, but these have been driven and shaped by their human motivations. The gold mine is in understanding these motivations and appreciating how, why and in what ways they shape the defining behaviors of a generation.

Building brand affinity with GenY

So what does this all mean to marketers? How should brands successfully build affinity with this contentious, absorbing yet unquestionably influential generation?

Below are 6 tips to build affinity with GenY:

 1.  Be subtle and authentic

Millennials typically don’t trust institutions or corporations unless their trust is earned – it must also seem believable and credible. Consequently, they seek open communication and transparency. Because of the widespread use of social media to learn about products, Gen Yers are more likely to buy from a brand that was referred to them by a friend, rather than one they saw in an advertisement. Just look at the power of the new wave of YouTube-created celebrities – Norwich-based make-up artist Tanya Burr has 2m followers and now her own line of products through Superdrug. The sweet spot for GenY is to demonstrate value that they believe in but not selling in an overt way – be authentic.

2. Provide variety and customization

For many brands, offering a wide range of customizable products is key to attracting Gen Y. From packaging to the actual product or service, brands need to offer an experience that is tailored for the Gen Y consumer. A great example is Levis who now offer an experience to have a pair of jeans match the exact shape and style of your body – a truly personal and customisable experience. Or Converse who offer a service for any consumer to design their own original trainer and pick it up from the store. A truly customisable service with a unique and individual end product.

3. Experiences are key

For Gen Y the rationale for buying into and consuming brands are fundamentally different from previous generations: they buy things they can tell others about; perhaps because of what the purchase says about them or even because they aspire to be part of the story that the brand has shaped. This shift explains why Gen Y gravitates towards inspirational experiences that a brand creates. Instead of the traditional advertising route, some brands are now, cleverly, moving their marketing budgets to events where Gen Y consumers can really experience the brand.

4. Think outside the advertising box

Today’s consumers, especially tech-savvy Gen Yers, are inundated with advertisements on a daily basis. The biggest mistake companies make when marketing to Millennials is to use traditional advertising channels like online banner ads that just don’t work with this group. With Millennials, it’s more effective to market with them rather than to market to them. Bring them into the story and make them feel are part of the brand and advertising experience. Belgian beer brand Vedett has for years shown the faces of their drinkers on the bottles’ labels. Imagine if you could choose your own message on #shareacoke and have it delivered to your friend at lunch!

5. Create opportunities for empowerment

The premise for Millennials regarding brand engagement is one of a genuine conversation – a philosophy not about shouting but an exchange. They need to feel that they really matter to the brand, like they can have a say and be part of creating something special with the brand. It’s all about active listening. Heineken encapsulates this sentiment so well with their brand design revolution driven and co-created by consumers – from nightclubs, events and even limited edition products

6. Mobile experience trumps brand loyalty

Brand loyalty counts for less and less among younger consumers, who are likely to head to competitors if their mobile experience isn’t what they think it should be. Almost 96% of consumers claimed they had abandoned a mobile website because of a poor experience, according the People’s Web Report. A good example is the conscious consumerism startup Zady – the very simple, beautiful and straight-forward experience. Ticking a lot of the GenY boxes.

The spirit of GenY

The Millennials are a formidable generation – influential, imposing and captivating. The sheer size, life stage and diversity of the generation does provoke serious question to how we have been framing, marketing and understanding them. They are not a homogenous whole – but have been shaped by distinct socio–economic trends.

Marketers have however been quick to paint them with a very broad brush stroke yet this generation is arguably one of the most diverse generations we have ever known. So they are different, in comparison to other cohorts, but within the GenY contingent itself are very heterogeneous. To define them in a neat box is alarming and naive.

So they are a very diverse generation.

I would also argue that GenY are fundamentally different from previous generations, distinct from the free spirited Baby Boomers and dissimilar from Gen X, the me generation of the 1980s. They have grown up in remarkably different times which has resulted in profoundly different behaviours.

So yes they are different.

Whilst the behaviours and context of GenY may be very unique indeed, their motivations less so. I would argue that the millennial generation display similar motivations and instincts as any young generation has done so in the past, and this is perhaps the most important point.

They are just young people brought up in a particular time.

Gen Y are therefore different, diverse yet still just a collection of young people!

Our role as marketers is to understand GenY and inspire them to become brand advocates with engaging experiences, products and services. However, we must challenge ourselves to think differently and smartly, including getting back to basics in understanding their underlying human motivations – this will be the sweet spot in truly understanding a target audience that has had marketers baffled for years.

With this particular challenge, no brand can afford for GenY not to influence their brand.