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Published February 26th 2016

Why Targeting Millennials is No Better Than Targeting Snake People

Desperately chasing the youth zeitgeist has become the guiding policy of many a marketing force. So how can brands really speak to the Millennials they're so eager to target? By stopping with the emojis for starters, says Joel Windels.

I often hear brands state that they are trying to target Millennials, as if that’s some grand strategy designed to reach a whole new group of consumers.

The hype is huge, and everyone from insurance firms to wine manufacturers wants a piece of the action.

The broad range of Millennials

But what does Millennial actually mean? We’re talking about a twenty year age range encompassing over 75 million Americans.

In 2016, a Millennial could be anything from a 16 year old schoolgirl still living with their parents, to a home-owning family man in their mid 30s.

As a Millennial myself, I join many of the others in not really associating with the demographic as much as Generation X did with their label.

Many people feel as though it’s too broad – there’s a huge amount of diversity among Millennials.

I know why brands are asking the questions though. “We need to target Millennials”, I hear.

It’s why we see all the emojis and selfies in the marketing of many brands today, as if that’s somehow going to make me buy more sandwiches. And old people want to eat sandwiches too, remember.

It might come from a place of fear.

Getting left behind is just about the scariest thing that can happen to a brand. Perhaps it’s this fear that’s helped create an environment where being the first on Periscope or Peach has become an imperative for any brand wanting to reach Millennials.

Desperately chasing the youth zeitgeist has become the guiding policy of many a marketing force.

It’s even spawned a whole new outlook on marketing.

It seems less about measuring sales or even Net Promoter Score, but about social engagement and likes. It’s given rise to comments like this, from Katie Elfering, a CEB consumer strategist and resident expert on Millennials at Forbes:

“Beyond just being innovative and useful, the brands that give Millennials a reason to engage, whether that’s branded content like what Intel has produced, or creating an experience that they couldn’t have without the brand, like many of Red Bull’s events, have figured out how to connect to this generation in a meaningful way. These brands know how to provide what matters most to Millennials in a way that is additive to their lives and entertaining, which in turn compels them to share their experiences with their friends.”

There’s nothing wrong with that, but to mistake it for targeting is foolhardy. Re-read the quote, but with people in their 40s in mind. It still applies.

Are Millennials and Baby Boomers really that different?

Millennials own more devices than generations before them. Of course they do. Baby boomers today owned more than they did a decade ago too.

Millennials want to engage with brands. Also true, and technology has enabled all demographics to engage with brands more than ever before.

Research has shown that Millennials care about the environment. They care about social issues like same-sex marriage. They expect brands to give back to society and not just make profits. They expect brands to be there when they have a complaint.

All of these things may be valid, but they simply represent wider social trends.

None of them are unique to Millennials, and talking about targeting them shouldn’t just be a shortcut for brands to ‘get with the times’.

Doing these things can be very valuable, but they aren’t a kind of silver bullet for commercial success either. Targeting Millennials is not an effective strategy if generating revenue is the only goal.

Consider the Baby Boomers; the over 50s. Baby Boomers own 63% of all wealth in the US.

At 111 million strong, Boomers are the largest consumer-age demographic in the United States, far exceeding Gen X’s 61 million and Millennials’ 75 million.

Baby boomers get 10% of brands’ marketing dollars, but provide more than 50% of national consumption. Millennials, meanwhile, get more than 50% of marketing budgets, yet provide a much smaller fraction of revenue.

Essentially, any brand talking about targeting Millennials is really ensuring they’re prepared for what’s next. It’s about working out what shifts are happening, and being ready for them.

There’s the idea that the next generation of consumers aren’t influenced much by advertising, for example.

Only 1% of millennials surveyed said that a compelling advertisement would make them trust a brand more. According to HubSpot, among countless others, authenticity is also increasingly important.

This shouldn’t translate as ‘let’s target Millennials’ by using emoji and speaking like a child.

Those people don’t want to call up a brand and have a conversation. What it means is that expectations are changing, and brands will need to adjust to stay relevant in the long term.

It means maintaining an active and responsive social customer care program, or having transparency processes in place.

As Louis V, strategy planner at a major finance and media brand puts it: “they’re engaged with the corporate climate. They’re engaged with all these different things that we would have narrowly written off had we not been paying attention to. And missing out on these things as they’re bubbling up is how you lose relevance as a brand.”

People aren’t buying more cars just because you’re using emoji

So if targeting Millennials is really just about preparing for the future and preventing getting left behind, what can brands do when they think about targeting in a way that carries more meaning?

In terms of targeting, for reasons we’ve been through, Millennials isn’t a particularly helpful term to be talking about.

Instead, brands should be talking about gardeners with Snapchat or Pinterest accounts. Or people that own tablets that also like NFL. Or people that drink soda twice a day and live in New England.

There’s so much more nuance and potency in targeting at this level of granularity than sweeping terms like Millennials, Generation Y or Baby Boomers can ever offer.

These are the kinds of groups that can be targeted with meaning, and not only have a genuine impact upon the nature of a marketing strategy, but will also transcend the buckets we’ve created to label the world.

So the next time you’re having a conversation about targeting in marketing, please think more about who it is you’re trying to target, and why you’re trying to do it.

Identifying audiences, and finding a way to connect with these consumers in a way that’s relevant to your brand, is the most effective way to think about targeting – and if more marketers take this advice, then I hope it means I can finally turn my snake people plugin off.


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