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Millennial Bug: Who the hell are they, and what do they want from us?

If you had a pound for every time someone wrote about Millennials, you’d be reading this on the deck of your yacht.

With so many theories, studies and endless definitions of the term, you’d think we’d know by now exactly what constitutes a ‘Millennial’ – nominally those aged 20–34 years – and what they want from brands.

Despite our best efforts, however, the word remains shrouded in mystery and contradiction, like a 21st-century Mona Lisa.

So what, if anything, is the secret to this most elusive demographic? And why should brands care?

Panic at the disco

Millennials are work-shy, disaffected and self-absorbed. They’re also work-obsessed, ambitious and give more generously to charities than older people.

Confused? The ubiquity of the term ‘Millennial’ and it’s clickbait appeal have created an ocean of contradictory information. One article will tell you they’re tech-savvy and social media obsessed, another will say they can barely operate a computer and are turning away from social media in their droves. So what should you believe?

You only have to Google the word ‘Millennial’ to discover endless lists of what they’re destroying (diamonds, marmalade, even handshakes) and what they’re most into (cosmetics, traveland the environment). Most market insights into the term are reductive, simplistic and ultimately not helpful – especially not for those trying to position their brand in relation to the group. That is, if it even is a group.

It’s important to remember that 97% of claims made about Millennials are entirely unsubstantiated – like this one. Even claims backed up by studies are unlikely to be truly reliable because they only reflect a narrow segment of the Millennial population and don’t take into account societal changes and external factors.

For example, an article like ‘Young Americans are killing marriage’ fails to mention that Millennials are now the largest living generation in the US and that the baby boomers have the highest percentage of divorce.

So what can we take from it all?

People enjoy talking about Millennials because it’s interesting - and because 20-34 year olds are consumers which brands need to reach. They’re young, exciting and ultimately reflect how the world is changing.

Perhaps one of the most important reasons for brands to understand Millennials is that they care about the journey and the impact of what they’re buying: they have more of a consumer conscience than the previous generation. Factors like corporate social responsibility, eco-consciousness and ethical trading can have a huge influence on which brands they choose.

According to Neilsen’s 2015 Global Sustainability Report, 73% of Millennials are prepared to put their money where their values are and spend more on a product if it comes from a sustainable brand.

The real truth about Millennials, though. It’s not about age at all.

Being a Millennial is a state of mind - a consciousness around issues like sustainability, self-care and political awareness. Redefining the term to describe a set of ideals and aspirations changes it from something generalised to something specific and meaningful.

The term Millennial and all its inferences have become synonymous with modern life. It captures a zeitgeist defined by the pursuit of healthier lifestyles, global consciousness, social media use, authenticity and progressive attitudes to diversity. But this shift in behaviour is not necessarily age-dependent. A good example is the use of social media. Although it’s often reported that Millennials have growing numbers of social media users, that idea can be misleading - especially if we cling to a purely age-based definition of ‘Millennial’.

According to a report by Ofcom, the number of over 75s using social media doubled last year and 48% of baby boomers (aged 65-74) now have some form of social media profile. This highlights a societal move towards a more digitally connected era rather than a change in the behaviour of 20-34 year olds. So how does this help marketers?

By focussing on Millennials as a mindset rather than a definition for 20-34 year olds, brands can identify Millennial consumer trends and use them to effectively engage with their target audiences.

So who are Millennials and what do they want?

It’s a bit like the famous scene in the Wizard of Oz, when the curtain’s pulled back and the great and powerful Oz is revealed to be a tiny old man turning a wheel. That’s not to say Millennials are a disappointment or don’t live up to the hype. Rather, that beneath all the reams written about them, they are just the same as the rest of us. Only younger.

The stereotypes about the youth generation being lazy and entitled are nothing new. Older generations have always maligned those younger than themselves.

Even the Ancient Greeks accused the youth of being delinquent and ungrateful, with Socrates apparently saying: ‘The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they contradict their parents and tyrannize their teachers.’ Sound familiar?

The difference is that the Ancient Greeks didn’t have the internet. We do: and the result is a conflicting, generalised barrage of information about who Millennials are and what they want, which often leaves brands none the wiser.

Ultimately, the notion of Millennials as one marketing demographic is a fallacy, borne of an age in which ideas and information spread like spilt milk. That’s why it’s so difficult to pinpoint exactly who they are and what they want. How can you definitively say what all 20-34 year olds want? It’s the modern day equivalent of a wild goose chase.

The truth is simple: a Millennial can be anyone, irrespective of age and background. ‘Millennial’ indicates a set of values and ideals which reflects 21st century living. What do Millennials want? According to Deloitte’s 2017 Millennial Survey, they want what most of us want: a healthy work/life balance, a more socially conscious world, happiness.

While there is no big mystery to solve, there is real value and meaning to be found in the term Millennial - it just needs to be used correctly. By treating them as a group who share the same beliefs and aspirations rather than the same arbitrary birth period, brands can begin to unlock the true potential of the not-so-elusive Millennials.


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