Millennials are not bad – and they’re not a marketing segment, either

The Promotion Fix is a​n ​exclusive biweekly column for The Drum from Samuel Scott, a global keynote marketing speaker who is a former journalist, newspaper editor, and director of marketing and communications in the high-tech industry. Follow him @samueljscott.

If your target market segment is 'millennials' or 'baby boomers' or any general demographic, you are doing it wrong.

So I was leaving work one day and walking to the bus stop when I saw a group of teenagers enjoying their after-school high jinx in a nearby Tel Aviv park. The boys had combed-back haircuts and large, metallic sunglasses. The girls were wearing halter tops and mom jeans with large holes.

I felt that I had left the office and entered a Bananarama video from 1986.

My fascination was half appreciation (“The kids are wearing what we wore!”) and half amusement (“Ha! Mom jeans were never cool!”). But truth be told, I think my feeling was a reminder of my mortality. One day, I will die – and these weird teenagers will run the show.

And that is what every generation has always felt. The World War II generation rolled its eyes at the long hair and bell-bottoms of the hippies. The hippies grew up and shook their heads at the flannel-wearing slackers of the nineties. And now I get to facepalm at the long-bearded and arm-sleeve-tattooed hipster millennials of today.

People mock younger generations because they fear death and act out of a subconscious defense mechanism as they get closer to shuffling off this mortal coil. People want to imagine that their generation did something good and historic that will always be remembered if the younger people ever mess it all up. People want to know that everything that their generation had built will not disappear soon. And they are jealous of those who have more time.

As with every generation, 'millennial mania' today is in countless news articles, marketing campaigns and other forms of clickbait. And the complaints against any younger generation can always be summarised as: “Kids these days!”

Millennials are supposedly entitled, narcissistic, and lazy people who are 'killing' golf, beer, lunch, marriage, the film industry, wine corks and napkins, holidays and cereal while being the worst at driving and redeeming credit card points as well. Oh, and they are also addicted to pharmaceutical sedatives and traitors who leak government secrets.

In a marketing context, millennials are supposedly 'killing' traditional marketing and television while often using social media in the sales process and following vapid 'influencers' to destinations such as the ill-fated Fyre Festival. Oh, and they also have no attention spans and care about 'FOMO', 'brand purpose', and 'optimizing content for all platforms'. Whatever those three things mean.

(At this point, I stopped researching millennial clickbait because I would soon be throwing salt over my shoulder at the sight of anyone under the age of 30.)

But here is the important point: All of this research into 'millennials' – assuming that it is even accurate – is absolutely useless to marketers. It is a waste of time to read or produce.

Not everyone in a generation is the same

Too many people – especially those who did not live through a given decade – tend to paint those sets of years with very broad brushes.

But for every 'square' in the 1950s, there was also a beatnik. For every hippie in the 1960s, there was also a member of Richard Nixon’s alleged 'silent majority'. For everyone who rocked out to Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir in the 1970s, there was another person who liked Starland Vocal Band’s Afternoon Delight. In the 1980s, there were hardcore punks but also the hedonistic yuppies that were portrayed in Bright Lights, Big City. The 1990s had slackers who slam danced in mosh pits to Nirvana and the Pixies but also neo-hippies who wanted to zone out to Enya and the dream pop of Mazzy Star.

There are always generational outliers

I have never felt completely at home with Generation X or millennials. I was born in 1980, so I am supposedly in the group of people born in the late 1970s and early 1980s that are termed Xennials, the Oregon Trail Generation, or Generation Catalano. (The latter is a reference to My So-Called Life, an underrated one-season American drama in the early 1990s during which teenage viewers fell in love with Claire Danes as Angela Chase and Jared Leto as Jordan Catalano.)

We grew up in an analogue world and started to use digital technology in high school or university. It’s one reason that I talk on integrated traditional and digital campaigns as a marketing speaker – I have seen the successes and applications of both. Even today, we cannot be digital-first or digital-only.

But still, all of the articles about xennials – or millennials or any other supposed generation – are broad generalisations that contain few practical insights for marketers.

Demographic segments are not market segments

For all of these reasons and more, marketers need to stop obsessing over generations. A demographic segment is a group of people who share one or more attributes such as age, race, sex, or level of education. A market segment is a group of people who have the same behaviours, needs, attitudes or desires. The two are completely different things. Few marketers, if any, have ever created useful personas of simply millennials or Generation X.

Here is a quick example. In one of my prior positions, the company sold a certain type of B2B software to people who have a certain job. The software aimed to fix certain problems and make that specific job easier.

Now, a given person in that job could have been 20, 30, 50, or 90 years old. The demographics did not matter. The product marketing never changed in light of a person’s age because every potential customer had the same problems and needs regardless of the year in which he or she was born. To say that we needed a strategy to target millennials would have been absurd. Articles like '10 tips for millennial marketing' that purport to show how 75 million different people can each be sold in the exact same ways are ludicrous.

But tell that to NBC, which is looking to target millennials with a show on Snapchat, and BMW, which has puked all over its historically strong brand with this:

Most importantly, tell it to Air France, whose forthcoming Joon brand will be an airline-for-millennials and a bigger disaster than leisure suits:

The kids are alright

Well, to quote The Who, the kids are alright – despite the pandering attempts of too many brands to market to them. (And they are not even children any more. That would be so-called Generation Z. Many of the negative characteristics that people mistakenly assign to millennials are actually descriptions of teenagers today.)

Millennials are some of the hardest-working people I have ever met because they entered the workforce in a climate of post-2008 economic devastation, high student loan debt and low salaries that do not even keep up with inflation each year.

It’s one reason that I wrote in an earlier column for The Drum that marketing agencies routinely take advantage of young people. At another of my prior jobs, I had a colleague who had moved to a new city and lived in a car until the person was settled at a still-underpaid job at the PR agency. Millennials have been simply working hard and trying to build their lives – and no number of selfies should take away from that.

Same as it ever was

Young people are born and eventually scare the preceding generation. Journalists write about it. Marketers try to take advantage of it. Same as it ever was.

As I saw the teenagers in the park next to my office, I remembered that everything comes full circle. The mohawks and ripped jeans of the 1980s, the decade when the men were prettier than the women, have returned. The choker necklaces and flannel shirts of the 1990s, the decade when young people were angry despite an economic boom fed by beanie babies and the Spice Girls, have reappeared.

The only thing that is truly dead, we hope, is disco. Please keep salting the earth on that one.

Postscript: An interview with Bob Hoffman

Bob Hoffman is the retired chief executive and chairman of Hoffman/Lewis Advertising, writer of the popular Ad Contrarian blog, and author of a forthcoming book on the dangers that tracking, ad tech, and 'surveillance marketing' pose to individuals and society.

He is also often critical of the marketing industry’s focus on young people, so I interviewed him over email for some final thoughts for this column.

Samuel Scott: One rule in marketing is to 'hook​ them while they're young', so marketers have usually devoted some of their budgets to that. After all, no one would want to purchase luxury cars in middle age unless they had seen ads for those cars their entire lives. How useful has this approach been in general over the decades? Has the usefulness of this practice changed in recent years?

Bob Hoffman: It depends on the category. People buy luxury cars in middle age that didn’t even exist when they were young (Tesla). But some products (Coke) are bought not because we saw an ad yesterday, but because of the ads we’ve seen for 20 (or 30 or 40) years. For the most part, advertising now because you think somebody’s going to buy your product in 20 years is stupid. We see that all the time in the car industry.

​Scott: A frequent comment about millennials is that they are still broke at worst or underemployed at best following factors including the 2008 financial crisis. How valuable of a demographic segment are they today? But even if they have less money today, will they not have more money tomorrow? What is the problem with brand advertisers targeting them with long-term goals in mind?

Hoffman: There’s nothing wrong with targeting millennials when appropriate. The problem isn’t targeting. The problem is obsession.

Scott: ​Of course, 'millennials' may be a demographic segment but they may not be a useful marketing segment. Why are there so many news articles and marketing essays today that focus on what millennials want as though they have a single identity and set of characteristics?

Hoffman: There is just as much diversity within generations as there is between generations. The idiotic idea that all millennials are this or all baby boomers are that is just the stupid lazy thinking that makes most of marketing a joke. Remember, marketing consultants and researchers have to make a living. So every few years they have to come up with new 'generational' bullshit to sell to jackasses in marketing departments and ad agencies.

Scott: Most news articles out there portray millennials in a negative light. They are supposedly narcissistic, selfie-absorbed snowflakes who are lazy and want trophies for everything. I don't believe that. But why does everyone have those negative perceptions?

Hoffman: You can always find a component of any population that is lazy, self-absorbed and narcissistic. Nothing new here. But because culture and technology change, the manifestations of laziness, self-absorption and narcissism change. Consequently there is always something that seems new to write about. It’s horseshit, but it’s good copy.

​Scott: ​Many marketers believe in segmentation. But is there not a case for some B2C products and platforms with millions of users such as Snapchat or Coca-Cola targeting a broad demographic group such as millennials?

Hoffman: Sure. At different age stages we use different types of products.

Scott: From what I have read, baby boomers have all the money and are projected to live a very long time. So, why do you think that marketers ignore them?

Hoffman: I could write a text book on this subject. In short, marketers ignore mature people because we hate them. All the 'reasons' for ignoring older people are bullshit. Ignoring mature people and obsessing over millennials is just narcissism disguised as strategy. It is marketing by selfie-stick.

Scott: Can you cite any examples of brands losing sales or market share by focusing on millennials?

Hoffman: Scion targeted millennials, although at the time people over 35 bought 88% of 'youth vehicles'. It succeeded in becoming the car brand with the youngest owner population — and it went out of business.

Scott: What do you recommend brands do in the future in terms of generational targeting?

Hoffman: I recommend they ignore the ignorant, lazy thinking of generational cliches. Stop trying to hold a mirror up to your target and saying “we’re just like you”. Advertising should be about the desirability of your product, not your superficial assumptions about who I am.

Scott: What do you wish digital-focused millennials would know about traditional marketing and advertising?

Hoffman: I wish they knew how much they don’t know.

Scott: Lastly, I myself straddle the border between Generation X and the millennials. Generation X has always gotten lost in the debate. What do you think of us?

Hoffman: I think you’re all lazy, self-absorbed and narcissistic.

The Promotion Fix is an exclusive biweekly column for The Drum contributed by Samuel Scott, a global marketing speaker who is a former journalist, newspaper editor, and director of marketing and communications in the high-tech industry. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Scott is based out of Tel Aviv, Israel

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