There are no millennials: Why Taco Bell isn't 'on fleek' and Chevy shouldn't speak emoji

It could have been a storyline in HBO's Silicon Valley. A truth stranger than Mike Judge's satirical fiction. Tic Tac had a problem.

Taco Bell's Twitter feed

It thought that millennials wouldn't be content with a simple mint. That oh-so-important generation would need something more. 'Entertainment, release from boredrom – they'd need emotional rescue'. So it's releasing a mint that changes flavour as you eat it. Roald Dahl would perhaps roll his eyes. Willy Wonka would surely think two flavours isn't enough.

The Tic Tac story was the starting point for a New York Times article this week – talking about the industry that's sprung up around marketing to millennials. Consultancies, agencies, think tanks, banks, research organisations and multitudes of others are milking money from the millennial teat.

Type the word millennial into Google and you’ll see a similar industry has grown up – generating frantic headlines about emoji use, how millennials will dominate the workforce, how the Pope is secretly a millennial and tens of thousands of other equally inane thoughts. Taco Bell is so ‘on fleek’ that it has a group of 20-something staffers curate 'millennial words of the week', which are sent around to its staff in an internal email and displayed on internal screens during the week so that they know their ‘throwing shade’ from their ‘DAT BURRITO DOE’…

I’ve seen countless agency and brand execs get exercised about how they target millennials and what they should be doing to engage with, resonate with, capture or just talk to this apparently golden generation. I’ve witnessed senior (in both age and position) people in big brands using the word ‘swag’ with reckless abandon as they talk about how to target these new customers – all the while ignoring the opinions of the actual 20-somethings in the room.

I’ve witnessed a lot of failures. So have others. Thankfully, we have Reddit to carefully document these. In the ‘Fellow Kids’ subreddit, there is a helpfully curated list of appalling, condescending and idiotic ideas that have somehow made it in front of humanity’s collective eyeballs. The entire Subreddit is characterised by excessive use of the word swag, Gangnam Style and GTA-style fonts alongside an almost comically sad lack of understanding of memes and internet culture as a whole.

Of course, there’s a dirty little secret here as well. Most of the people who fit the bill for this demographic don’t have money. Forrester produced one of the best pieces of research on this exact topic earlier in the year. The results were pretty damning.

Sucharita Mulpuru, the analyst who wrote the report said: “The truth is millennials aren’t spending any money with anybody because they don’t have any.” Millennials have student debt, they have lower salaries, they tend to not have equity in homes. Contrast that with the baby-boomer generation – in the US, that group controls 75 per cent of household net worth and the spending power that goes along with it.

So how do we reach millennials is this era’s ‘what’s our Y2K strategy?’

It’s easy to pin all of a brand or retailer's issues on one cohort and then direct all your energy into fixing that rather than looking at the fundamentals of a business or brand. The reality is that brand loyalty has changed.

We used to get subsidised newspapers every day in college when I was there, the hope being that if they could hook us young, they’d get us for life. Look how that turned out. The idea that this disparate group of men and women that are lumped together as millennials are the only generation that’s lived through any period of sustained technological and societal change is a narrative fallacy. Every generation since the industrial revolution has gone through pretty seismic changes. This one is no different.

Chevy going emoji, Taco Bell being ‘on cleek’ [sic], textspeak contact lens cases, Microsoft co-opting memes for its social feeds and the utter lunacy of trying to newsjack Gangnam Style: all condescending ideas fumbling around for an audience that cares. All of them failing to grasp one simple truth. There is no Generation Y that marketers can target. There are no millennials. They simply do not exist. It’s a sociological term that’s being used as a sticking plaster in the marketing and retail industries to explain away failings and issues that are far more systemic and widespread than the failure to have a Snapchat page or a Grumpy Cat pillowcase in your store.

The truth is far simpler – this is not just one group that can be lumped together and targeted with multi-flavoured sweets or using the word ‘bae’ in your brand’s Twitter feed. This is a complex group of multi-faceted nodes which, to my mind, don’t appear to circle some massive millennial-shaped hub. The sooner people realise that, the sooner they can start thinking more sensibly about marketing that’s more intelligent, more targeted to the right nodes in the right way and on the right channels.

Until then, we can look forward to plenty more entries on Fellow Kids.

Eamonn Carey is an entrepreneur in residence at Techstars in London and an advisor to MHP Communications, Kiip, Lingvist, Brandwatch and Sorry as a Service.

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.

Come on in, it’s free.

This isn’t a paywall. It’s a freewall. We don’t want to get in the way of what you came here for, so this will only take a few seconds.