Marketing to millennials: Is Generation Y really all that different?

Liam Ward-Proud
Millennials: May be sporting Google Glasses
Talking to advertising and media executives these days, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there’s an alien group lurking among UK consumers. Millennials, we are told, are different. Born between 1980 and 1995, they split their summers between south-east Asia and Bestival, often sporting torn jeans, face paint and/or a pair of Google Glasses. When not glued to the Pinterest app on their smartphones, you’ll likely find them finger-painting canvasses in a loft in Dalston, or preparing a fresh batch of artisanal mayonnaise for their latest pop-up venture.

Crucially for marketers, they’re apparently immune to conventional adland fare, shunning TV sets and holding an instinctive hostility towards commercial branding.

A lot of rubbish has been written on this topic. But while most advertisers’ Gen Y briefing documents read like hastily thrown together sets of cliches (see above), there are a few gems. IPG agency Initiative spoke to around 10,000 people in the age group for Debunking the Millennial Myth (released last week), in an effort to pull out some substantive conclusions for marketers.

Use of technology is one of the clearest themes to emerge. Roughly 46 per cent of those surveyed said they “get uneasy if they can’t get online”, while 44 per cent admit to being addicted to devices like smartphones and tablets.

To an extent, it confirms what we already knew: younger people are far more likely to be active on mobiles, especially using social media services like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. The advice: build campaigns “from the smartphone out”, and make your brand more visual on social media.

But Initiative’s research goes a step further, pointing out that online behaviours within this age group can be quite distinctive. For under-29s in particular, social media is characterised as an exercise in personal branding. This age group is considerably more likely than others to use social media to “earn respect”, “be the first to share something new” and “influence the opinions of others”. For over-30s, the emphasis seems to shift towards meeting people, and feeling connected.

To reach the former group, Initiative recommends almost mimicking their online behaviour. “Brands can learn a huge amount from the energy and enthusiasm with which millennials share opinion and advice online for no obvious reward.” Brands that “give” (Red Bull is used as an example), through the sharing of information or the sponsoring of events, will win out over those that see such actions as a route to a short-term reward.

But this relates to a slightly more contentious point. It’s argued that millennials have much higher expectations of brands in terms of “authenticity” or “purpose”, with 58 per cent saying that companies have the potential to be a force for good in the world, and 59 per cent wanting them to actively participate to “improve causes”. Aside from the vagueness here (which causes?, should action be taken at the expense of the bottom line?), it’s not clear that this is a phenomenon unique to Gen Y. The statistics aren’t compared to past generations, and, frankly, talk is cheap.

A mere 13 per cent say they want brands to just focus on their goods and services, implying that the majority expect more. But how many would frequently choose a more expensive product because of a sense of loyalty? Witness the remarkable rise of Asos, Lidl, Aldi and other companies whose core proposition is to undercut their competitors. Remember, this is a generation who’ve forged their careers during the recession – they’ve faced tuition fees, and stratospheric property prices.

Starry-eyed, even idealistic they may be – but don’t underestimate millennials’ pragmatism.

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