How to market to millennials: don't!

Insight • By GEMMA SMYTH • 19 September 2016

I’m nursing my phone on my knee as I type, just in case (heaven forbid) I’m somehow separated from it for 30 seconds.

Poring over travelling pictures on Facebook from ‘friends’ I met on a £1 Jaegerbomb night in uni never to be made contact with again, wondering how I’m ever going to afford to see the world with -£992 in my bank account even though I’m a young professional; while simultaneously googling what to have with my carb-free courgetti tonight because I have the attention span of a stone (our attention spans are now shorter than that of fish, yay).

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Yes that’s right. I am a millennial. Does that make me a twat? Maybe. A dreamer? Definitely. But believe it or not, there’s more to us lot than gluten-free everything, technology addiction and RSI in our thumbs as result of trying to find ‘bae’ (or significant other to you older folk).

And there’s more of us than you might think, with 16-34* year olds making up a quarter of the UK population. That’s 13.8m people in the UK alone. A rather big and rather lucrative audience that contribute an estimated 170 billion dollars in buying power worldwide and are set to make up 75% of the UK’s workforce by 2020.

That being said, does it really make sense to categorise every single one of us into tech-loving, home-living, narcissistic idiots?

Because that’s what’s happening. The over classification of this generation, and frankly any generation stereotype, is ludicrous. Type ‘millennials’ into Google and you’re consistently confronted with the same narrative:


But let’s take a step back. While I may meet some of the (nicer) criteria of your ‘typical millennial’, there are many ways in which I don’t. And that’s because, believe it or not, these characteristics don’t apply to every single person aged 16-34.

‘WHAT?!’ I hear you exclaim. Unbelievable, I know. But hear me out:

I’m a millennial. I’m 23, educated, in a good job but still broke, spend everything I make (hence the former), have lived in four countries in five years, love running, am on every social media channel, never go an hour without looking at my phone, but have never binge watched a TV series in my life.

My sister is also a millennial. Aged 32, she’s happily married 10 years with two kids, grew up in the 90s without technology as we know it, and has had the same job for 8 years. She owns a house, along with a fat mortgage and is always juggling her kids with her job, and her Fitbit fixation with her Netflix addiction.

My cousin, Jack, is also a millennial. He’s 19, had an iPhone and subsequent Angry Birds addiction before the age of 12, is proficient in code and looking for an apprenticeship; not fancying £50k debt at the tender age of 22…

You get the picture. We are not ho mo gen ous.

The thing about millennials is, we’re being increasingly pigeonholed and, in many cases, maligned. Some would argue that Baby Boomers, Gen X and Traditionalists have been tarred with the same brush just as much as millennials have and that it’s simply our increased exposure to opinions as a result of the ol’ interweb that makes us think millennials are getting more of a thrashing than previous generations.


Of course classifying people by their generation can be an incredibly useful way of segmenting people based on the economic, social and political spheres they were brought up in. But making mass assumptions like all Gen Xers will race to the dancefloor when Rick Astley’s Give You Up drops because they grew up obsessed with MTV, may land you in a bit of trouble.

With exponential innovations and total game changers in technology over the last 20 years, the internet, smartphones, social media; my theory is that millennials are overclassified to such a degree because we’re seen to be the most different from the preceding generation than other generational transition.

But whatever the reason, here’s why overclassification of this group is dangerous:

We are, in fact, the most selective generation of consumers in terms of not only what we buy, but who we buy from and what marketing messages we choose to receive.

“This generation is highly individual and self-centric, with a high focus on self-relevant, niche and indie cultures, and also more willing to spend money on relevant services. This makes them highly selective in what they are willing to consume, so marketers need to identify how to give each of them what they want.” (Steven Chang from Tencent. Contagious Q1/16 issue 46)

We’re also some of the first to have experienced personalised marketing efforts and life as active consumers. Gone are the days of acting as passive consumers and recipients of mass marketing efforts. My generation takes control of their consumption.

“They don’t see themselves as the targets that marketing people have traditionally seen them as. They see themselves as people with innumerable options. They’ll call you when they decide. Don’t call them. This means you’ve got to be a great looking suitor with alluring content.”

You hear that? We’ll call you when we decide. Which leads me onto the big bummer for advertisers when it comes to millennials:

They aren’t influenced at all by advertising. Only 1% of millennials surveyed said that a compelling advertisement would make them trust a brand more. Millennials believe that advertising is all spin and not authentic.”

We trust brands that are authentic, that stay true to their cause, that are active and entertaining on social media and have an authentic tone of voice, brands that don’t screw people over, especially those less fortunate. These are the ones that matter to us, not the ones that spend the most on blockbuster ad campaigns.

So as marketers, is what we do null and void? How does anyone succeed with this audience? Well, it’s about making them want to call us. But how?

We’re carrying out some new research, in partnership with the Future Foundation, into which brands matter and why. The idea is to shed some light on what’s important to millennials, and why they choose the brands they do. It’s going to be a big one!

Watch out for part 2 later in September.

* Definitions may vary depending on the author and which generation they’d like to fit into. The Future Foundation defines them as people born in the early 1980s to 2000, or 16-34 year olds.