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3 Ways to Tap Into What Really Matters to Millennials, and All People

Obsessively chasing digital natives isn't the best strategy

Want to reach digital natives? Stay focused on proximity, authenticity and culture. Getty Images

Marketers everywhere have been lured by the siren call of the millennial. Organizations across the globe are reshaping their portfolios, re-positioning their brands and shaking up their agency relationships as they jockey for the attention (and mythical cash) of this sexy but elusive cohort.  Anointed both prophet and high priestess of the digital age, millennials, it seems, are the answer to everyone's prayers.

This obsession with millennials goes beyond just a fascination with what "kids today" think of as cool and important—and has even the average mom-targeted grocery store brand questioning its place in today's market. But as the demo ages, research suggests that the fixation on this "special snowflake" generation is more a case of the tail wagging the dog than a sure-fire strategy.

Turns out the narrative of the mold-breaking millennials—as well as the force of their financial might—has probably been overplayed. Where prognosticators have long foretold that millennials are less likely to pursue the traditional trappings of adulthood (famously, they supposedly have less interest in driving, in home ownership and in marriage), now, as the economy limps back to life, early signs seem to indicate otherwise.

Joanna Franchini, cultural strategist

The generation, for instance, is beginning to dip its feet into the home-buying market. More than half report intending to buy a home within the next five years; of all age groups surveyed by Zillow, they are the most likely to believe that owning a home provides more freedom than renting.

Could it be this group's realities and concerns are not really such a departure from those of previous generations? Could it be that what was credited to the millennial cohort effect may actually have its origins in the more predictable: economic realities and life stage specificities?

But there is still much to learn from millennials as a group, and the obsession with them as a cultural force. The market's reaction to their ascendance can actually help shed light on some of the fundamental truths about reaching people (all kinds of people) that marketers everywhere would do well to remember.

Be where your customer is: The millennial rise was concurrent with technology's radical re-shaping of the marketing and media landscape. As first-generation "digital natives," the fluidity with which millennials navigate social media and the shifting norms and discourses of life—online and off—strikes fear in the heart of any marketer born before Ronald Reagan took office. But all that anxiety surrounding how to speak to millennials in a language they understand is clouding one of the first and simplest principles of marketing: be where your customer is.

Instead of worrying about "digital strategy" and "millennial expectations," marketers would do well to re-focus on the basics: putting a great idea with an enduring human truth where people can experience it. After all, a digital strategy is nothing mysterious or novel. It's simply what the best marketing has always been—a good idea—with a digital execution.

Be true to yourself: Known for being both idealistic and pragmatic, the millennial script is—above all else—about authenticity. And what's more authentic than owning who you are and what you're about? As more and more brands clamor to woo the manic pixie millennials, they risk coming across as faddish, undifferentiated, desperate and even out of touch. And, like the tired film trope, that dream girl may actually be less interesting than she appears. Not to mention that she may also be broke!

The Forrester Report's Future of Shopping offers evidence that millennial shoppers are not the cash cow once presumed. They simply don't have the spending power. Since 1973, real incomes have declined for younger consumers. Baby boomers are still where the money is: In 2013 households over the age of 55 were responsible for 35 percent of retail spend versus the 21 percent of those under 34. The bravest (and most profitable) decision of all could be to forego the sexy millennial in favor of a more reliable, albeit graying, partner.

Life changes, culture endures: If millennial hype turns out to be just that, this should be all the confirmation we need that psychographics—not demographics—must lead the way when it comes to understanding people. With the fragmented, hyper-paced marketing landscape ever shifting beneath our feet, placing an anchor in cultural truths can help brands connect with consumers on a deeper level, transcending the tired age/sex/race framework.

A cultural strategy that seeks to understand consumers through cultural values provides the best antidote to flabby, fad-chasing efforts that paint an entire generation with one broad brush. Peoplenot just millennialswant to believe they are distinct individuals and also part of something bigger than themselves. Brands that wield culture wisely can effectively deliver against both.

Eating your cake and having it, too. What's more millennial than that?

Joanna Franchini (@joannafranchini) is a cultural strategist at Added Value, a strategic marketing consultancy. She is also, though she hates to admit it, a millennial.

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