Taking Millennials at Face Value Will Derail Your Marketing Efforts to Reach Them

Dig deeper for valuable intel about this diverse generation

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I've always had a problem with generational marketing, by which I mean the assumption that you can lump millions of people together just because they're more or less the same age. Generalization marketing might be a better term.

Millennials are, of course, today's "generalized" target for almost every brand outside big pharma and things like annuities. And on a macro level it's easy to see why. There are a lot of them, and they're open to new ideas, brands and lifestyles. But while it's true that people in their 20s and early 30s have some commonalities, it's a huge mistake to assume that millennials are all the same (or that they want different things than their boomer parents did at the same age; more on that later).

Lionel Knight Alex Fine

Let's remember that we're talking about roughly 80 million millennials, bridging two important life stages: first job/going to college, and starting a family (whether that's with kids or pets). Also consider that they were born between 1981 and 1997 (everyone seems to use slightly different years, but those are the ones used by the Pew Research Center, so that's good enough for me), and I dare you to tell me that an 18-year-old millennial has much in common with one who's 34. In fact, it's a bit ironic that today the ages of millennials coincide with the old tried-and-true 18-34 generational demographic, which I've also always had a problem with.

In any case, let's take a look at millennials in the first of the two life stages. Often referred to as the "me's," they're on the cusp of adulthood and often still financially dependent. As their moniker implies, they're largely focused on themselves and working out who they are in what is a pretty harsh environment. They tend to be more focused on the now, on instant gratification—and most of their purchasing is tied to self-expression from the fashions they wear, to the brands they drink.

Unfortunately, I suspect that when most marketing people think of millennials, they're thinking of me's. They're most likely generalizing all millennials as spoiled, selfish and feckless—as summed up in the sobriquet made famous by Time magazine some years ago, "Generation Me."

But in contrast, let's consider the me's older siblings, the "we's," keeping in mind that the transition from one to the other doesn't follow a neat age split. The biggest factor in the we's life is that they're not alone. They have someone else to care about. We's are starting to prioritize family needs, following patterns that aren't so different from those their baby boomer parents followed, as they think about a place to live and bringing up kids.

The emergence of we's with more grounded aspirations is something no one can ignore because it points the way for the whole generation. Take the example of what the home means and what millennials aspire to.

The stereotype says millennials want to live in big city centers like New York, San Francisco or Chicago. It also generalizes that they're renters, not wanting to tie themselves to a mortgage, and that their ideal home is the polar opposite of their boomer, suburban parent's single family house with the white picket fence.

Truth is most millennials are more like their baby boomer parents than you might imagine. According to the 2013 Demand Institute Housing & Community Survey, a full 75 percent of millennials believe home ownership is an important long-term goal. While only 24 percent of them have bought, almost 60 percent say they plan to, with only 16 percent saying they don't want to buy at all. That doesn't bode well for all those developers building downtown rental high-rises in cities across the country. In fact, when the Demand Institute asked where millennials would prefer their next home to be, there was another shock. Almost 50 percent said the suburbs, with 38 percent choosing urban and 14 percent rural.

This isn't to say they're actually becoming their parents. While almost 50 percent say they want a suburban home to raise their family, the definition of both home and family has changed since the 1980s. Family may or may not include kids, marriage or couples of either sex. And that house millennials aspire to may be in the burbs, but it won't have a formal dining room and will be digitally smart in every way possible.

My point is that while generational groupings can be a useful basis for marketing, you can't stop at the superficial and often sensationalist stereotypes you see in the headlines.

You must dig deeper because all too often the easy headline like Generation Me for millennials is far from the truth. So is the notion that millennials are so very different than their boomer parents who ironically enough author Tom Wolfe described as the Me Generation in the late 1960s.

Lionel Knight (@Chawton) is svp of planning at Chicago-based marketing agency Upshot.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 7 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.