Mind The Gap: Why Marketing To Millennials Is A Mistake

Long before I finished graduate school with an advanced degree in psychology, I believed, as many mental health professionals do, that labeling a person or a group based on a set of traits or symptoms could do more harm than good. 

Today, as the CEO of an advertising agency, I understand the obsession with Millennial consumers but I am baffled by the marketing world’s tendency to look at this entire generation of people as one group with similar traits and tastes. Millennials, also known as Generation Y, were born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. Most agree that people born between 1992 and 2001 make up the key part of this group. This means that a Millennial may be 18 years old or 33 years old. 

It’s hard to imagine how any marketer can assume that an 18-year-old and a 33-year-old man or woman would share many, if any, of the same values, preferences and experiences. A 10-year difference in age is enormous, especially in today’s fast-changing world. Think about it. The first iPhone was introduced in 2007. That means the youngest people in this coveted consumer group were only about 10 years old when Apple introduced this device. They grew up with it. The oldest among the Millennials were about 23. They remember life before there was a phone, a camera, a keyboard and the Internet in every pocket. For them, the iPhone was a massive new technology, and a life-changing one. Consider, too, life and job experience, economic conditions, food trends, popular culture – even the memory of 9/11. How is it possible that the people who make up this group could be considered similar?



Labels are for the lazy. Yes, they make it easy to communicate when speaking of a generation or to a consumer target. But unless there is a powerful and unifying common cause that rallies an entire generation, generation labels are nothing but marketing buzz terms to help marketers communicate and simplify their targeting efforts.

So what is a marketer to do? My agency, for starters, shuns labels like Gen X, Millennials and Baby Boomers altogether. Instead, we think in terms of consumer lifestyle. Here are three other things we bear in mind to keep from making generalizations about huge consumer groups: 

  • We live in an ageless age. Unless you are a pharmaceutical marketer or make children’s products, targeting age groups is meaningless. People are raising families and bringing children into their home in their late 40s and 50s. Retirees are working through their 60s. It is a fact that young adults are way older—or perhaps just wiser – than they appear. Many middle-aged folks and even seniors behave as if they are younger than they appear. This doesn’t mean the young are like the old—not at all. But you can’t assume someone who’s 20, 40, 60 or any age feels a certain way or wants a specific thing. 
  • Be mindful of need states. Consumers change throughout the day. A 26 year old behaves differently with work buddies than he or she does around high-school friends, parents or a boss. They are in a different frame of mind at each time and receptive (or not) to certain types of messages in those moments. In other words, need states become drivers of behavior. Marketers must find when and where a target consumer will be most open to a commercial message.
  • Stop talking to yourself. In thinking about smaller groups of consumers, it’s possible to think too small. It’s shocking to me how many brands tend to speak to themselves. Too often, marketing executives think that what they believe is important is also important to their consumer. The label “LOHAS” (lifestyle of health and sustainability) is a great example. Most of us aspire to be LOHAS, but how many actually live that life style day in and day out? Marketers need to make sure they are speaking to their consumer and not to an idealistic, one-dimensional consumer that our client or boss believes is the target.
3 comments about "Mind The Gap: Why Marketing To Millennials Is A Mistake".
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  1. Dan Ciccone from MEDIAFICIONADO, October 24, 2014 at 10:39 a.m.

    "I am baffled by the marketing world’s tendency to look at this entire generation of people as one group with similar traits and tastes." It's not just generation stereotypes, but broad demographic targeting as well as you eluded to. I find it very frustrating when my CPG clients target "busy Moms 25-49." A 25 year old mother has very different needs vs. a 40 year old mom and how do you define a "busy" mom?

    With technologies and targeting capabilities today, many advertisers should be focused on the needs of their consumer and not their ages. But that's what marketing tends to do - millions are spent to define an audience and create a personality for the person it is trying to reach and then pretend the 20 million people in that demographic all have the same need.

  2. Michael Greeson from TDG, October 24, 2014 at 4:33 p.m.

    Completely agree with your analysis. At TDG, we began separating Late vs. Early Millennials several years ago due precisely to the variations you highlight. They are very different segments with very different media preferences and behaviors such that combining them into a single segment is not only statically invalid, but a dangerous generalization that oversimplifies the complexities inherent in younger adult groups.

    Of course, the preferable route is formal segmentation where age is a profile characteristic versus a segmenting characteristic, but formal segmentation language is not palatable for (most) industry press outlets, which unfortunately prefer to use emotive terms that attract more readers (which use of the term 'Millennials' does).

  3. Casey Kimberly from General Mills, October 27, 2014 at 11:39 a.m.

    "I understand the obsession with Millennial consumers..." Agreed. I get it. It's a large segment with lots of buying power. But as a non-Millennial I'm starting to feel a little alienated. If I'm lucky I'll be a consumer for another 50 years. Isn't my money as green as those Millennials?

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