Trust The Data And Ditch The Cult Of The Millennials

Just when you thought it was safe to open a marketing magazine, along comes another of those articles set to mystify the mind and prove that only those with an "ology" in millennials can possibly be trusted to market to anyone in their late teens and twenties.

Well, actually with the latest survey in Marketing Week from ZenithOptimedia, the age group chosen goes from 18 to 34, meaning that a millennial is somehow classified as someone born from 1980 onwards. It means that someone who is 34 is considered in the same age bracket as someone who is 18. So a person who is likely to be buying a house and on their second or third job is in the same demographic as someone who has yet to go to college. I can't imagine two people with more completely different mindsets, but there you go. 

In fact, I should add a disclaimer here that I think behaviour based around wants and needs sums up groups of people rather than their age. Someone flat hunting in London should be in the same basket, then, if they're 22 or 58 years of age. Someone looking for a mortgage is going through pretty much the same type of issues regardless of age. Someone with three kids will want the same type of car whether they're 25 or 55. Age can be quite useful for macro views as, say, people make their drinking journey from shots and shorts to beer and then whisky in a tumbler on a coaster next to their reading spectacles. However, it's a rough overview, not the be and end all of understanding customers.

Marketers are forever being told that they can't "get" millennials on their own. They need endless debate and research to show up how different the youth of today are -- to not think of millennials as distinct is viewed as shortsighted. I would counter argue that thinking everyone ages 18-34 generally thinks the same and can be summed up by a couple of statistics is pretty patronising.

It's a really hot topic, though, and I've been asked to write about it several times. In all my years of talking to companies, the main thing that comes out is bosses are fed up of being told to think of millennials as some alien species that needs consultants to make sense of. Most claim the only difference in the age groups can be that millennials occasionally need to be be reminded that their degree doesn't make them master of all they survey and they like offices with showers so they can get ready before going out on the town. So young people can be cocky -- haven't we all been guilty of that at that age and possibly still are? They also like showers. This puts them in the same category of middle-aged men who have taken to cycling in to work and want to freshen up at the start of the day. The fact they both want showers installed in offices, yet can have twenty or more years of an age gap between them, must send the researchers in a tail spin to explain away why people must always be described by their age.

So the latest research shows that young people are less materialistic and more worried about health and ethics than previous generations. Of course, there are no comparison figures quoted in the article so you wouldn't have a clue what us over 34 year olds think. However, millennials basically think they are an adult when they are financially independent and start to make their own decisions. Not exactly a finding that will turn the world on its head. Oh, they're fairly likely to take a photo and put it on social media if they come across something that is great fun or unusual. My middle aged social media accounts will testify, this is something not limited to millennials.

Of course, there are no statistics offered in the magazine report to back up the quoted assumptions of millennials having more of a world view and being less materialistic than their parents. Apart from wondering what the data was which led to this assumption, I'd say that these are probably true assumptions but are not limited to millennials. We're all living in the aftermath of a global financial crisis which showed what happens when greed drives banks and businesses to operate outside the realms of common sense and with scant regard for both the spirit and letter of the law. We're also all living in an age where people increasingly want to work for companies and shop for brands which align with their moral compass and the internet means we soon become aware of incidents of malpractice within seconds. So the assumptions are probably correct but not limited by age. 

So here is a case in hand. My nephew, in his early twenties, was typical last year. Saving up for a lads' holiday, spending his weekends at bars full of young people drinking those shots that young people bolt, eating fast food and getting lots of taxis. Fast forward a year and he's buying cookbooks, looking up holidays to nice family resorts and making reservations in fancy restaurants. He's the same guy; he's the same age. It's just that he's got a serious girlfriend. He's now frequenting the same bookshops, restaurants and travel agents as his mother who, it may not be gallant of me to mention, is not exactly a millennial. 

If you believed the research, he must have suddenly jumped forwards twenty years, and if you listened to reports rather than data, you would miss out on a new customer who hasn't aged -- just his mindset and his behaviour has.

Ultimately, if you're worrying that these endless reports into millennials are a little patronising and simplistic, fear not -- you are not alone.

Digital marketers have known for quite some time to follow the data, not the trend. Keep to the data and we can all stay strong and wait for the wave of "millennials are unique" reports to wash over us.

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