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Why Marketing to Millennials Is Pointless

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We’ve all seen them. They seem to be everywhere these days. Articles, advice, seminars, videos, and blog posts teaching us how to market to “Millennials”. Seemingly the holy grail of marketing audiences these days, Millennials are defined, generally-speaking, as the generation of individuals ranging from 18-37 years old, depending on who you ask. Because of the sheer multitude of Millennials (about 40-70 million, also varying by expert opinion), and their presumed purchasing power over the next several years, this group has become a prime target for many brands. Most companies are attempting to reduce this massive population segment into a single set of defining characteristics, including generalized information about millennial values, buying habits and preferred experiences.

We’ve heard many of the stereotypes: “Millennials are more socially conscious – let’s play up our sustainability efforts” or “Millennials are more casual – let’s show them how hip and laid back we are at our office.” All well and good, but there are several problems with these stereotypical approaches. First: such efforts will likely fall flat if these tactics are not truly representative of the core values of the company. After all, aren’t Millennials the generation that demands transparency, and will thus see through such hollow, manipulative attempts?

Cheekiness aside, a second and larger problem is that while Millennials are poised to be the world’s biggest consumer force, almost all conversations seem to lump them into a single, homogenous group, with a presumed set of common values. Reducing a population of several million people into a single set of values and life goals is bound to be inaccurate at best, and insulting at worst. Millennials, like any other generation, vary in personality, geography, life stage, and, of course, values. Would a 32-year old female software engineer living in Silicon Valley have the same values, goals, and life priorities as an 18-year old male retail clerk from the Midwest? Most likely not. But according to demographic segmentations they would likely both fall under the all-encompassing “Millennial” umbrella, and potentially be courted in the same manner by businesses and employers.

Another issue when attempting to pinpoint the values of any generation is that people vary not only in their core values, but also in their ideas about what values even represent in the first place. For example, Millennials are often said to demand a sense of “purpose” from their chosen brands. As a result, companies are jumping onto the purpose-marketing bandwagon, implementing corporate giving campaigns, volunteer programs and marketing campaigns with charitable components. However, “purpose” is not really an actionable value in and of itself, but a general overriding life goal that applies to all of us. Almost everyone, regardless of background, upbringing or demographic, seeks some sort of purpose in their lives. But what is purposeful to a more liberal, coastal resident (fair working conditions for employees, for example), may not be what is purposeful to a conservative heartland dweller (e.g. Made in the U.S.A).

In order to craft a truly motivational marketing strategy, a more meaningful definition of the values of the target audience is necessary. Whole Foods has crafted an advertising campaign using the tagline “Values Matter”. True enough, but which values, and for whom? Would your customers’ sense of purpose be better stimulated with a campaign promoting social justice, or the needs of U.S. veterans? Family security or personal adventure? Spiritual fulfillment or having fun? To answer these questions, companies need to go beyond demographics to gain alignment with the true values of their audience.

The fact is, Millennials are simply human beings. They are really no different from any other generation when it comes to making decisions based on their values. In psychology, prominent theories state that a person or group’s core values are the primary driving force behind all of their thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and decisions. Many of Zenzi’s services are based on our Values Marketing practice, which is grounded in these well-established theories. Our recommendations and insights are based on our research, which has uncovered four primary value types, each possessing distinct, data-driven characteristics and predictive abilities that go well beyond generic categories such as “Millennials”.

Labels such as “Millennials” are convenient, easily digestible, and make for clickable headlines. However, we believe companies that rely solely on age-based categorizations are missing out on a fantastic opportunity to further refine their customer segmentation strategies, develop more passionate brand advocates, and increase ROI for all of their marketing efforts.



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To learn more about Zenzi’s Values Marketing practice, contact Julie Lyons at Julie@zenzi.com.

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