Millennials? Meh…

JimMillennials. It’s pretty much the only audience marketers, marketing service providers, and the trades they read all talk about. And that is understandable. It’s estimated there are some 80 million young men and women born starting in 1980 through 2000.  For some perspective, Generation X, the group of people born by and large from 1964 to 1980, are only some 65 million according to Pew Research. Eighty million are a lot of pockets to reach into. But so are 65 million. And so are the 77 million Baby Boomers. Why so focused on Millennials? Why do we focus on any “generation” when it comes to marketing?

We do it because categorization makes for easy thinking. This is true for life as it is for marketing. There are good evolutionary reasons for it I won’t get in to. But when it comes to moving business forward – or making policy, or determining the fate of nations – easy isn’t a good enough reason for lumping people together by the sole fact of a temporal accident. In Saturday’s New York Times business section, there was an article about how business’s 21st century anxiety over how to reach millenials might be going too far. The question asked is: what about the rest of us? Don’t we buy things? Given the reported dire straights Millennials are in financially due to a prolonged great recession, shouldn’t marketers be interested in the other generations of people who might have more money in their pockets?

Of course, as marketers and advertisers, we know it isn’t always about money now, but about building relationships for later.

As an example, Whole Foods is planning on launching a line of grocery stores catering specifically to Millennials. It will feature a “curated selection,” “streamlined design” and “innovative technology” as well as lower prices. But as someone wrote on Harvard Business Review’s web site, “Whole Foods… appeared to be saying that ‘Gen X and baby boomer shoppers are fine with or even prefer old, cluttered stores that sell a confusing array of stuff at high prices.’”

The whole notion of thinking that people have something in common simply because of an accident of birth and then persuading them to behave a certain way because they belong to that group is a granfalloon. A generation as marketing approaches it is what Vonnegut would call a “false karass.” That’s “a group of people who affect a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is actually meaningless.”

As it turns out time and again, for the most part, people, Millennials included, aren’t so different, but neither are they the same.

Environment and education have more influence on behavior than age, aside from the obvious access to activities for which age-borne thresholds have been established (driving, drinking, voting, running for government office, playing contact sports). In the 20 years I’ve been doing some form of media planning, I’ve found that the biggest influencer on media consumption has not been age or income but education level and geography.

What defines a “generation” isn’t an age. Age is incidental. What defines a generation is cultural events in common that had an impact in ways that defined a person’s world view. What do I mean? Take the Vietnam War; people of all ages had contact with the event, but for a certain group of people it serves as the crucible in which a worldview was catalyzed and came into focus.

Having common experiences and frame of reference does not mean we see the world the same way. It just means we are seeing the same world. We still might see it differently, and be the same age; or we might see it the same and be different ages.

Some product and service categories can get away with tailoring their message to a generational target, but it is not always obvious what those are, and it certainly isn’t all of them. Entertainment categories are obvious — so much of their product output is zeitgeist driven. Less obvious is automotive, which has spent oceans of time and money “life-staging” their audience’s consumer journey.

When paying to transmit your value proposition to an audience, the convenient but lazy thinking of generational categorization isn’t usually relevant.

Jim Meskauskas is a co-founder and Chief Strategic Officer of Media Darwin, a consultancy specializing in strategic planning of commercial communicative action. He’s a medialogist who has spent the last 20 years living, breathing and thinking about how to use media to move people to action. Outside of that, his likes are horror movies, Southeast Asian cuisine, his wife and his cat — not necessarily in that order. His dislikes are mean people, people who text while walking in or out of the subway entrances, pestilence, war, famine and death.