Misunderstood Millennials

Misunderstood Millennials

February 16, 2012

Misunderstood Millennials

I’ve seen several presentations recently in which Brand managers are taking a hard look at the generation born between 1980 and 1990, commonly called Millennials, and wondering how on earth they can market to this perplexing group. In each case, the word Millennials was deemed synonymous with confusion, brand disloyalty and lost profits. Millennials are thought to be selfish, suffering slackers wallowing in their own grandiosity.

It’s no wonder, either. The most well-known Millennial traits reflect the worst of their parents’ success. The Baby Boomers were a generation who rejected or redefined many of the traditional values that preceded them and approached life differently than their parents. This included a parenting philosophy in which they moved away from the hard-knocks approach to an overly nurturing and reassuring style.

As a result, the Millennial generation grew up with nearly every luxury available to them. They received the best educations, lived in the best homes and were constantly told that they were indeed number one. Their little league games had no losers – only winners. Their accomplishments were always worthy of a gold star. Their parents made sure of it.

This picture I’ve painted of Millennials, while it may be the most dramatic one, isn’t necessarily the most representative. And to be so dismissive and reductive about an entire generation is a very dangerous practice. The Millennial consumer is not necessarily a selfish, suffering slacker. However, they are living in a context that is very different compared to that of their parents. Relying solely on this stereotypical understanding of Millennials can be troubling, as it will undoubtedly lead to a very skewed – if not self-actualizing – communication strategy targeting this demographic.

A Life Stage of Exploration

Jeffrey Jensen Arnett should probably be known as Millennial Man. He is the thought leader on this generation and has conducted extensive research with this audience to understand who they are and what makes them appear so different. His primary hypothesis is that there’s a new life stage, which he calls Emerging Adulthood, that, “developed in part because young people enter adult roles of stable work, marriage, and parenthood later now than they did in the past, leading many older people to view them as ‘‘late’’ or selfish, and the new features of this new life stage are frequently misunderstood and misinterpreted” (Arnett, 2010). This is important because it leads to two conclusions – the first is that Millennials aren’t all that different; the second is that they are popularly defined by how an older generation perceives them. Arnett believes that this generation represents something new – a distinctive life phase that may well be experienced by every generation that follows.

Arnett argues that during the late teens through the twenties, men and women are now in a context of freedom not previously experienced by the human race. They enjoy the luxury of not having to make a commitment to a job and therefore can take their time in defining who they want to become. Some feel this makes them slackers, but a more optimistic perspective is that they’re actually prioritizing their own goals over society’s expectations of them. In fact, Arnett argues that this stage is actually a period of possibilities for these men and women as they explore the potentiality of their lives (Arnett, 2000).

This stage of life is when most people are re-centering themselves. They are unstable but on a quest, and will try out various possibilities before they make a long-term commitment (Arnett, 2006). Essentially, these individuals are attempting to create their identities and will use the world around them to explore and test those identities within the context of their lives.

Finding Loyalty Among the Disloyal

If Millennials seem brand disloyal it’s only because they often are. At this stage of life, they may adopt a social network, a clothing style, a musical preference or a chosen career for a period of time, only to shift away from it later. This is part of the re-centering process which often includes the brands in their lives. There‘s little a brand can do to prevent this shifting and evolution, but there is plenty to do to maintain a relationship with this audience throughout their growing pains.

Brands need to recognize that this Millennial audience is not an alien species. They are experiencing life in a different way from previous generations, but with the same set of underlying emotions, capabilities and cognitive powers as any generation before them. They feel the same love, hate and identification as any other generation, but as with all generations, the difference is in the context. Brands don’t need to redefine themselves to connect with this cohort, but they do need to understand how they fit into Millennials’ experience of Emerging Adulthood.

Perhaps the most important thing a brand can do is to stay consistent in its relationship with Millennials. It may be a rocky road but this group will ultimately emerge with a clearer sense of self, a clearer sense of their relationships and much more spending power then they’ve ever had in their past. When they do, will they feel your brand understands, accepts and values them?

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