Millennial is not a catch-all term

The much sought-after millennial demographic was firmly under the microscope at this week's Arthur W. Page Spring Seminar, where delegates discovered it is not a group that can be defined using lazy generalizations.

Image via www.opticiantraining.org / Flickr; Used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license
Image via www.opticiantraining.org / Flickr; Used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

As I mentioned in my previous blog, the Arthur W. Page Spring Seminar this week picked up on the topic of next-generation consumers for its content theme of Born Digital: How Maturing Millennials Are Redefining Our Experiences as Consumers, Innovators, Employees and Citizens.

The theme clearly resonated with the 250 delegates congregating in downtown Manhattan as the room was still jam-packed for the final session of day one, Winning Over the Millennial Consumer – Adapting to Changing Marketplace Dynamics, moderated by Weber Shandwick CEO Andy Polansky with GM’s Tony Cervone, Levi’s Kelly McGinnis, and New York Life’s Kelli Parsons on the panel.

There are a lot of lazy and, frankly, patronizing generalizations applied to the topic of millennials, but this panel and other content during the seminar truly lifted the lid on a complex generation that will be the engine of future economic growth.

These three very different brands outlined different approaches to the millennial audience – but also identified some common features running through them.

GM sold more than 3 million vehicles in the U.S. in 2015, up 5% year on year. SVP of global communications Cervone explained that millennials are unique in one specific way because they grew up in a digital age from day one within which there is more transparency, more information on tap, and more choices. That’s the main factor driving their decisions, not necessarily how old they are.

He made a point of referencing the $30,000 (after tax credits) Chevy Bolt electric car that GM is pitching in a segment likely to be popular with millennials against Tesla’s recently unveiled $35,000 Model 3. It’s about getting the information out there in the most targeted and effective way possible. As Cervone noted, "we’ve got the tools [data and analytics], now it’s time to use them."

Levi’s SVP and CCO McGinnis, clad in a pair of her company’s jeans of course, observed that millennials are purpose-driven and they live their values. She also said Levi’s segments four different audiences within the millennial age range – it’s not a catch-all one-size-fits-all category.

For Levi’s, that means communication is not so much about the jeans, it’s about the experiences consumers have that they can relate to their jeans and providing a platform for their "authentic self-expression."

The iconic jeans company set up the #LiveInLevi’s Project for 40 influencers and many ordinary people to showcase and share stories about their lives and the associations with their Levi’s, such as Alicia Keys. It’s a classic mix of branded content and owned media mixed in with social sharing and talkability.

At New York Life, strategy is underpinned by the insight that millennial customers aren’t necessarily that different at all. Chief communications and marketing officer Parsons explained that millennials actually care about the same things as prior generations, but it’s important to communicate with them in a particular way.

Just like previous generations, millennials want to protect the people they love and build financial independence. In the financial services sector, building relationships with millennial customers is less about a meme, more about how to make deep connections.

They are less satisfied by a solution that involves investment in a future way down the line, more interested in how a finance brand can help them meet a need today. That might relate to buying a home, starting a family, saving money for the future, or investing in their careers. The fastest-growing segment of New York Life’s business is the youthful, millennial-dominated multicultural market.

For financial services companies, the conundrum is to create true relationships early in their lives, meeting needs at different life points rather than market stages, focusing on goals and aspirations rather than age.

Millennials may be the most-criticized, analyzed, and vaunted generation so far. They are subject to all sorts of generalizations and clichés that are way off base. But they are the future of business and align with brands that deliver on their promises and tell the truth.

My main takeaway was that it was good to see a range of top communications pros across very different product sectors leading smart strategies based on real-life insights, not lazy generalizations – with activations tailored and segmented within the different life stages and segments of the overall millennial bucket.

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