Don't Be Fooled by the "Millennials" Label...

Advice on Millennials has become something of an industry in itself. Every week seems to bring new studies, conferences, and recommendations on what brands need to do to attract them as customers or employees. And for good reason: at 80 million strong, Millennials are larger than any other demographic group. Then there are also the counter-arguments, cautioning brands not to go overboard, as older generations still account for the majority of customer spend.
 
But I find this focus on Millennials as a generation a rather misleading basis for decision-making, for three reasons:
 
1) Increasingly, we're all Millennials now. 
The Millennial label has come to describe some broad cultural trends: digital, mobile, social, collaborative, socially conscious. While useful shorthand, these behaviors are as much driven by the impact of technology than they are by a radically different generational mindset. Certainly, familiarity with technology saw them emerge first among the Millennials. But as previous generations are becoming more comfortable with technology, so the behaviors are spreading: for example, more than half 50-64 year olds now use social media, and more than a third of the 65+ age group (Pew Research Survey). Even my 80-year-old mother did most of her Xmas shopping last year mobile, using an iPad. And she's far more social with friends and family now, thanks to technology.
This is not just about younger customers. Every business needs to be addressing these trends, regardless of the age of their customer base.
 
2) Millennials is too broad a segment for marketing.
Generally defined as born between 1980 and 2000, it stretches from high-school students to mid-30s, from singles to parents, and from baristas to CEOs. Even before the rise of big data, you'd break this down to create more useful segments for targeted communication, using income, education, life stage, etc. And ironically, enabled by technology, one of the expectations ascribed to Millennials is for a more personalized experience.
So if you want to attract younger customers, you need to go beyond a one-size-fits-all Millennials marketing strategy.
 
3) Research on a generation provides an increasingly limited view. 
Technology has made it much easier for people to connect around particular interests, ideas or concerns, regardless of the generation they belong to. This can then give an idea the critical mass to break through and impact your customers. For example, while there had long been concerns voiced about the industrialization of food, these remained on the fringes until social media pushed such issues as additives in processed food, 'pink slime', and high fructose corn syrup into the mainstream. And the explosion of artisan and organic food brands also owes much to a critical mass of interest in less industrialized foods.
 
This fascination with the Millennials generation is of course a reflection of the major changes flowing through society. But while recognizing the broad trends, I still find the best advice is to focus on the customers in front of you, rather than generational stereotypes. To work with them to understand how their behaviors are changing, what their interests, ideas or concerns are, and what you can do to create more value for them. If you can change as your customers change, then you're still unlikely to go far wrong.

A version of this post first appeared in Supermarket News