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Look Who’s a Millennial Now


Today, it’s rare to find a Millennial who doesn’t self-identify as a Millennial. Even a few short years ago, this wasn’t the case.

Just two to three years ago, students in my classes or at conferences were typically unfamiliar with the term, Millennial, or even the more widely used term, Gen Y. Young adults were unaware of their impending importance to marketing experts, HR executives, politicos, and media mavens.

Some who knew the word were put off by the idea of being stereotyped rather than valued for their individuality. This was understandable, as the prevailing stereotypes were pejorative: ”entitled,” ”distracted,” ”tech-savvy,” ”narcissistic,” ”delayed adults,” or the product of ”helicopter parents.”

A CBS news story, “The Millennials Are Coming,” was originally aired in 2007, and was updated in 2009 with hardly an improvement in outlook.

As recently as last week, Ron Alsop, author of The Trophy Kids Grow Up, declared that the cancellation of a Colorado Easter egg hunt was ”the perfect metaphor for millennial children whose parents can’t stay out of their children’s lives.” Who would want to be identified with that?

Yet, perceptions are changing. Millennials are now aware of belonging to a singular and remarkable demographic cohort and have a clearer understanding of their collective reputation. Today, Millennials are associated with civic-mindedness, generosity, ambition, a desire to live more simply and differently from their parents. In what seems like an overnight reversal, the positives now outweigh the negatives. Millennials today are proud of the name and its implications.

Millennials also enjoy a heightened self-awareness of their generation’s influence, both in the aggregate and on a personal level in their homes, at work, and in their communities. They talk, tweet, and blog their reflections about the impact their generation is having across a wide swath of cultural discourse, from entertainment to education to politics. The Obama election campaign and the OWS (Occupy Wall Street) movement may eventually be recognized as early signs of a generation about to flex its collective might.

Rather than be embarrassed about their slow start, Millennials are now wondering if the Recession may prove to have been an advantage, forcing them to think critically about what really matters and center their choices firmly in line with their values.

Among today’s young adults, there is no shame in living at home rather than in a crowded, expensive apartment. They take pride in riding a bike or public transit rather than driving a gas-guzzling car or cooking a gourmet meal from healthy organic foods at home rather than dining out. In terms of career, Millennials reason that taking time to gain internship and community service experience before entering the workforce can be a wise decision.

Through these and other moves, they are living their values and are proud of it.

Millennials come together as a cohesive generation exhibiting shared values and aspirations, mainstream marketers are (finally) recognizing and responding to their collective clout.

Until recently, the companies and organizations taking Millennials seriously through smart, generation-specific marketing formed a very small club.

Pioneers like Deloitte, Mercedes, ABC Family, MTV, Miracle Whip, Ford Fiesta, Herbal Essence, State Farm, The US Army, and Unilever’s Axe are now enjoying the benefits of early leadership while their competitors play catch up. Major marketing companies that have recently announced a new focus on Millennials include General Motors, Chevy Sonic, Macy’s, Kohl’s, Cupcake Vineyards, and W hotels, to name a few.

The attention of these companies is based on sound reasoning. Millennials are not only big in numbers and influential, but they are also aging — and with age comes income and interest in new categories. While they are unlikely to take real estate, financial services, furniture, baby products, home appliances, and luxury vacations markets by storm, they are already beginning to make their unique presence felt.

Marketers who think they can reach Millennials the same old way need to think again.

Experience in early moving categories like entertainment, retail, technology, and education have realized Millennials do not respond to the same old approaches. Notoriously impatient, they think they know more than the person pitching them — and sometimes do. Our research on behalf of a range of clients reveals Millennials to be active researchers, tech-savvy shoppers and practical decision makers who understand how to make trade-offs.

  • They define ”luxury” and ”necessity” in new and different ways and are as likely to splurge on something practical like a mattress or a smart phone as on something prestigious like a handbag.
  • They are fearless at mixing vintage, discount, and designer brands.
  • They want to create their own products and experiences, with an emphasis on experiences.
  • When making purchases, they resist impulse buys and tend to think of themselves as investors, not just consumers, calculating the long term return on their purchases; ”classic” and ”value” are not bad words with Millennials.
  • They have high standards for service; Millennial consumers favor retailers that offer free returns and hotels that offer free wifi and lots of outlets.

Companies waking up to Millennials must prepare to meet them on their own terms or suffer the consequences. Examples of brands that get the new mindset and have earned a place in the hearts of Millennials include Pandora (jewelry), Madewell and Lululemon (fashion), Zipcar (auto rental), and Ace (hotels). These brands are inventing or reinventing themselves for a new generation.

What about your brand?

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