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Home arrow Marketing arrow Marketing and American Consumer Culture: A Cultural Studies Analysis

Marketing to Millennials

Audrey Hamilton: Millennials, what makes them different from previous generations? What makes them similar?

Jean Twenge: So, let’s talk about some of the differences first. So, millennials tend to have very positive views of themselves and are very optimistic about their expectations for their lives and they’re more likely to say that they’re above average compared to their peers and they tend to score higher on other measures of positive self-views, like self-esteem and even narcissism. At the same time, they are more tolerant and less prejudicial than previous generations. So, they support same-sex marriage at a much higher rate than other generations. For example, with some things that we’re doing right now, they have a much more egalitarian view ofgender roles compared to what say boomers did when they were young back in the 1960s and ‘70s. And of course not everything is going to change over the generations. Millennials are just as likely as previous generations, for example, to want to get married and have a family. They’re similar in a lot of their goals and values. But, there’s also some fairly distinct differences in the way they see the world and they tend to, as a very general rule, be more focused on themselves and less focused on things outside themselves compared to the way boomers and gen Xers were at the same age.


Abstract The chapter begins with a discussion of the problem in defining millennials and of the different generations that are of interest to marketers. Millennials (also known as Generation Y) are held to be © The Author(s) 2016

A.A. Berger, Marketing and American Consumer Culture, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-47328-4_11

people born between 1980 and 1994 (some say 2000). This is followed by some statistics about the millennial generation, which represents about a quarter of the American population, and material from a Pew Report on Millennials, which provides insights into their interests and lifestyles. The problems marketers face in reaching millennials are discussed. A list of their top dozen brands and stores is then offered and reason for these being the choices of millennials is dealt with, since they are often held to be “marketing resistant.” Next, the ideas of a prominent psychoanalyst, Erik Erikson, are explored. He writes about the crises people face at different stages of their lives. This is followed by a chart listing Erikson’s crises and suggested coping mechanisms people use to deal with these crises. The chapter ends with a discussion of the problems marketers face in finding way ways to sell things to millennials.

Keywords Millennials • Brand preferences • Marketing resistant • Crises

In a sense, we can say that marketers aren’t interested in individuals. Marketers tend to see the world in terms of groups or demographic categories of people of one sort or another, such as race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, geographic location, religion, educational level, gender, sexual orientation, and age. It is this last category I will discuss in this chapter, with a focus upon the group that many marketers are particularly excited about nowadays, millennials. As the interview in the quotation above suggests, millennials are different from other generations.

What Is a Millennial?

What is a millennial? Let me list the generations so we can see where millennials fit it, in the chart below.


Dates Born

Age in 2015



Over 70

Baby Boomers



Generation X




1981 -1994

21-34 (aka as Generation Y)

Generation Z


Under 20

Different scholars of generations give slightly different dates, but most would say that millennials were born around 1980 and were supplanted by Generation Z around 1995 or 2000.

A site devoted to marketing to millennials offers the following insights into their mindset (

Millennials represent more than 25 % of the US population 21 % of millennials make discretionary purchases 37 % of millennials will pay more to support a cause they believe in 53 % of millennial households have children

Millennials see parenthood as a partnership with equal responsibility for child rearing

  • 46 % of millennials have at least 200 Facebook friends (vs. 19 % for non- millennials)
  • 75 % of millennials want to travel abroad

Millennials are 2.5 times more early adopter of technology than other generations

This data shows that millennials are a substantial part of the American population and are different, in certain ways, from other generations. If one out of every four Americans is a millennial, you can understand why marketing professionals are so interested in them. They also have a lot of influence on the purchases made by older generations.

A Pew Report by Bruce Drake on March 7, 2014, offers the following information about millennials ( 2014/03/07/6-new- findings-about-millennials/):

Millennials have fewer attachments to traditional political and religious institutions, but they connect to personalized networks of friends, colleagues and affinity groups through social and digital media. Half of Millennials now describe themselves as political independents and 29 % are not affiliated with any religion—numbers that are at or near the highest levels of political and religious disaffiliation recorded for any generation in the last quarter-century.

Millennials are more burdened by financial hardships than previous generations, but they’re optimistic about the future. Millennials are the first in the modern era to have higher levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than their two immediate predecessor generations had at the same age. Yet, they are extremely confident about their financial future.

More than eight-in-ten say they currently have enough money to lead the lives they want or expect to in the future.

Singlehood sets Millennials apart from other generations. Just 26 % of Millennials are married. When they were the age that Millennials are now,

36 % of Gen Xers, 48 % of Baby Boomers and 65 % of the members of the Silent Generation were married. Most unmarried Millennials (69 %) say they would like to marry, but many, especially those with lower levels of income and education, lack what they deem to be a necessary prerequisite—a solid economic foundation.

Millennials are the most racially diverse generation in American history.

Some 43 % of Millennial adults are non-white, the highest share of any generation. A major factor behind this trend is the large wave of Hispanic and Asian immigrants who have been coming to the U.S. for the past half century, and whose U.S.-born children are now aging into adulthood. The racial makeup of today’s young adults is one of the key factors—though not the only one—in explaining their political liberalism.

Millennials are less trusting of others than older Americans are. Asked a long-standing social science survey question, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people,” just 19 % of Millennials say most people can be trusted, compared with 31 % of Gen Xers, 37 % of Silent and 40 % of Boomers.

The value of the Pew Report is that it provides a different perspective on millennials than we found in the marketing to millennials source quoted above. The marketing to millennials report said that twenty-five percent of millennials are married but the Pew Report shows that compared to other generations, millennials are much more likely to be single. That is due, in part, to the economic situation in which they find themselves: often with a great deal of debt from going to college and with low paying jobs. They also tend to be political independents and less attached to religion than other generations and less trusting of others than other generations. They also tend to be living with their parents more than members of other generations were when they were the same age.

So there are lots of millennials and they represent a complicated segment of the American population, with distinctive characteristics. How marketers “reach” them is the question. Some marketers have suggested experiential marketing is helpful in reaching millennials, as the following example, “How to sell to millennials: Give them an experience,” by Dave Burnett (in the Financial Post, Sept. 21, 2015) shows.

Beer giant Anheuser-Busch invited twenty-somethings who were “up for anything” to party with their brand—including celebrities, a handful of beauties and a lot of Bud Light—in a mystery city. A 1,000 lucky partiers turned the campaign into a viral hit via social media and word of mouth, and the positive brand experience they enjoyed, ticked all l the boxes for engaging this genera- tion.While you likely don’t run a multinational beer company, the important lesson here is how the company used an experiential tactic to connect with its target market. While experiential marketing is best suited to business-to-con- sumer companies, the freemium model (where companies offer basic versions of their services such as software before charging subscriptions for full functionality or content) is an example of a millennial-friendly business-to-business deployment of the tactic. The key to success on that front is ensuring millen- nials derive real value from your free offering before attempting to convert them into paid customers—give a little to get a lot in return. (http://business. to-sell-to-millennials-give-them-an-experience)

A Huffington Post study of millennials explains why many of them like

Patagonia products:

Several of those who responded listed Patagonia as their favorite brand, and several mentioned their Instagram as part of the reason. People said the images Patagonia posts make them want to be outdoors more; several used the word “inspired.”

What’s important here is that Patagonia is not doing is reminding people they exist with a tired ad that everyone has seen a zillion times. Instead, they’re offering striking images of some of the most beautiful places on our planet, and sharing them with the world. Their marketing is inspiring in the sense that they’re literally inspiring people to go out and enjoy nature. By proximity, they’re saying, “Our products can help. We can help you stay warm in Tierra Del Fuego, stay hydrated on the Appalachian Trail, stay dry on your rafting trip. We support you in your love of nature.”

When I talk about Millennials wanting to be inspired, it’s not that we expect some crazy magical experience; it’s just that we want to be included in the feeling of whatever your brand is offering. We like good marketing. (http://

We can see that the millennials who like Patagonia products appreciate the

beautiful images it posts on Instagram and Patagonia’s connection with

nature and the natural world. A site listed millennials favorite products and number one on the list was Nike, because it was connected with working out and keeping in good shape.

The top dozen brands products and stores that millennials favor, according to the site, are:

  • 1. Nike
  • 2. Apple
  • 3. Samsung
  • 4. Sony
  • 5. Wal-Mart
  • 6. Target
  • 7. Microsoft
  • 8. Coca-Cola
  • 9. Jordans (sneakers)
  • 10. Pepsi
  • 11. Amazon
  • 12. Google

These products are all highly advertised and are among the favorite brands of other generations as well. It is how these products are marketed to millennials that is the important thing, not the products themselves, as the Patagonia discussion demonstrates.

It is somewhat ironic that millennials like a brand like Wal-Mart, since it has been widely criticized for exploiting its employees, but the financial difficulties many millennials face might explain that choice. All of the other favorite brands are not that different from those of people in other generations. The preference millennials have for Apple products suggests a sense that “face” is important and that they want to have the most popular brand of mobiles. Something like seventy percent of high school students in America who have mobiles have iPhones.

What is interesting about the list of favorite brands cited above is that it is so unsurprising. Many of the brands millennials favor are those I favor, and I’m eighty-three years old. So the questions marketers face is how to sell the most popular brands that millennials like to them. It is the advertisements that the brands place where millennials will see them and the kinds of advertisements that are made that makes the difference.

An article by Michael Brenner on Entrepreneur offers some suggestions. He writes that millennials don’t want ads but want stories:

The secret is utilizing the right tool to reach them. That tool is content marketing. NewsCred’s survey discovered that millennials want to be spoken to like the unique people that they are. Sixty-four percent of the millennials studied said that they respond more positively to brand messages that are tailored to their cultural interests (music, movies, sports, entertainment), and 62 percent felt similarly about messages that are useful and help them solve their unique everyday problems. Achieving content personalization at the scale that millennials consume content is daunting. How can you possibly scale to give everyone a unique brand experience. Yet, if you take the time to deliver content that users care about, it will get shared—50 percent of the time, survey respondents said they would share it on social media. It’s worth it to invest the time in the content that will make a connection with millen- nials early and make it deep. ( 250243)

Companies want to become “friends” with millennials because once millennials become attached to a product, there’s a chance they will remain customers for many years or even decades.


I find it interesting that I have a dozen books on shopping in my library and quite a few others on marketing and only two of them, Lee Eisenberg’s (2009) Shoptimism and Rob Walker’s (2008) Buying In: What We Buy and Who We Are has anything on millennials. Eisenberg mentions that marketers like to put people into consumer “buckets,” such as “Suburban Single Moms,” “Small Town Traditional Values,” and “Millennials.” He points out that surveys show that millennials spend more time online than they do with radio, television, and print, which helps explain why advertisers are so interested in online advertising and why the money advertisers spend for online advertising has been growing so substantially. He adds that some psychiatrists believe that the kind of excessive online behavior found in many millennials can be considered a form of the obsessive compulsive disorder.

Walker has a discussion of “newfangled youth” and the notion that millennials supposedly can “see through” the tactics of brand makers and marketers. He writes (2008:103):

How do we square this marketing-resistant generation with another point that the experts always make: that many members of Generation Y demand the toniest designer clothes, the best cell phones, the most complex lattes? The Washington Post strolled high school halls filled with Louis Vuitton and other luxury brands and pointed out that teenagers buy designer labels at double the rate of the population at large, and that a typical college sophomore carries a $2000 credit card balance. A study by the Keller Fay Group released in 2007, claimed that teenagers have roughly 145 conversations about brands a week.

This quotation from Walker helps us understand why the favorite brands of products millennials purchase includes so many high-end brand names and leads us to wonder about how resistant millennials are to advertising. He adds, later, that the millennials may see through traditional advertising but so does everyone else. That does not mean that millennials are immune from being influenced by advertising and millennials use brands to help fashion their identities—the problem they all face as they wonder who they are and how they fit into the scheme of things. That is a problem people in all generations face.

Erik Erikson, an influential psychoanalyst, has suggested as we age, we all face certain crises that we have to resolve. He offers a theory in his book Childhood and Society (1963:261) about eight crises everyone faces as they grow older. I will skip the first two crises we face, in infancy, and list the others. They all take the form of polar oppositions. He deals with this matter in his chapter on “The Eight Stages of Man.”



Problems and Coping Mechanisms



Becoming socialized



Studying, trying to “belong”


Identity/Role confusion

Consumption of branded items

Young adult


Search for love, good job



Working hard for success


Ego integrity/Despair

Friendships, love

Adolescents and young adults, who are millennials, face two crises: when adolescents, identity and role confusion and when young adults, intimacy and isolation. Their behavior, including their focus on the consumption of the right brands, can be seen as attempts they make to deal with these crises. They are disturbed by their problems in settling on an occupation and (1963:261) “temporarily over-identify, to the point of an apparent complete loss of identity, with the heroes of cliques and crowds.” The list of coping mechanisms is mine and represents methods we use, at each time, to deal with the crisis.

From this discussion we can see that there are many ways we can use to try to understand the mindset and behavior of millennials. Because they represent such a large segment of the American consumer population, and spend so much money, they are of particular interest to marketers and advertisers whose hope is that “a millennial and his or her money are soon parted.”

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