“Millennials” are meaningless – and demographics are useless - SwiftERM

“Millennials” are meaningless – and demographics are useless. Smart brands are waking up to the myth of the ‘millennial’. As portrayed in the media, the average millennial (someone born between 1980 and 2000), is a self-interested slacker, non-competitive and likely to flit between jobs, interested in meaningful work rather than in a career.

There’s a problem with this portrayal of an entire generation: it’s plain wrong. The Economist points out that among US employees, millennials behave the most competitively and are the most likely to cite future career opportunity as one of their main reasons for choosing a job. For their age, millennials change job at pretty much the same rate as previous generations. As Harvard Business Review puts it: “What do millennials want at work? The same things the rest of us do.”

Individuals may choose to accept this distorted depiction of a generation. Brands have no excuse for doing so. Using categories such as ‘millennials’ to guide brand strategy makes no sense. It is simply a lazy approach to segmenting consumers. Demographic segmentation might once have predicted behaviour well. It no longer does.

In the 1950s and ‘60s in Britain, elections were tight, two-party affairs, with voting intentions, firmly class aligned. Leading political scientist Peter Pulzer wrote: “Class in the basis of British politics. All else is embellishment and detail.” In 1966, Labour won the general election with over 60% of working-class voters. The 2010 general election showed how much this alignment is a thing of the past: Labour’s vote collapsed in many English working-class constituencies and in almost all Scottish ones. It’s not just political intention that demographics fail to predict well. It has become increasingly difficult to use social group, age, gender and location to understand consumer intention.

The good news is that there is no need for brands to segment consumers in this way. Rather than using the proxy of demographics, it is possible to observe, survey and analyse what consumers actually do en route to their final decision to buy. This journey between decision points – the Purchase Decision Journey (PDJ) – describes real behaviour. Done well, the analysis also describes which of these points is most important, and what should be done to influence behaviour at each point.‘Millennials’ is a lazy word that lumps millions of individuals together as if they would all behave the same way. By contrast, the PDJ describes how people actually behave – people of any age. And when seen through that lens, it becomes clear that millennials are not very different from the rest of the population.

The PDJ describes behaviour in terms of four influences – rational, emotional, contextual and cultural. These drivers make sense as predictors of action in a way that age, geography and gender cannot. Using demographics, a woman may be defined as a 25-year-old female from Berlin. She can also be called a millennial. But she is also an individual, her behaviour steered by reason, emotion, context and culture. When she buys a bottle of wine, her behaviours and PDJ will be different according to whether her aim is to drink it over dinner, to take to a party, or to celebrate an event. Demographics and lazy labels cannot suggest different marketing activities for which of these choices she pursues. A well-designed PDJ can.

Stereotypes are easy. They are also lazy. Simple demographics are not much better and neither is necessary. It is time for brands to move away from looking at people from the outside and start to consider what motivates them to behave the way they do, as individuals.

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