This is Not Your Father’s Narcissism: A Gen X-er's Thoughts On Marketing to Millennials

“Baby Boomers are selfish. We have to have things the way we want them,” said my mom, a 72-year-old Baby Boomer. She was parroting something she’d heard from an old sociological study. “Weird,” I thought. “That’s pretty much the same thing I was told about my generation, Gen X.”

Fast-forward three months and I’m having a conversation with a millennial colleague who just stopped using a sippy cup. I can’t say how old he is for sure, but the guy is practically embryonic. Anyway, it caught my attention when he made an offhand remark about how his generation is known for being self-centered. Double weird.

These days a lot of marketing focus is being placed on millennials. There are a ton of them, first of all, and they have an appetite for new products, new technology and new ideas. Millennials are entering the workforce in droves with money to spend. It makes sense that there’s a lot of interest in how they think, act and spend, but only so much wisdom can be gleaned from reading data.

To truly understand this generation, we have to gather it the old fashioned way—by paying attention. If you want to know the data on a certain segment of the population, read a study. But if you want to figure out what this group made of, what makes them tick, what matters to them, you have to walk a mile in their TOMS. (Millennials love TOMS.) Here are four timeless lessons I learned from being a Gen X-er that can be applied to marketing to millennials.

Lesson 1: Don’t confuse youthful inclinations with generational homogeny.

I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t read whatever study convinced my mom she’s a self-centered Baby Boomer, nor do I remember who told me that my Gen-X brothers and sisters are known for being self-absorbed. I haven’t seen any bar graphs proving millennials are more into themselves than the rest of us.

I’m sure somewhere there are researchers who put their hearts into gathering this information, researchers who then presented us with a map of modern society all laid out in a tapestry of tidy patterns. Much respect. But the part that stuck with me, my millennial coworker and my Boomer mother is the perception that each of our generations is uniquely selfish. That’s not to say we’re not selfish, just that we’re not unique in our selfishness. Isn’t it possible that these studies managed to describe, well, just youth? Independent, self-focused, adventurous, free-spirited: show this list to a millennial, an X-er and a Boomer and they’ll each say, “Yep, that’s my people.”

Lesson 2: Don’t talk smack about millennials if you want them as customers.

Labeling entire generations with unsavory descriptors isn’t the work of sociology papers alone. I’ve noticed that we Gen X-ers, like the Boomers before us, take every opportunity to criticize the new kids. Without a hint of self-awareness, we titter over how weird and annoying their clothes are, how their music is base and derivative and how they should all take a break from their phones and throw a football once in a while. And don’t get me started on how wack their vernacular is. I mean, gag me with a spoon!

But let’s be real. I have no room to talk. I’m a Gen X-er. We ushered in the video game era from a beanbag chair while wearing pleated, acid-washed jeans and a cropped Panama Jack T-shirt. I’m from the generation that thought Billy Idol invented punk rock.

It’s common to engage in “kids these days” trash talk, particularly when we become parents of teenagers. We’ve done this since the beginning of time. I’m sure if you look closely at the Lascaux cave paintings, you’ll spot two cave dads shaking their heads at the way their cave teens wear their loincloths sideways (which, if we’re being honest, really does defeat the purpose). Discussing kids’ shortcomings is as reliable a topic as the weather. It’s no wonder they’re leery of advertising that’s being created by people who label them as crude, self-centered, lazy weirdos.

“Kids these days” aren’t trying to make us crazy by going against the grain. They’re just doing what they do, which is to not do what we do. Did you ever notice that as soon as kids are old enough to care about their clothes, they immediately begin to wear what their parents wouldn’t be caught dead in? If high-waisted, pleated, cuffed pants are popular for one generation, the next generation will favor bell-bottomed hip-huggers.

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It’s natural to avoid being like our parents as soon we realize we have the option. Remember that one kid in 8th grade, who dressed like a principal, had impeccable manners and stayed out of trouble? In a lot of ways that kid was crushing it, but let’s face it, that didn’t keep everyone from nicknaming him Mark the Narc. Among kids, there’s no reward in abiding by the adults’ playbook. It’s every generation’s duty to rewrite the plays, and each one has a new angle.

Let them go at it. They know how youth works. They’re experts at “going rogue” because they’re unencumbered by the knowledge of how things are “supposed” to work, according to us. Allow them to write their plays, make their marks and wear weird pants. Then, concept accordingly.

Lesson 3: If you’re not a millennial, don’t try to be one in order to win their business.

Young people can smell pandering and desperation from a mile away and they make a job of dodging sales pitches.

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Think back to those dark days of ’80s and ’90s advertising when everyone from anti-drug groups to cereal brands attempted to reach “the kids” with rap music. Think hyperactive cartoon characters in shades and sideways hats wooing us with hip-hop-drenched marketing. And let me tell you: It was straight garbage. They knew it was garbage but they didn’t think we knew it was garbage.

They thought having a guy in an asymmetrical haircut describing his brand of yogurt as “def” and “funky fresh” would have me begging my mom for something called YO!-gurt. It didn’t. It made me angry and exasperated. My eye rolling muscle became extremely strong during that period. It’s been almost 30 years and I’m still not okay with “Rappin’ Barney” Rubble’s infuriating Fruity Pebbles™ spot. IT’S NOT MOS DEF, BARNEY! IT’S NOT MOS DEF!

We can’t be millennials, but we can draw from our experiences and help protect them from those marketing atrocities. And we as marketing professionals bear a particular responsibility toward them. Restore the BS sensors of your youth and filter decisions through them. These kids deserve better than we had.

Lesson 4: Offer things that matter, if you want millennials to care.

We’ve raised millennials to care about what’s important. This is the generation that experienced 9/11 at an impressionable age. It’s a generation that’s equipped for compassion, empathy and connectedness. Be optimistic about them, and recognize their influences.

Whether we want to admit it or not, the real world compels young people more than any campaign ever could. A brand’s best-case scenario is to draw the attention of its audience long enough to present its offerings. If the product and branded content are meaningful, the brand gets to stay in the audience’s consciousness. If they’re forgettable, the brand winds up in purgatory, sentenced to state and restate its case for eternity or until it finally goes away. But the real world never goes away and real-world events influence permanently. Sometimes they even lead to tendencies that organically crop up without our realizing their origins.

Warby Parker and TOMS are prime examples of the lasting impact of meaningful products leading to thoughtful purchases. Both companies give generously to charities with every purchase. TOMS’ website says about their ONE FOR ONE program, “Through your purchases, TOMS helps provide shoes, sight, water, safe birth and bullying prevention services to people in need.”

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And with every purchase of Warby Parker glasses, the company not only matches the cost of sourcing the same number of glasses in developing countries through their nonprofit, they also train people from those areas to give eye exams and sell glasses at affordable prices. Both companies create simple but fashionable products with the bonus of being able to help someone in need.

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As “self-centered” as millennials are purported to be, the ones I know are way into helping people because it matters to them and it makes them feel good. So take THAT, sociologists!

Articles and studies can provide perspective, but it’s important to look beyond timely surveys and into timeless approaches. The first step in earning someone’s business is not getting his or her attention. It’s deserving his or her attention. And that starts with respect, yo.

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