It’s easy to get distracted by consumer data and the echo chamber of marketing rhetoric. More often than not, marketing insider tips and language do nothing but confuse what should be a simple brand objective. Over the past three decades, I’ve seen too many brands try to differentiate themselves in the 20- and 30-something category by focusing on generational trends, rather than simple human truths. Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers pose their own strategic difficulties, but figuring out how to reach Millennials is eating up more strategic effort than the prior generations combined. With seemingly unlimited access at their fingertips, Millennials can be an intimidating demographic to approach, but they shouldn’t be.
Millennials have technology on their side, but so do marketers. There is more real-time data being aggregated than ever before, so why is predicting trends still so difficult?
It should be easy to reach a constantly connected demographic, especially considering their obvious desire to align with any brand that they see as an expression of their ideals. What will always be difficult is getting an over-saturated cohort to give their diminishing time and attention to a brand or company that has no identity or value to contribute.
The answer is creating a clear identity and speaking to the humanity of your audience.
Forget the Word ‘Millennials’
Marketers claim that Millennials are a more diverse, educated, and empowered generation than ever before. They are clearly better at branding themselves than Gen-X or the Baby Boomers, but their self-commodification is no reason to be intimidated.
The battle that so many brands are losing isn’t the generational culture war that marketers and strategists are attempting to capitalize on, it is an inability to differentiate a meaningful brand identity. Millennials are not some exotic and elite force empowered with technology and insights that we can’t possibly understand. They are just another generation of 20- and 30-somethings who want what they have always wanted—they just have new tools for obtaining it.
“Millennials are just people. They seek transparency, authenticity, and brands that not only add value to their life, but also reflect their life values.”
We can understand a lot about this generation by understanding the human drivers and the nuances that defines them. Millennials subscribe to a different set of ideals, moving at their own pace through traditional life stages like getting married, buying a home, and having children—making it difficult to predict based on traditional life stage alone.
Millennials are more exposed than any previous generation. Not only do they live a homogenous life somewhat on display, they also have unprecedented access to information, entertainment, products, and maybe most importantly, product information. This doesn’t change their desires, just the range of options within that desire.
After all, the Millennials are just people. They seek transparency, authenticity, and brands that not only add value to their life, but also reflect their life values.
The typical Millennial-centric marketing plan attempts to capitalize on this perceived desire for transparency by celebrating individuality, self-expression, and pseudo-trailblazing. In doing so, brands are hoping to engage Millennials with experiences, mobile and social content. This attempt to be authentic and transparent more often than not creates, what I call, a “Mirror-Of-Me”—a brand reflecting its interpretation of its audience back to itself.
The Mirror-Of-Me reflection says, “Forget about who we are; we are just like you. See? Don’t we look the same?” It is what marketers believe Millennials to be—non-ironic hipsters who play guitars on rooftops; push their friends in shopping carts; and light sparklers on the beach. This reflection adds no knowledge, entertainment, or enrichment to their existence, it only reflects their perceived lifestyle back to them.
By being “authentic” and “transparent” just like everyone else, brands are being neither of those things.
The Mirror-Of-Me approach not only lacks creativity and vision, it fails to establish a clear brand identity and brand perspective—the two core elements of any billion-dollar brand.
Insights based on the false narrative of a cohort will not connect with people as human beings. It is more likely to ruin any chance of having an intimate understanding of who these consumers are today, and who they will be in the future.
Every brand that wants to grow needs to decide what they represent. Beyond the product itself, there must be lifestyle value and enrichment of some sort. You must identify a brand perspective if you want to represent yourself with any level of authenticity.
In the quest to define and understand your brand, it is easy to get sidetracked by real-time data and the latest trends. The data can become a trap, turning out endless brainstorm sessions about what your customer wants you to be. But that reactionary approach has never worked and still doesn’t.
Data is important, and a great tool, but today’s real-time data is tomorrow’s historical data. To predict, we must weigh a variety of factors—innate human need, socioeconomic influence, and cultural context. These indicators, coupled with accurate data, reveal who they are and who they will become as human beings.
Marketers often reduce people into tribes and overgeneralize in an attempt to make sense of the world and where things belong. With so much information and technical data available, we risk getting caught in the weeds of data, forgetting to sit up, and recognize what it really means. The problem is exacerbated in the case of Millennials because of the cultural dynamics that shape who they are. Seeing beyond the cohort and understanding people as people helps us to demystify the demographic rather than oversimplify them.
The Difference Between Million-Dollar and Billion-Dollar Brands
“The difference between million-dollar and billion-dollar brands is the difference between catching category overflow and transcending category to ignite a cultural movement.”
Millennials are people unified by age, humanity, and life stage. What Millennials want is what 20- and 30-somethings want. The answer is the same as it has always been—fun, sex, the illusion of individuality, and ownership of relevance and consequence. Through human insight, cultural context, and real data, we are able to market to people instead of Millennials because people will always transcend data.
The difference between million-dollar and billion-dollar brands is the difference between catching category overflow and transcending category to ignite a cultural movement. I call it Radical Clarity: the clear, undeniable brand identity and perspective that transcends the sea of sameness and marketing rhetoric to clearly define an incontestable place in culture.
John Ruskin, writer and art critic, said, “Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of intelligent effort.”
In our business, quality means a clearly defined identity. Owning a differentiated perspective is the result of Radical Clarity, which results in a billion-dollar brand that is impervious to micro-trends and cohort pandering campaigns.