Kids today: You can’t sell them anything

A 22-year-old recent college graduate went with her mom to an industry conference and sat in on a discussion about youth marketing. She watched as a trio of middle-aged panelists lectured on the likes and dislikes of millennial consumers.

A few hours later she still couldn’t hide her annoyance: “I wanted to get up and shout at them. I wanted to say, ‘If you want to really know what my life is like, ask me.’”

It reminded me of a conversation I’d had with my own 20-year-old daughter a few weeks earlier. I was working on an assignment for a youth-oriented brand and had tossed out the names of celebrities and singers I believed would resonate with the target audience. “No offense, Dad,” my daughter said, “but all those names are people someone your age thinks someone my age would like.” Ouch.

It was a good, if painful, point. Though it’s our kids who are heading back to school, there’s evidence that it’s actually those of us in marketing who really need an education.

Brands that want to continue to have paying customers need to figure out how to market  to the next generation. The problem is this: When putting millennials under a microscope we’re in danger of treating them as an alien life form instead of people like us.

We’ve already reduced the generation to a series of clichés:

They’re entitled, addicted to texting and technology, and impossible to reach. “If we bank on hyperbole like that from consultants, we’re dead,” said Ross Martin in a recent speech.

Ross runs Scratch, a unit of Viacom that helps marketers interpret and act on the insights the company has into the habits of its young audience. It’s a gig that recently landed him on the front page of The New York Times in a story about how General Motors is reinventing its products, processes, and marketing to be relevant to millennials, who as a whole don’t romanticize driving the way previous generations did. “They are literally transforming our business and yours, right before our eyes,” Ross said.

He has quite a lot of evidence on how different millennials are from the rest of us, and why it matters. They move faster, live linked lives, and insist on transparency. Ross also believes that most legacy businesses are ill-equipped to deal with them, which presents a problem—especially since they spend about $900 billion a year.

There are solutions, of course. Ross thinks brands must adapt to a changing marketplace more quickly, respect consumer control, and create experiences their audiences will value. Intrusive marketing and rigid control over messaging no longer fly.

In my view, brand execs also need to get past their fear of this younger generation and learn to treat them like people.

The tools may have changed, but the underlying human truths haven’t. It’s hard to talk to a young person while they’re wearing earbuds, but if you can get them to remove their headphones you’ll find people with the same hopes, dreams, fears, and insecurities that thread through all human story lines. Like every group of young people before them they fall madly in love every 10 days. They like to hang with their friends. They enjoy music.

More than 20 years ago Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland wrote of an “accelerated culture” in his book Generation X, whose title provided the label that was slapped on me and my cohorts. It opened with the line, “I am not a target market,” putting brands on notice that they needed to treat these consumers differently than those who came before them.

Marketers do need to get to know millennials. What they don’t need is to fear them.

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