What We’re Thinking: Millennials Are Approaching 40! What Does This Mean for Marketers?

 In Products, Services, Thought

Asking the right questions is one of our greatest strengths and vital to our, and our clients’, successes. In this article, we’ll shed some light onto how the early millennials have moved from their “Quarter-life Crisis” to (gasp!) their 40’s, and what it means for clients trying to reach those in this largest living US generation.

We’ve heard it over and over, “What about the millennials – we need to understand them!” Twenty years ago, it was Generation X that created the stir and caused the consternation. Let’s face it, whoever oversees marketing decisions feels the pressures to understand the most recent and emerging cohorts of potential consumers (hello Generation Z). But it has become clear that there is no singular millennial experience and that sometimes the way to understand millennials is to forget that they are millennials at all.

We all know the go-to topline summary on millennials – they want experiences over objects, meaning over money, craft over brand, cause over cost, useful over cool. It makes a nice story, and there’s certainly some truth to it, but we’re not fully convinced that understanding these abstract values are the golden keys to future marketing successes.

Why is that? Peek into some of our work…

A national insurance company came to us with this mandate – we need ethnographic research to tap into the psyche of millennials so that we can understand how to market our products to them. The more we discussed the opportunity with them, the more we realized that the project wasn’t about millennials, it was about understanding life transitions. For example, 50 years ago, someone might purchase life insurance once they married. Today, however, fewer people marry or they marry much later. That finding goes beyond millennials and across generations. The real question they needed answered was “what are the milestones and conditions under which we consider life insurance today?” In short, they needed to focus on transitions – not generations.

We’ve seen this concept of transitions across a range of projects:

  • In studying the journey to mental health care, we learned that the transition from school to work, or student to adult, created a time where people would not know where to reach out for help. As one participant put it “on campus there were posters on the back of every stall in the restrooms encouraging you to reach out for help if you needed it. I haven’t seen anything like that anywhere since I started working.”
  • On a project studying the HIV experience a few years ago, the most trenchant insights came from understanding the transitions from untreated to treated, unable to visualize a future to family planning, hopeless to hopeful. These experiences proved true across generations and prove far more valuable to marketing success than a generational understanding would.
  • We tend think of clinical trials as attractive to young risk-takers. Truth is, they attract people who need extra or fast money. While that might include young risk-takers, it also includes the recently unemployed, newly retired, freelancers, folks between gigs, etc. – a range of non-generational transitions that might be missed had our inquiry focused solely on how to attract young people.
  • Sometimes is it not the obvious transition that matters. Turning twenty-one marks a huge transition for the newly legal consumer of alcohol and many AlcBev companies correctly focus on this transition as an important inflection point and opportunity for growth. However, as the largest birth wave of the millennials (those born between 1989 – 1994, who are now turning 23 – 28) moves on from this legal transition and a majority of this generation is well beyond this marker of legal consumption, the important question is not the transition to being a legal consumer of alcohol, rather “how do other life transitions affect alcohol consumption, occasions, experiences and desires?”

All this is to say, next time you think about market shares and opportunities, spend a little time framing your questions in terms of transitions to see if that’s an appropriate lens for inquiry. For example, does your product or service naturally attach to any transitions in life that your customers already experience? Does it present new and unimagined opportunities for messaging and marketing when viewed through the lens of transitions?

If you want to understand how different generational groups – whether millennials or what many are calling Generation Z – are living and experiencing those transitions, we’re here to help.


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