Behaviour versus demographics: Why the term ‘millennial’ is useless

Marketers need to focus more on consumer behaviour rather than segmenting people simply by generation, according to two new studies.

Demographic segmentation behaviour crowd

Marketers need to move beyond demographic data and “lazy” terms such as ‘millennial’ when creating customer segmentations, new research claims. Two separate studies find that patterns of behaviour and attitudes are more appropriate tools for targeting consumers than broad generational segments.

These findings tally with the views of Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson, who has argued that catch-all generational terms often lead marketers to ignore the nuanced differences within their target audience. “If you buy the idea of millennials, then you must, by definition, reject the concept of proper segmentation and of consumers holding different perceptions and experiences,” he says.

READ MORE: Mark Ritson – Millennials are out; blah blahs are your next target group

The Empowered Customer Segmentation by market research group Forrester seeks to move away from demographic segments and instead group consumers according to how they respond to new products and technology. From a survey of more than 30,000 adults across nine European countries – including more than 6,000 UK respondents – Forrester has created five new segments that it believes brands should consider when marketing goods and services.

“There’s a type of behaviour and attitude that isn’t just a function of age or even a life-stage”

Anjali Lai, analyst, Forrester

This includes ‘progressive pioneers’, referring to the earliest tech adopters who “lead the demand for product and experience innovation”. According to the research, these people make up 9% of the UK population. This is followed by ‘savvy seekers’, referring to highly engaged consumers who are among the first to learn about innovation (17% of UK). The segments range down to those who are least enthused by market innovations, known as ‘reserved resisters’ (24% of UK).

A more nuanced picture

Forrester analyst Anjali Lai believes the research helps to present a more nuanced picture of consumers besides existing demographic categories. The average UK age within the ‘progressive pioneers’ segment is 34, while for ‘savvy seekers’ it is 38, suggesting that young people in their late teens or early 20s are not necessarily the most engaged or demanding when it comes to new technology.

“[The research] helps to prove that millennials aren’t one isolated group that poses the greatest threat to companies today,” says Lai. “There’s a type of behaviour and attitude that isn’t just a function of age or even a life-stage.”

The study also claims that businesses should measure how their customers are evolving and the extent to which different behavioural segments are changing. For example, the survey finds 41% of people across Europe read customer reviews at least once a week when researching a product for purchase, while 17% compare prices or look up product information on their mobile phone when in a physical store.

Lai suggests that these different forms of customer empowerment will lead people to become more demanding in their relationships with brands. “I certainly expect the ‘progressive pioneers’ segment to grow over time and for the ‘reserved resisters’ group to shrink – particularly if you think about the tools that are available to people and the newer types of experiences that are on the horizon.”

Undermine existing preconceptions

New research by brand consultancy The Gild also seeks to undermine existing preconceptions about generational groups. For example, it finds people belonging to Generation Z, which it defines as those born in 2001 or later, are more conservative in many of their views than baby boomers (1946-1964), members of Gen X (1965-1980) and millennials (1981-2000).

“We need to move past the recent trend of millennial fever, where appealing to a ‘millennial audience’ has become a lazy, if convenient, shorthand”

Andrew Mulholland, managing director, The Gild

A survey of almost 2,000 UK adults finds that on issues such as same-sex marriage, transgender rights and marijuana legalisation, 59% of Gen Z respondents describe their attitudes as being between ‘conservative’ and ‘moderate’. By contrast, 83% of millennials and 85% of Gen X respondents state that they are ‘quite’ or ‘very liberal’ on such issues.

On the question of saving and spending, baby boomers (39%), Gen X (61%) and millennials (53%) are most likely to say they will spend what they have ‘on life in the now’. Generation Z, on the other hand, appear more inclined to worry about saving, having grown up in the post-financial crash climate. A quarter (25%) of this generation say they would rather save for the future than spend money they do not have, while 22% say they never spend on ‘unnecessary, frivolous things’.

Andrew Mulholland, managing director at The Gild says: “Within each generation there are wide divisions in politics, culture and taste – and across generations there are attitudes that bridge young and old together. Treating the attitudes typically associated with terms like millennial or ‘Gen Xer’ as belonging strictly to one age range shows a lack of awareness of who people really are and how they really behave, in all their nuance and variety.

“In particular, we need to move past the recent trend of millennial fever, where appealing to a ‘millennial audience’ has become a lazy, if convenient, shorthand for some vague notion of achingly cool, social media-savvy 20-somethings who refuse stable careers and demand authenticity.”

Hide Comments9 Show Comments
  • Barbara Kuhr 14 Sep 2016 at 8:39 am

    Any correlation with the traditional product adoption curve?

    • Andrew Mulholland 14 Sep 2016 at 11:26 am

      What was interesting to see in The Gild research, was that there is only 5% points separating ‘Boomers’ (9%) from ‘Gen Z’ (11%), ‘Millennials’ (13%) and ‘Gen X’ (14%) who described themselves as early adopters of technology, which supports our view that its a mindset not just age-set!

  • Laura Pardoe 14 Sep 2016 at 1:14 pm

    In reality experience and personality both play a part in dictating how people respond (it’s the old nature/nurture thing). And both of those have their own dimensions: experience is both personal (things that have happened to you) and societal (the times you live, and especially grow up, in can be an enormous influence); there are many dimensions to personality, I favour a simplification down to six contrasting axes which helps me segment. I enable segmentations to live effectively within organisations not by stripping back to a simplistic view of either behavioural or generational attributes but by enabling people to meaningfully understand different character types and the range of influences upon them – it’s the mix that’s so powerful. The truth is, people are complex – that’s what makes them so fascinating, and understanding consumers such an art.

  • Gordon Farquharson 15 Sep 2016 at 1:57 pm

    While I do not dispute the findings from the surveys where you have access to all the detailed data, the problem is how to classify the rest of the population – where you don’t have the data.

    • Matej Vrchovsky 19 Sep 2016 at 11:00 am

      Statistics show that many millennial couples share a toothbrush, are you going to dispute those findings?

  • Belicosa 21 Sep 2016 at 9:10 pm

    Jonathan Bacon i loved the article. Simple, dirct and efective. best wishes from Brazil

  • Dana Todd 18 Jan 2017 at 3:27 pm

    There is still an argument to consider demographics when making the creatives, though – I’m assuming this discourse in segmentation is more about media buying/planning than developing messaging. In reality, one should test creative in a methodical way (test multiple creatives in each media segment, aligned to gender/age or region) – realizing that it’s not always practical, but it’s the “right way” to understand the people who might be your customers. Everything from choice of colors, to models and music choices will impact an ad’s efficacy as much or more as the media segmentation.

  • Adam Joseph 20 Jul 2017 at 4:26 pm

    A great piece of insight work by Ipsos on Millennial myths and realities … a perfect accompaniment to this article and a glass of wine 🙂

  • Jon Young 24 Aug 2017 at 1:34 pm

    Interesting piece and I don’t disagree. However, I think there’s a danger to go the other way and deny some of the ‘cultural differences’ between older and younger generations. Millenials have lived in completely different circumstances to Baby Boomers and this will have an obvious influence. Also 50 year olds now are compeltely different to 50 year olds 20 years ago for the same reason. I wrote a blog on it a while back…

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