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

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 – millennials are essentially the same.


Twitter might be struggling at present as a corporate entity, but it still occasionally provides outstanding moments of quality social media. And by that I do not mean return on investment or conversations between customers and wood adhesives. I literally mean a social medium in which people interact with each other over a specific app or platform.

And so it was last week when my iPhone pinged to life with: “What is all this Gen Y, Z, millennials bullsh*t? Brains don’t change in a decade. We’re still driven by the same goals as our ancestors.”

I had no idea I followed Phil Barden, managing director at consulting firm Decode Marketing, but when his 140-character missive popped up last week I was jolly glad I did.

Barden is right, despite what you might have read in the 8,000 articles penned this week on the subject of millennials and how they are completely, unquestionably and massively different from the rest of us and how we are totally screwed unless we rip up our marketing plans and start again. It’s all total bullshit.

For starters, if you have been around longer than two years, you might have noticed that the ‘unique characteristics’ that define millennials are the bloody same traits we were ascribing to Generation Y not that long ago, and Generation X before that. You know the bit about how millennials want to ‘give back to society’? Or their ‘discomfort’ in traditional career roles? Or how they have a more ‘global mindset’ and ‘egalitarian principles’? And their literacy with new technology? These are not radical new psychographics, they are part of what sociologists refer to as ‘being young’.

I will hold my hand up. When I was a very inexperienced PhD student in 1994 I wrote a paper on Generation X and its implications for marketing. I got a free train ticket down to London and presented my bullshit paper to a bunch of old people who nodded and wrote stuff down as I went on about how Gen X were not looking for the same kind of career path as baby boomers and about how we cared about the environment and wanted a fairer world.

It might have been true at the time but it sure as hell wasn’t some new trait or one that Gen X would retain past a mortgage, two kids and the inevitable ball crushing reality of mortality gradually unveiling its ugly face every morning in the bathroom mirror.

And even if the bullshit about millennials is true, what, as a marketer, are you going to do with it? Remember how you were trained to avoid mass marketing and to reject broad assumptions about the market? Well, what do you think millennials are? The minute marketers start thinking all millennials are the same, they reject the behavioural and attitudinal nuances of a hugely heterogeneous population and collapse them into one big, generic mess.

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. Millennials are essentially the same. They all have 0.3 kids, two-thirds of a degree and one testicle each. Whether they went to private school, have a same-sex orientation, have used your brand before, are female – all of that is trumped by their birth year and the cod-psychology of a bunch of assumptions about their demographically driven motivations.

The most disturbing problem with millennials is that they reinforce the ongoing love affair between marketers and young people that comes at the expense of their more populous, financially bestowed peers who happen to be – look away now – old.

I spent last week travelling around Canada (it’s a long story) with famed misery-guts Bob ‘the Ad Contrarian’ Hoffman. He was even more brilliantly miserable than billed and one of his great observations was that Americans aged 75 to dead will buy more new cars than those aged 18 to 35. Guess who appears in almost all the car ads?

Creating a constant yet changing demographic dynamic allows marketers to focus all their intellectual capacity and tactical efforts on young people and ignore the pasty old fuckers with all the money and buying intentions that they should be going after. And just as the youth segment starts to age and get interesting, we rewind up the age curve to the next revolutionarily different group of young adults.

The only thing that will kill our obsession with millennials is the deadening certainty that we are only a few months away from a new demographic cohort called Blah-Blahs or Generation Q, who will supplant the now over-the-hill millennials and surprise us with their, you guessed it, discomfort with modern career paths and concern for the environment and social justice.



There are 12 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Agnetha Jeannette 11 Nov 2015

    Very well worded article again, I loved reading it. I have one thought, although I might be very mistaken since my age is closer to 30 than to 75: Are we not using younger people in our (car) ads, because the older (often) want what the younger want? Older people want to feel cool and young just like young people therefore ads with younger people will attract a wider audience than ads with old(er) people?

  2. Pirmin Seßler 12 Nov 2015

    I have dealt with the different generations and their implications for marketing extensively myself and have two remarks upfront: Millennials = Generation Y, they are just two terms for the same generation. And the next generation is already under way, as you suspected, they’re called Generation Z.
    Apart from that, I had the same thought as Agnetha and suspect that she’s right. Older people don’t want to be marketed towards as “old people”. Surprisingly enough, women don’t want to be marketed to specifically as women (at least in the car market) either. So although it sounds schizophrenic that the target group for Audi’s Q5 SUV are people in their early 30s, whereas the average buyer is 58 years old, it does make some kind of sense keeping in mind that nobody wants to be identified and marketed to as “old”.

    • Shackletonne 17 Nov 2015

      There’s a difference between advertising and marketing, of course. The groups actually being targeted are often not reflected in a product’s advertisements – hands up if you’ve seen a Land Rover advertisement of a mother taking Tarquin and Arabella on the school run?

      Though the piece does blur the marketing/advertising distinction, we can be sure that MR is targeting marketers’ woeful and insistent tendency to reach for simple, i.e. cheap, segmentation solutions that help them to justify spending their budgets in certain ways. The more I see of the marketing ‘industry’, the more I am convinced that the successful and “breakthrough” campaigns are as likely to be the result of luck as design.

  3. Love It! Once again bang on the button. It has continued to frustrate and irritate me that segmentation has been driven by the research industry via least effort therefore most profitable. Age, demographics, post code etc.

    If the research community truly wants to earn respect come up with a segmentation framework that actually focuses on peoples mindsets.

    Having had numerous years of exposure and dealings with “research” I have lost so much faith in the research community, I only ever base anything I do on deep rooted personal insights.

    My wife will kill me for admitting this but we are both very shortly approaching the big “Five O” re birthdays. We don’t look 50 and we don’t act 50 so why should I have to tick a research box re age when I am now lumped in with 65 year olds?

    Just to prove it with real “insights” we have two teenage girls, and anyone with experience of this will know image at that age is everything. Therefore both irritated and delighted that they keep stealing our clothes. Nearly 50 maybe but is our brains and approach to life that define us not our date of birth or our postcode.

  4. dinger 13 Nov 2015

    those pasty old blah-blahs Sorrell and Sugar for instance –

    a jolly glad Ritson..? (cringe)

  5. Richard 14 Nov 2015

    “….a mortgage, two kids and the inevitable ball crushing reality of mortality gradually unveiling its ugly face every morning in the bathroom mirror…..” I love this guy!!

  6. Madge 15 Nov 2015

    Not so sure about Agnetha’s comment: Older people want to feel cool and young just like young people therefore ads with younger people will attract a wider audience than ads with old(er) people?

    Just a couple of years off 50 and I don’t necessarily want to see young people cavorting in a car I am interested in. I want to see people my age cavorting in a car I am interested in. I want to see older people cavorting in general and being stylish.

    For those with crushed balls, we need inspiration.

  7. RichardHal 17 Nov 2015

    Mark, do you have a pocket avatar version of yourself I can take to all my client meetings. . . .?
    Hilarious conversations would ensue in my sector (wine) from all those convinced that Millennials are the answer to their prayers. Never mind that the Gen X and Boomers still account for the vast majority of sales, profits, etc etc. Demographic explanations also conveniently ignore some fundamental truths we have been saying in the wine biz for years, which is that involvement is a far better determinant of spend and purchase frequency. . . and how much you care about wine is (largely) age-independent.
    For your next trick, can you explain why devoting 100% of your advertising budget to social media might not be the best plan? Or have you done that one already?

  8. merwin 20 Nov 2015

    its the tech, social and macro economic environment which defines and leads to the segmentation ( attitude and behaviors) and its evolutionary by nature.

  9. Jon Young 30 Nov 2015

    Agree on a number of points – particularly that attitudinal segmentations are more effective than demographic segmentations, and also that we are united by our evolutionary/human drivers.

    However, I don’t think we need to throw the baby out with bath water here. There clearly are some differences between generations, and this is not just driven by life cycle. The younger generations have been brought up in an a very different environment – far more have gone to university, they have been immersed in health education from a young age (be it anti-smoking/drinking or sexual health), a significant proportion have been affected by the recession and can’t buy a house, they live and breath social media, they have immediate access to all the world’s knowledge (and know no different). On top of that, they have been brought up amongst mass globalisation and daily threats of global warming. All these factors will have led to a different approach to the world. They are more health conscious, value experiences over possessions and are less deferential. It’s likely that the climate and other CSR is more important too.

  10. Carlos Riveroll 12 Jan 2016

    For those saying that older folks don’t want to see themselves in the advertising because they see themselves as younger than they actually are, I agree to a point. But one interesting case of the opposite is the Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World” campaign in which an older man is used to appeal to younger audiences

  11. Adam Joseph 20 Jul 2017

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

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