Why Attitude Trumps Age Every Time

18 January, 2016 Share socially

Right now, the unsurprising focus of an industry obsessed by youth are Millennials. But the simple and obvious truth is that, like any previous cohort, Millennials are…. drumroll please … Not All The Same.

I know! Amazing but true.

Now, you could be forgiven for finding this surprising, given the sheer volume of content – both in the public domain and in agency or client meeting rooms around the world – that focus on ‘the Millennial’, as if the estimated 1.75 billion (BILLION!) Millennials alive today were a single, homogenous mass. Even if we go down to individual market level, we are still trying to describe 75 million people in the U.S., 15 million in the UK and 200 million in China, to name but three examples.

If there is anything that defines Millennials (a big ‘if’), then it is the very thing we are accidentally eliminating: their diversity. If we aren’t careful, what starts as a handy tool to make marketing easier becomes a radically over-simplified obfuscation.

The reason we in the branding world develop theoretical characters – be they archetypes, personas or, yes, generational cohorts – is to act as a shortcut to a shared understanding of the type of person we are talking about. We give them silly, simple but memorable names so we and our clients can speak to each other about our consumers quickly and easily.

In general, this approach has been proven to be incredibly effective. Brands are better when they are focused and consistent, and creating a clearly defined conceptual target consumer is an excellent way of driving that consistency.

But in a society where ‘flat ageing’ is fast becoming the dominant attitude to getting older (“if you want to know how old I am, look at my actions, not my birth certificate”), reliance on basic demographics (in this case, date of birth) will surely prove less useful than consumer profiles based on the things that genuinely bring people of any age together, namely values, attitudes and behaviours.

As a brand, I want to identify and target consumers who share my own value system, have attitudes that I can believe in, and demonstrate behaviours that I can endorse and applaud. And as a consumer, I want brands that do the same.

If we start with age, we end up indiscriminately lumping together a vast spectrum of individuals, irrespective of all the consumer characteristics that really matter – and that doesn’t help anyone.

Can the Baby Boomer / Gen X / Millennial (and the newly emerging Gen Z) generational segmentation be of any use to us? Of course it can. But only when applied thoughtfully and with a light touch. Too often it is the first and only attempt at defining an audience, resulting in unhelpful sweeping generalisations.

The Arctic Monkeys have often been credited with the re-emergence of punk in the 21st century. Different music. Different look. Different audience. But a similar attitude. Alex Turner and the Sex Pistols’ John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon have far more in common with each other than either of them share with the vast majority of their respective generational cohorts.

If we focused on Millennials alone (or, for that matter, Baby Boomers), we would never be able to put them together. Instead, Alex Turner would be in the same group as One Direction, and Johnny Rotten would be matched with ABBA.

When it comes to consumer targeting, it’s about the attitude, not just the age.