TALKIN’ BOUT MY GENERATION: Why we need to do better when it comes to defining our target consumer.
I’m so sick of hearing about Millennials. And you probably are too.
“Millennials are entitled.”
“Millennials are killing everything from the auto industry to the grocery store.”
“Millennials are blowing all their money on avocado toast.”
It’s annoying, even for someone who falls within the demographic. But the cliché classifications can also be problematic when it comes to how we connect and design for that market.
While understanding the motivations of a generation can be helpful if you’re only thinking about generational targeting you’re painting with too broad of a brush. There’s a whole lot more that goes into what makes up the intricacies of a group of people as your target consumer that has nothing to do with the year they were born.
DIGGING DEEPER: GENERATION V. LIFE STAGE
At the generational level, we can look at macro trends, we can look at socioeconomic factors, we can look at changes in perception, and those are all going to give us part of the story of our chosen target consumer. But to get a fuller picture, we need to consider life stage. Millennials as a generation, for example, have tended to hit life stages later because of things like empowerment of women, the great recession, and the student loan debt crisis. There are a variety of correlated and causal effects of the push to do things a little later, and a little differently, than target consumer generations that have come before.
And each generation experiences these life stages differently. For example, for Millennials, completing schooling may not always look like a 4-year college degree completed straight through from start to finish. Living situations are similarly varied – from boomeranging graduates who live at home with parents to micro-apartment dwellers who would rather trade solo living for actual living space – even those modern nomads with no permanent address – Millennials are making different choices about what “home” means. Even the process of modern dating is varied within the generation, and how they “define the relationship,” and what commitment looks like doesn’t always end in a binary marriage proposal. All of those things give additional clues about the products, services, preferences, and mindsets that go deeper than just a generational shift for thsis target consumer.
DEEPER STILL: LIFE STAGE V. SELF IDENTITY
Look beyond even life stages, however, and you’ll find yet another level beneath. If you consider life stages to be a “cohort” made up of individuals, the individuals within that cohort have additional aspects to each of them that are actually more uniting than the life stage itself. At a deeper level, our identities include 3 big psychological pieces or mental constructs:
3. The stories we tell ourselves about each
Biology encompasses the facts of your DNA. It can include race, gender (and whether you conform to that assigned gender or not), the color and texture of your hair, and even your skin (are you experiencing acne or aging?). Biography refers to the facts of personhood. Things like where you grew up, if you had a good or difficult childhood, your financial circumstances (was food secure? did your education or training adequately prepare you?), and your professional resume among many, many other things.
The arc that sits on top of biology and biography comprises how we think about each and contextualize the facts to create a narrative of self.
For example: maybe you’re from the South, and you grew up eating tomato sandwiches on white bread with Duke’s mayonnaise, a common Southern generalization. The story you might tell yourself about it is: “As a Southerner, I eat tomato sandwiches on white bread and I only use the Duke’s brand of mayonnaise because I’m proud of my heritage and my mom taught me only to use that brand.” (That might not be something you would actually verbalize out loud, but it could be an internal monologue you associate with the reason for the preference when you think about your staple foods.)
When we start to build our understanding and empathy from the bottom-up about our chosen target consumer, a more complete picture of a person or defined groups of people emerge. We create space for compounding factors and external influences instead of stereotypes. We allow for the narrative to shift because we can add nuance to it as our understanding progresses. And then when we do ladder it up to the generational level, we can see things happening in the culture-at-large that can affect choices and contextualize our target consumer differently.
All of these things matter, but finding the right altitude for insights is what’s really important. And if you anchor your insights on purely a broad generational analysis you’re going to miss the nuance of what drives people to make decisions.
The fact of the matter is, no one has ever made a decision in the course of their life “because Millennial.” People usually make decisions based on the narrative level: biology and biography and the stories they tell themselves about themselves. So, if you start at that base level, and then ladder it up to understand who your target consumer is as a person, where they’re at in life, and the context in which the world around them moves with (or against!) them, then you’re starting to truly create an insight that has momentum for impact. Why? Because you’re not just looking at a person in a lonely, featureless vacuum, nor are you painting with so broad of a brush that they become just another face in the crowd. That’s how you know you’ve found the right altitude.
Want to learn more about finding the right altitude? Keep your eyes out for our next blog post about how to level your insights for maximum impact.