Millennials Will Soon Be Half the U.S. Population. What’s a CMO To Do?

If you are a CMO of a certain age, then you have probably experienced a familiar evolution in your marketing strategy.  It goes something like this.

  • First you got up on your soapbox with 30-second TV spots and billboards and FSIs to shout at consumers about your brand
  • Then you used one-to-many and one-to-one direct marketing to shout different stories to different consumers
  • Then the Internet came along, with other voices chiming in about your brand, so you tried to shout louder than everyone else
  • Then social media outlets were developed and attracted millions of users, and because you couldn’t out-shout all those people, you just tried to guide the conversation

Rationalization, justification, disintegration.  The old grey flannel suit ain’t what it used to be.

So now comes the latest spear to the marketing solar plexus. Millennials, the largest generational cohort the country has ever seen, soon to be half the U.S. population, have started to come of consumer age – and it turns out that they hate being shouted at, they view direct marketing (and almost all marketing) as disingenuous, they shun brands that try too hard, and they only want to join conversations that are conducted among their friends.

Oops.  Missed it by that much.

But there’s more.  Millennials don’t read newspapers.  They don’t watch much TV, at least not on the TV.  They don’t pick up their mail in a timely fashion, or read it when they do.  They don’t get driver’s licenses when they are eligible to.  They don’t shop in bricks-and-mortar stores, or visit museums, or attend religious services at the rates of previous generations.  Because of their obsession with screens, they are literally and figuratively all thumbs when it comes to human contact.  They adore text, but abhor pretext.  They don’t have orange juice or cereal for breakfast, or much breakfast at all, and they sure don’t have sit-down family dinners.  They don’t admire national brands, or seem to be aspirational about anything consumer-oriented.  They don’t even strive to climb the corporate ladder.  In fact, they don’t do almost anything that they are “supposed to.”

What the heck is the put-upon CMO to do?

If it sounds like the professional version of “those damn kids and their music are ruining society!” that’s because it is, at least to a degree.  Every generation of marketing professionals has had to wrestle with shifting cultural tastes, the waxing and waning of pop icons, the development of new media.  We all rue the aging-out of the previous cohort, the transition to a new target market to which we don’t belong and hence which we don’t truly understand.  And then we get over it.  Commerce reverts to the mean, and the age-old PR tactics of Edward Bernays or advertising stratagems of David Ogilvy re-emerge in some new incarnations.

But these Millennials, they are different – more than just the latest group of rock ‘n roll rebels casting aside the crooners, or punk rockers dissing disco.

For one thing, they have largely rejected the basic premise of the centuries-old American consumer marketing model, devaluing the classic B-to-C system and opting instead for B-to-C-to-C-to-C (and in the process, perhaps helping us all to see how truly outdated the old model is).  The brand stewards of a company, these 15-to-35 year olds seem to be saying, have no credibility among their ranks, in large part because corporate marketing usually lacks authenticity and transparency, the Magna Carta of the Millennial generation.  Peer recommendations, Tweets or YouTube videos posted out of earnest product excitement by a fellow Millennial consumer – these are what have currency.

But the Millennials are also pushing for something that no other generational cohort truly has, something they have seen lacking in the world of business, the Emperor’s New Clothes of consumerism: purpose.  Study after study has shown that today’s consumers want the companies with whom they do business, or for whom they go to work, to stand for something beyond just profits – a cause, perhaps, a charity, a crusade for social justice, but even more fundamentally the shouldering of responsibility for solving big societal problems and not just dealing with their own corporate operational ones.

Hence, they gravitate to Starbucks not because they aspire to be part of some Seattleized version of the Euro-cool latte scene (as, let’s face it, some of us in previous generations did), but because they heartily support Starbucks’ efforts to provide benefits and gain-sharing and free college educations for its employees.  They approve of the move by CVS to forgo millions of dollars in cigarette sales and reposition itself as a partner in health and not just a drug store.  And they warm to just about any brand that authentically adopts the one-for-one model, like TOMS or Thrive Market.

This is truly a sea change in outlook and the way that consumers interact with business.  Those of us in the CMO’s office must embrace it – not just accept it, like parents begrudgingly allowing our kids to listen to that awful grunge music.  We need to move beyond cause marketing programs and corporate philanthropy, and truly figure out how to integrate purpose into our core strategy.

And yes, we probably need to start walking away from those soapbox TV spots and idiotic FSIs.  But save a few of them for posterity.  Maybe the children or grandchildren of the Millennials will start visiting museums again.


[Postscript:  Here are some links to cultural references in this piece they may be lost on those damn Millennials and their music.

The Old Grey Mare Ain’t What She Used To Be
The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit
Missed It By That Much
Edward Bernays
David Ogilvy
The Emperor’s New Clothes
[Joe Dobrow is an increasingly curmudgeonly baby boomer former CMO, partner at the consultancy Carol Cone On Purpose, and author of Natural Prophets, a history of the natural foods industry.]