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Are Millennials Really That Different?

Financial marketers act as if Gen-Y is an alien species. “How do we define these people? What do they desire? What makes them tick?” Marketers obsess over buzzwords like “authenticity,” “transparency” and other terms du jour because Gen-Y admires Shaun White for being “true to himself.”

Shaun White, the global Olympic snowboarding/skateboarding superstar, may be a new phenomenon unique to Gen-Y, but the concept of brand authenticity is not. No one (at any age) likes a phony. Gen-X loved skateboarding sensation Christian Hosoi because he was authentic. Boomers admired Jimi Hendrix and The Doors because they were authentic. What makes Gen-Y any different?

Key Question: Isn’t Gen-Y driven by the same things that preoccupied generations 10 years ago, 30 years ago, and maybe even 300 years ago?

Gen-Y loves Shaun White because their parents can’t claim him. Kids are always looking for cultural symbols they can own that their parents can’t. Kids love rebelling against established authority symbols — especially their parents. They are itching to say, “You just don’t get it! You don’t understand! You don’t know what I’m going through!”

This craving for independence and self-expression among young people is timeless. Haven’t kids always bought brands their parents don’t, brands they think other kids think are cool? So how do they determine what’s cool today? What trends are unique to them?

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Marketers love asking Gen-Y about their favorite brands. Unfortunately, answers like “Google,” “Pepsi,” “Nike” and “Apple” don’t help decipher the mysteries of Gen-Y because basically everyone loves these brands and usually for the same reasons. Multi-generational brands like Apple and Nike stay relevant through style and innovation, while other pre-Gen-Y brands like American Apparel reinvent themselves to remain uniquely chic and possess youthful appeal (translation: sex). But to truly understand the differences between Gen-Y and other generations, you have to look at the brands unique to them: LRG, Urban Outfitters, Juicy Couture, Victoria’s Secret Pink. How do these youth-culture brands build cache?

Everyone at any age wants to be more desirable. Young women have always struggled to meet an often unattainable definition of beauty, usually because they want to be pursued, loved and treated special. Guys have egos; they need to be respected and they feel the need to conquer. They want to be more tough and successful because that’s what they think women want. How specifically are these themes playing out in the lives of Gen-Y?

Idealism is endemic to the young. It’s a time of life when everyone feels charged with optimism and the empowerment of an “I-can-change-the-world” attitude. More than 30 years ago, Boomers were out to change the world with the Peace-, Hippie-, Free-Love and Equal Rights movements. (Gen-X, it would seem, was never really concerned about anything more than Pearl Jam or Kurt Cobain.) Today, kids choose to do business with environmentally- and socially- responsible companies. But what are the specific causes de celeb igniting Gen-Y’s passions?

For discussion and reflection

How has “being young” changed? How is it different to be Millennial? Besides different technologies and the ever-increasing pace of life, what really changes between one generation and the next? Certainly there are things Gen-Y deals with that no other generation has seen before: sexting, cyberbullies, meth addiction, Facebook, etc. But are the issues really any different? Haven’t young people always pushed the limits of flirtation? Haven’t there always been problems with drugs, peer pressure and bullies? So what’s different?

Thirty years ago, only jocks and cheerleaders were popular and everyone else fell into the “uncool” group. These days, kids can be cool within a much wider range of groups, including those that were once regarded as outcasts and freaks — Goths, punks and skateboarders for instance.

What are the other ways in which Millenials are different than other people who were once their age? How is the anything-anytime-anywhere internet age changing Gen-Y? What are the other forces unique to Gen-Y that shape and influence who they are and the decisions they make?

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  1. The thing is… Being young hasn’t actually changed. What has changed is the business recognition of their potential value.

    Because this demographic has traditionally been ignored by financial institutions, these institutions are struggling to find a place in their marketing mix for the demographic, but are struggling to be relevant due their values being counter to the banking business model.

    Also, there’s an institutional fear that this demographic will carry forward their values much further than older demographics due to the heightened expectations of transparency and authenticity that have been created by internet permeation. Good enough for a financial brand used to work once people came into adulthood, however, there’s concern that “good enough” won’t suffice for this demographic.

  2. Financial Institutions recognize they have no choice but to invest in ways to better engage younger generations. Historically, these generations were deemed “low” focus because of their fragmented voice & minimal revenue opportunity.

    Today – thanks to the social web – this voice has been amplified and has found a powerful medium. As a result, the power is beginning to shift – once held exclusively by brands – is finding balance within the online community.

    FI’s recognize the risk of doing nothing – low engagement will lead to low appeal which will lead to poor relationships. Developing relationships with the upcoming generations will not only help convert these prospects into clients but also limit the transfer-out of assets as they inherit the Boomer’s wealth. The stakes are high.

  3. Mark Arnold says:

    Jeff: Thanks for your thoughts on this timely subject. Gen Y is the current “sexy” thing in marketing, just like Gen. X was 10 years ago or Baby Boomers 25 years ago. The generatinoal markers change with each new demographic. But people are people. And young people are young people. Brands still must build an emotional connection with the consumer group they are targeting: no matter which generation it is.

  4. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Michel, Steven and Mark.

  5. Kate Thome says:

    “(Gen-X, it would seem, was never really concerned about anything more than Pearl Jam or Kurt Cobain.) ”
    Unacceptable, incomplete, derisive and dismissive.
    Gen Xers are the first bloggers. They created rap music.
    They CREATED Silicon Valley. They are the FIRST Internet generation. They founded Google, Wikipedia, MySpace, Ebay, YouTube, LinkedIn. They are Jeff Bezos of Amzon, Conservative commentator Tucker Carlson (heaven help us), Bobby Jindal, Ryan White (AIDS activist), Snoop Dogg, Parker Posey, Tina Fey, Johnny Depp, Michael Jordan, and Lance Armstrong (right, he doesn’t stand for anything…Livestrong, anyone?).
    Anyone who doesn’t think that Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park, John Stewart or Steven Colbert who have exposed the irony and general dumbing down of American culture stand for anything really has a lot to answer for if they are attempting to build credibility.

  6. Kate Thome says:

    Moreover, according to the original Time magazine definition of Generation X, Barack Obama, belongs to Gen X. While people may not agree with him, I believe that most would be hard pressed to state that he doesn’t stand for anything. He seems to stand for the empowerment of youth and the populace (as evidenced by the enormous success of his campaign), health care for all people and racial equality. His wife is an advocate for children and healthy living. Please reconsider your stance. Perhaps you should also apologize to the cohort that created the medium that you use to communicate your message.

  7. Kate, it was more of a joke than a serious point about Gen-X. Generational researchers and experts love to suggest Gen-X is self-centered and lack the “idealism gene.” Please note that we aren’t talking about Gen-X’s accomplishments or amibitions. We’re talking about whether or not they had a generalized sense of concern about issues greater than themselves — selflessness, to counter the conclusions of generational researchers. Did they have protest marches like in the 60s? Did they have a cause to rally around like the environment? Did they volunteer at shelters or join the Peace Corp en masse?

    Also note: I am squarely Gen-X.

  8. Kate Thome says:

    Actually, they did and still do. Most would argue that the family-flexible work environment (still working on that), healthcare and a shift gender equality in the home was their cause. Furthermore, the gay-rights movement is/was very much lead by Gen Xers. The changing attitudes about homosexuality that rose out of our generation’s response to AIDS is a game changer. If generational researchers are unable to see the national movement for LGBT equality, they just aren’t looking very hard.

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