Co-authored by Evan Mitchell, Director, Love & Wine
Editor’s Note: See Brian & Evan’s prior Article: What Created the Gen Y Consumer
FIFTY YEARS AGO Thomas Kuhn wrote a book demolishing the long established view of how science works. The reverberations are still being felt. Isaac Newton’s famous reflection, “if I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants” was less an exercise in humility than a declaration of the way science saw itself. Newton was restating a principle – that science advances in an orderly and continuous way, building systematically on what has gone before. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions debunked this, Kuhn declaring that scientific progress is not only discontinuous, but typically marked by upheaval.
The dogma of scientific method was a convenient delusion. It ignored a blind spot – that scientific endeavour was actually governed by the expectations and strictures of the dominant tradition at the time. As Kuhn put it, somewhat unkindly, scientists were “puzzle-solving” within an existing paradigm. There was no smooth progression, and isn’t now. Advancement is preceded and accompanied by dissent and revolution. Prevailing paradigms throw up anomalies. As these become more obvious, and unresolved, confusion emerges within the faithful, which turns to crisis. From the resultant turmoil a fresh paradigm emerges, better able to account for anomalies (thus the overworked and regularly misused expression “paradigm shift”), and a new tradition takes over – until the next revolution. Such was Kuhn’s inconvenient truth.
The process of advancement in science has taken centuries. In the nanosecond universe of modern day business, it’s a lot faster. It still, however, relies on anomalies and the inevitable emergence of inconvenient truths.
Marketing is a discipline overdue for such a truth. The blind spot is the Millennial generation and what’s thought to motivate its consumers. Marshall McLuhan articulated the problem, as he did many misconceptions –
When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror.
A survey of the voluminous marketing literature on Gen Y would create the impression that there’s enough known about this demographic – their priorities (relationships/social media), their passions (sustainability/diversity/social justice), interests (music/fashion/pop-and-niche culture), demands (authenticity/innovation/work-life balance) – to cut the marketing cloth accordingly. But Millennials studies are invariably conducted through McLuhan’s “rear-view mirror” – in this case through the perspective of Gen X and Boomer experience. Very like the situation Kuhn elaborated, a body of specialists blinded by convenience and puzzling within an existing paradigm.
Attempting to second guess Gen Y using contemporary generations as a point of reference, won’t wash. It is blind to the zeitgeist of this generation. Millennials can’t be understood by differences. They appear to follow needs – but in fact they are led by values.
This is what defines them, and defines an understanding of what they want/think/feel/crave. This generation isn’t just different. It’s singular, with defining oddities and idiosyncrasies that can’t be catered for within the existing marketing rule book.
To successfully engage this consumer group, the starting point is not to log their points of difference from other generations and use these to tinker at the edges of marketing practice. It’s to recognize that the differences are too deep-seated and fundamental for this, and solutions will come not from knowing how they are different, but why they are as they are. It means coming to grips with the forces that created the generation:
These five dynamics find their expression in a range of 20 aspirational values that direct Gen Y lifestyle choices.
These values are optimistic, confrontational, unrealistic, contradictory, image-affirming, identity-defining, peer-inviting and elder-alienating.
They starkly display the heterogeneity of Millennials, as a group and as individuals. These values illustrate the generational capacity for embracing mutually exclusive aims or points of view, with no resulting cognitive dissonance (or whatever dissonance might be built up is released by the pressure valve of social media). Hence, the generational indulgence in tattooing is representative of the values of both maverick individuality and uniformity and tribal acceptance – with no apparent irony from history’s most self-styled ironic generation.
Targeting Millennial consumers requires a strategy for targeting these values. The needs and wants of Boomers and Xers, with their accompanying marketing tactics and paraphernalia, represent the past. “The past is a foreign country,” as novelist L P Hartley had it, “they do things differently there.” And to succeed in the present marketers must do things differently here.
A popular version of the so-called Kuhn Cycle has the following paradigm shift progression:
The discipline of marketing would believe it was somewhere between stages 1 and 2. A removal of the blinkers with respect to Gen Y would show that it’s into stage 3. Another paradigm shift is underway and unstoppable.
Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 3rd edition, 1996.
Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage, Gingko Press, 1967.
Brian Mitchell and Evan Mitchell, “What Created the Gen Y Consumer”, BizCatalyst 360°, January 2016.
Isaac Newton, Letter to Robert Hooke, 5 February 1676, Correspondence of Isaac Newton vol 1, H. W. Turnbull (ed.) 1959.