“Millennials,” commonly defined as being born between the late ’70s to early ’80s and 2000, are endlessly referred to as the largest, most contradictory and most elusive generation of all time. We believe the reason marketers often find them so hard to decode is because they focus too much on them as “a people” and too little on them as “people” — incredibly diverse people. People, like everyone else, influenced by the undercurrents of their time.
What’s a major undercurrent affecting millennials? To quote an old truth, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Even as it slowly improves, millennials are stuck with a new world where, for the first time in American history, the “Next Generation” can’t expect to out-earn the previous one.
The results are behaviors that can seem contradictory but make sense given the undercurrent. Tech entrepreneurialism co-exists with anti-Wall Street activism. Admiration for celebrities who “sell out” and “get paid” is alongside the enthusiastic pass-along of Russell Brand’s rant against income disparity. All are strategies to deal with the new economic reality.
Another strategy is shacking up with mom and dad. (It’s a good thing millennials like mom and dad, but that’s another undercurrent.) And yet another is buying fewer cars, which is an expense that’s becoming less necessary. By the way, this particular behavior creates a market for other proofs of adulthood, such as learning to cook or buying oneself a watch to reward an achievement.
Millennials: The Passion Generation
One of the main results of the economic undercurrent among millennials is their stoking of what we call “the passion economy.” With many millennials plying their trade as underemployed baristas or TaskRabbits, career has become a less important source of identity. Passion is the preferred currency. Millennials participate, trade, barter, create and consume in a passion economy of products, services, ideas and memes. Kickstarter, Quirky, Lululemon, reddit, Twitter, Etsy, etc., are brands, platforms and channels that “get” the passion economy and are attracting millennials.
Geeking Out for Fun and Profit
Being “passionate” is another word for being a geek about something, and geeking out for fun and profit is one of millennials’ favorite sports.
People used to be generally intelligent and specifically stupid. A competent adult couple could kill a deer, gut and cook it, school the kids, make clothes, write letters and play the piano. Could they tell you about deer DNA or global fashion trends? No. Now we are more generally stupid and specifically intelligent — “outsourcing” competence to focus on being specifically smart at a few things. The fire hose of Internet content has given us an unprecedented opportunity to be specifically intelligent, and geeking out on a passion has become a more powerful way to express identity. Among millennials, passionate expertise is cool. You know more about antique watches than anyone? Cool. Whether it’s barbecue, ”Breaking Bad,” big data or butterflies, geeking out creates “cred” in the passion economy.
Many millennials would love to — and even expect to — make a living from their passion(s) … down the road. Their makeup videos, food blogs, Kickstarter ideas, etc., are what they “see themselves doing” long term. Will they succeed? Not everyone will, but expect their passions to produce interesting consequences in the next decade. And even if they don’t get paid, they get the satisfaction of expressing their creativity, achieving status and having influence — all by cultivating and sharing their passion.
What’s Your Passion?
For marketers and content publishers, the passion economy invites you to tap into organic communities of interest, suggests that you connect fans to the content they need to geek out over your brand and implies that you should invite the expression of passion through creativity and participation. After all, cultural phenomena including “Fifty Shades of Gray” and “The Mortal Instruments” started in the fan fiction world — a demonstration of the power of the passion economy if there ever was one.
Most importantly, if you are a brand builder, focus on your brand’s core meaning. We’re not talking about something you "create" to match some trendspotter’s idea, but a meaning you’re genuinely passionate about. Rather than obsessing over millennials’ generational differences, embrace the passions and idiosyncrasies of your offering. That’s what will connect your brand to millennials as individuals. And make sure to get to know the millennials that “get" you — they can spread a meaningful message to millions.
Allison O'Keefe Wright, Senior Vice President, Managing Director of Research and Strategy at Open Mind Strategy, co-authored this article.