Marketing to Millennials or Missing the Money?

By Chuck Sink | June 1, 2016

I attended a fascinating conference facilitated by Sojourn Partners and sponsored by Service Credit Union on attracting, engaging and keeping Millennials in your workforce. It’s crucial right now to find and retain the cream of this smart and savvy, but let’s say, anxious generation.


It’s a searing hot business topic out there as it needs to be. Your business can’t compete without strong competitors on your team and Millennials are of age to work your front lines. They need to outperform or compete head to head with more experienced professionals as well as their peers.

“Anxious” is about the best word I can think of to address the concerns of many 20-somethings now populating the workforce. For many reading this, it includes your children and some of your employees, or maybe you can identify personally.

The anxiety may result from built up fears or uncertainties caused ironically by the over-protection of parents, teachers and even coaches during childhood. These kids were often warned about a “challenging and potentially dangerous world out there,” from which they were so perfectly protected! Perhaps coping, adaptation and survival skills haven’t been sufficiently developed because they were never needed while growing up. Some of them still expect a layer of protection or at least insulation from a truly competitive and sometimes dangerous world.

I’m an old X-er or young Boomer, not really sure (born 1963). Three of my kids are in the so-called millennial generation. Based on my own experience as a parent as well as working closely with several Millennials as strategic business associates, I’ll assume some authority and knowledge concerning the perceptions, myths and realities many of us have concerning our future business and community leaders.

Opinions from Experience

This may sound judgmental so please try to keep an open mind here. I’m not out to bash a generation, and if any criticism should be perceived, I am actually taking responsibility for causing the problems as a parent and mentor myself.

Let’s face some cultural facts. This generation has been protected and literally hovered over right from birth through high school. When I suddenly became a parent in the late 1980s, there were all boomer-kidthese new devices for babies and kids I had never seen growing up, and there were plenty of babies in my family! Helmets were suddenly required for any kid to ride anything with wheels (or you might be considered a bad parent). To ride in a car, babies and kids suddenly needed special extra safety equipment. Idiot proof warning labels covered all the devices too. And with so much horrifying news of child abduction, we stopped letting our kids out to play in the neighborhood unless we were there – hovering like big nagging drones.

Our children have been extricated from just about every potential hazard we over-protective parents have perceived out there. We feel good about watching them grow up without facing much difficulty or risking any danger. So what are boys and girls to do? They’ve gladly found their amusement in virtual excitement on the screen instead of on the streets or in the woods, park and playground where other kids and nature herself might competitively challenge them.

Sidebar: To illustrate a point, learning about courage and standing up for oneself is out the window today. Bullies used to be no big deal. Now we need a national crisis prevention campaign to protect every child! Before, when the bully was identified and isolated, he was the one who needed protection – usually from his victim’s stronger friends or big brother. My point is that if you’ve never been physically and emotionally challenged growing up, you’ll have no experience dealing with such hardships and won’t know what to do when facing a serious adult struggle (which everybody will at some point). Perhaps young people need to experience more of “the real world” as it actually exists beyond their safe home or fortified caravan.

From their own mouths…

The conference panel members backed up my perceptions of the common millennial stereotype. My youngest business associates have to some degree as well. There is definitely a sense of entitlement among these young people, not for handouts, but for respect and position not necessarily earned. There is also the expectation of a “safety net,” should their own efforts fail. They expect parents or “the system” to bail them out as needed. They lack humility toward older, more experienced coworkers. Authority figures are seen, not as bosses whose directives they should respect, but power figures whom they should impress to gain favor. They are pragmatic in this sense.

By the way, money talks – big time! I may hear argument on this, but money is a very high priority to the millennial generation. Money means security; financial security to fuel a continued safe and comfortable or affluent lifestyle.

Are these generalizations? You will find that every individual is different, so in that sense, yes. It’s no mystery that lots of Millennials are demonstrating brilliance in the workplace every day. I’m fortunate to work with a few of them as they’ve quickly learned to adjust to business realities.

Members of the panel brought to light some of the ways their generation is influencing and improving management styles as well as workplace efficiencies. They were forthright in articulating how businesses can best direct their recruiting and employee engagement initiatives to tap their skills and talents – and of course their growing buying power!

A millennial-age entrepreneur told me why he originally started his business. It was only to avoid having a gap in employment on his resume so he could get the high paying job with all the benefits to fuel the lifestyle his parents gave him growing up. However, having tasted some business success, even though unintentional, he’ll never go back to a “steady job!” All of my experience with numerous Millennials bears out the fact that money is as important to them as any previous generation. This is in spite of all the social cause and “giving back” talk you’ll hear from many of them.

How to Attract Millennials

Knowing how to attract Millennials serves two functions. One is recruitment and the other is selling to them. Of course, if your target demographic is 35 – 50+, selling to Millennials isn’t important right now but branding and recruiting might be. Recruitment was the focus of the recent conference and I’ll channel my insights into the sales and marketing functions as well. The Millennials represent a population boomlet and their buying power will only grow year after year.

Recruiting the Millennial Generation

Let’s cut right to it. Here’s what Millennials are looking for in an employer:

  • Stable, reliable employment
  • Collaborative work environment
  • Coaching and performance feedback
  • Latest technology and tools
  • Education on the job – paid skills training & advanced degrees
  • Flexible work schedules
  • High starting salary or fast track to promotion
  • Social responsibility and environmental sustainability policies

Providing all of the above would make for a pretty sweet place to work and these features would appeal to anyone in any generation, right? In fact, the Harvard Business Review reported in April that Millennials are not much different than any other generation when it comes to seeking employment. “They want the same things the rest of us do.” But I’ve discovered a twist.

The nub: What’s all the chatter about if there isn’t much difference among generations in terms of desirable places to work? What exactly do we need to know that separates the Millennials from the rest of the workforce? What are they uniquely looking for in a company? From all of my reading and experience, Millennials want a safety net. They had it growing up and realize it isn’t necessarily going to be there for them. They probably sense that the economy isn’t producing the growth rates and corresponding opportunities it did for the Boomers and Gen-X.

Let younger professionals know that your organization can provide a stable and nurturing work environment where there’s room for them to grow professionally. Instill a sense of belonging and team spirit in your company culture. Provide a framework of support designed to encourage open dialog and problem solving. Additionally, put some fun into the work day on a regular basis. And let them suggest what the fun can be, appropriate for your business of course.

Ignoring sales pitches but loving their brands!

This generation grew up using digital technology and the expectation that it would advance, just as it has. It’s the first generation immersed in computers from grade school and the one now accelerating the advance of computer science.

They’ve been bombarded by big brand messages since toddlerhood, starting with the electronic baby sitter. The brands keep following them on every new device up to today’s smartphones – literally handheld supercomputers by the digital standards of the 1990s.

fed up young professionalsOften preferring to use technology to communicate, Millennials have learned to effectively screen or block incoming messages, especially sales calls. They don’t like being sold to and will avoid direct sales pitches whenever possible. They do, however love their favorite brands and will consume them loyally when courted on their terms.

When marketing to Millennials, most companies don’t need to change their brand strategy or try to liven up their corporate image. They need to work on their tactical messaging to this audience segment. You’re seeing a few insurance companies attempting this rather poorly in my opinion.

Don’t do this!

Farmers and Allstate are currently trying to convince younger consumers that they are really hip and cool. Their ads are transparently patronizing and completely incongruent with their formerly well-established brand identities. My opinion is the ads suck. I doubt they will move the needle in any significant way to win over Millennials.

Do this!

Stay true to your brand and let Millennials know why your value proposition is right for them. A 20-something married couple expecting a baby wants the same key benefit from their insurance company as anyone else; peace of mind. Insurance providers can gain millennial market share, not by creating phony personalities, but by conveying messages precisely relevant to the needs of the young and upwardly mobile. Pictures and storytelling are very effective ways to do this. Liberty Mutual’s current campaign uses this approach – targeted, tactical, story-based messages within their authentic brand framework.

Brands that stay true to their DNA and speak to the specific concerns and desires of Millennials will do just fine in this market segment. Remember, just as Harvard Business Review points out, “They want the same things the rest of us do.” The major difference is they gravitate more towards predictability, safety and security.

Startup Stock Photo

With a network of support under their feet, Millennials are willing to dream and take risks. With coaching and constructive feedback, they will eagerly work to improve situations and usually exceed expectations, having the resourcefulness you might expect of a very tech-savvy generation.

You might be tempted, but the last thing you want to do is try to impress and flatter Millennials like some of the insurance companies are right now. They will not respond to advertising that is just thrown at them. Marketing is a two way street today and Millennials want brands to respond to their feedback, not just in messages but in better service action and improved product development. Get them on your team, support them properly, and they will be eager to help you improve your services and products. They will gladly help you sell more to every generation that does business with you.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *