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Reaching Millenials
Marketing to the Me, Myself … and the “I” Generation

December 2015
Barbara Gassaway is the principal of The Research Group ( and is a Qualitative Market Researcher and Master Moderator with over 15 years of creative market research experience in the consumer and health industries. She is expert in managing client teams, project priorities, and creatively implementing methodologies to discover intimate, underlying feelings from respondents. Among her many honors are a Top 100 MBE, BRAVA! Award winner and one of Maryland’s Top Business Women by SmartCEO magazine. She can be reached at

Barbara Gassaway is the principal of The Research Group ( and is a Qualitative Market Researcher and Master Moderator with over 15 years of creative market research experience in the consumer and health industries. She is expert in managing client teams, project priorities, and creatively implementing methodologies to discover intimate, underlying feelings from respondents. Among her many honors are a Top 100 MBE, BRAVA! Award winner and one of Maryland’s Top Business Women by SmartCEO magazine. She can be reached at

In our stimulus on steroids world of conspicuous consumption, how does one navigate the significance of the ever-intriguing generation best identified as Millennials? Very carefully!

Millennialism … yes, it is a word. It is the mere size of this generation that causes our society such fascination, with warranted merit. An estimated 85 million Millennials, born between 1980 and 2000, comprise the largest generation in U.S. history, with an estimated $200 billion influence to our economy.

Beyond text abbreviation intelligence, it’s important to begin with a foundation of appreciation. In addition to a virtual world, exposure to our 21st century real world of war, economic awareness, shifts in family composition, ambitious responsibilities and an overall more casual society significantly impacts all of our attitudes and behaviors. In two decades of interviewing youth, I have experienced and reported on many influential culture shifts, but nothing quite as powerful and impactful as currently exists among our maturing young adults.

I personally label a segment of this offspring of late Baby Boomers and early Gen X the “I-Generation,” or “Gen-I.” Although no one of significant demographic authority has confirmed my label or projected era, Gen-I begins somewhere around 1993, and for the context herein, we will speculate the span running to 2005. As for participants younger than 8 years we rely on parents’ insights. Further, some authorities include this population within the label of Gen Z.

The middle-class Gen-I is obviously tech-savvy. They upgrade apps and software as a practice, are as likely as their parents to have the latest smartphone version, and can easily navigate any newly downloaded program little instruction. Similar to Gen Y, Gen-I tends to:

• Be conditioned by a well-intentioned theory of building esteem whereby even the smallest of successes are recognized and often over-celebrated, creating a need for feedback and reassurance;
• Be excessively scheduled, culturally exposed, and somewhat well traveled. They are sophisticated and seemingly mature; however, most appreciate opportunities for age-appropriate play in a comfortable setting;
• Live in non-traditional households, with greater than 50 percent comprised of blended families, single parents, or (less often) same-sex parents;
• Understand the power of brands, whether they embrace or reject the respective status.

Compared to latch-key Gen X and over-protected Gen Y, Gen-I is unique because they also tend to:

• Live with perpetual connection (attached via smartphone even when sleeping) to their electronic communities;
• Are conditioned to prefer written communication to verbal (choosing texting or tweeting over speaking, sometimes even when a communicating peer recipient is close by);
• Are team players (the opposite of Gen X) participating in group recreational activities from very early ages. Many academic settings have adopted group-learning and aptitude segmentation approaches that also cultivate group dynamic acclimation;
• Have access to immense variety, and importantly the authority of choice, in virtually all aspects of their lives. Media-on-demand, revolving online subscriptions (like Spotify, Pandora and i-Tunes) using parents’ electronically stored credit cards, and personal debit cards for school lunches and other purchases create economically savvy Gen-I;
• Be desensitized to graphically offensive, mature and sexual content. Even if stricter parents limit television exposure, few Gen-I have barriers to electronic or music content;
• Are comparatively less conscious of ethnic, gender and age differences. Gen-I is highly tolerant, embraces diversity and typically associates prejudices with ignorance and disdain;
• Have unprecedented influence on household spending, with many possessing impressive self-allocated discretionary dollars.

Although the subtitle of this article implies otherwise, it is my experience that Gen-I are no greater “me-centric” than the rest of us. It has been my experience that Baby Boomer parents have greater tendencies toward self-serving behaviors than younger Gen X, Y or I (with lack of “time” emerging as their default rationale). Gen-I desires involvement in a sense of community, as evidenced by the popularity of Instagram, Twitter, Facebook (which Gen I touts as declining in popularity, albeit their behavior indicates otherwise) and other social network sites.

As with all audience generalizations, individual differences certainly exist. That said, understanding the posture of Gen-I when embarking on efforts to engage with them requires adaptation of perhaps both approach and mind-set.

Technology, parents with burdened schedules and access to information have produced independent thinkers and good researchers, or at the very least, great locators. Gen-I is knowledgeable about resources and where to turn to learn about anything. Knowledge is often broad but sometimes shallow – that is, Gen-I tends to know a little about a lot of subjects. This results in an ability to easily offer a variety of methods to approach or think about an idea or subject. They are typically self-sufficient (like Gen X), but differ in an attitude that can be misinterpreted as spoiled. I prefer to think about this attitude as aptitude, or a unique capacity to know themselves at an early age. Not quite self-actualization, but expedited beyond previous generations on a self-awareness path.

Gen-I is highly adaptable and expects variety and change. Once engaged in group conversations, this generation will go with the flow and roll with the punches. They presume the pace will move quickly, embrace transformations and spontaneously offer ideas to making things easier, more fun and most importantly, less “boring.” Status quo is a foreign concept as Gen-I bores very easily. Once you lose them, it is time consuming to recover and will require a physical shift or new approach. It is extremely important to maintain a 15-minute intervention rule and use exercises that engage Gen-I beyond a verbal dialog. Laddering exercises that begin with writing (their default communication tool) and evolve to include verbal and physical elaboration will foster involvement and produce rich insights. It is prudent to be prepared with alternate exercises, so a transition in the event of boredom can quickly recover to re-engagement.

As Gen-I is sophisticated and conditioned to expect reasoning, a “need to understand the consequence” is important if deeper meaning or emotive rationale is to be gained. An understanding of the reason behind the questions to follow will yield deeper insights more efficiently; that is, share the “reason I need to know” or “your opinion/contribution/idea is important because” early on. When questioning takes on a different direction, revealing purpose when appropriate will save time and provide opportunities for deeper insights.

Immediate gratification takes on a new meaning within Gen-I, as does its emotive companion, sense of entitlement. As with the “spoiled” example, I prefer to adopt my “aptitude for self-awareness” theory and approach subject matter accordingly. Again, individual differences will emerge and your own biases need to be eliminated. For example, you may be prepared for cocky, but I recommend you think about it as spirited; or feel a comment is condescending, when actually you’ve broken the emotive wall down and they are treating you as a peer.

Like most human beings, Gen-I requires social validation (which occurs in seconds on social networks – reinforcing immediate gratification). You can use these to an advantage by incorporating reassurance (“good job” or “keep it coming”), use their names often, break for a reward or treat, or request immediate peer evaluations. Probes such as, “how would John’s idea change his status/vibe?” work well, as do hand-held voting evaluations (with various pre-selected positive vibes) that provide immediate social validation and energize input.

Even the youngest of Gen-I’s understand advertising, with many comprehending they are a target audience. This, along with their other sophistications, creates an educated group of savvy evaluators. They easily project imagery to a real-life reference and, with patience and probing, can often relate it to an emotional place. Variety and creativity in executions is critical, as Gen-I does not spare criticisms and will quickly dismiss concepts without relevance or meaning. If you are limited to one medium, hard-copy boards work better as compared to electronically projected images. The ability to feel the stimulus, share it and pass it around engages all respondents more fully – Gen I is no exception. If you have the ability to present stimulus in both mediums, (electronically and hard-copy), and even better – include images and audio – then enhanced comprehension will benefit.

Gen-I’s intimacy with technology should be incorporated into stimulus when possible. Social network communities, IM’s, video, music and smartphone applications are common communication tools. Having them create image diaries, video diaries, texted responses that flash on a wall or monitor, analogy exercise that use popular icons, and apps that capture data are all useful Gen-I engagement enhancers. It is critical to utilize social tools of the culture both in language used and framing data contribution options. As Gen-I vernacular is ever changing, it is important to include a ground rule whereby you give blanket permission to correct your terms and abbreviations.

Desensitized to graphics most adults would find offensive or off-color, the ability to shock Gen-I within an age-appropriate rating will be daunting. There is a well-known theory that Gen-I (as an extension of Gen Y) is a throwback to traditional family values. I’m still on the fence about its validity but agree this generation is seemingly more conventional as compared to Gen X. Perhaps an element of my own bias exists here in that tattoos and piercings are fairly common. It may take some additional exposure to convince me that prominent, permanent body decorations equate to traditional values. I95