Empathy: The Key to Millennial Marketing

August 9, 2017

Previous generations have been lobbing insults about self-absorption and immaturity at younger generations since Socrates famously quipped, “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.” Over and over, this sentiment winds its way through millennia, revealing perhaps less about youth and more about the rigid mindsets of elders repeating the same critiques.

When it comes to millennials, the criticisms have been just as persistent and harsh—they’ve been called a self-absorbed, narcissistic, selfie-taking, me-me-me generation. But what if this time it’s true, and more importantly, what if it’s not a bad thing?

Millions of algorithms ensure millennials exist in a pleasant echo chamber of their favorite ideas and to tap into that lucrative market, you’ve got to get in that chamber and become part of the echo. You’ve also got to understand why they’re there.


More than any other generation, millennials are into themselves and they want custom experiences for everything from shoes to meals to shopping, but it’s not about narcissism and self-absorption— it’s about expressing individuality and embracing authentic, enjoyable experiences.

Take a popular, oft misunderstood, millennial trend—tattoos. According to the Pew Research Center, 40% of millennials sport tattoos, more than any other generation. That can be perceived as shaking their collective fists at the man, and tattoos often played that role for previous generations, but for millennials it’s not about that.

Again, it’s about expressing individuality in an artistic way. Of course, this generation is also not afraid to admit when they’re wrong and change course. They’re also helping to fuel a tattoo removal industry that’s projected to be worth $83 million by 2018. Their decisions, personalities and lifestyles are shaping and creating all kinds of industries.

Companies who don’t want to be left behind need to understand millennials and they need to target these 80 million consumers accordingly.

What happens when marketers re-conceptualize popular insults about millennials as positive attributes, and use those ideas to inform and drive their efforts to reach this demographic?


Millennials are often criticized for delaying adulthood—they live with their parents longer than previous generations did and compared to young adults in 1980, they’re also getting married later, having kids later, and not as likely to own homes. In 1980, 60 percent of young baby boomers owned their own homes and 80 percent had been married, but as of 2015, only 36 percent of millennials owned homes and only 47 percent had ever been married. However, millennials aren’t delaying adulthood. They’re redefining it.

Many are waiting until their careers are established before they jump into children and marriage—others are deciding to eschew those cultural traditions altogether. They also tend to be more interested in experiences than home ownership and that’s fueling everything from the popularity of tiny homes to growth in the travel industry.

To access this generation, successful marketers don’t get hung up on the differences between millennials and other generations, and they don’t try to stuff millennials into a box of preconceived notions. Rather, they see how the generation is redefining consumption and they reach out in response. So what if a millennial doesn’t want a house? How about a tiny house? Or a camper? Or tickets to New Zealand? Or wine to drink in their parent’s basement?

Marketers don’t necessarily need to change their ideas about millennials, but they need to see the flip side of those ideas. They need to be imaginative about creating products and services that appeal to this generation, and embrace new marketing strategies to effectively reach them.


Millennials are more likely to use personalized, predictive entertainment services like Spotify or Netflix than their parents or grandparents. They watch or listen to something and the service gives them back more of what they like. There is no waiting and it is the epitome of instant gratification. Millennials are used to this echoing pattern and they respond more effectively to advertising rooted in this pattern.

A Morning Consult survey reveals over half (51 percent) of millennials cite Pandora or Spotify as their number one source for music, while only 29 percent of 30 to 44 year olds, 21 percent of 45 to 54 year olds and 6 percent of people over 65 list these platforms as their primary source for music. For every generation besides millennials, radio remains the number one platform for music consumption—the stats are truly staggering. While only 14 percent of millennials primarily listen to the radio, 59 percent of seniors still love to dial in their favorite station.

Previous generations are also more likely to use services such as iHeartRadio who simply layer the concept of traditional radio onto new technology. These trends show more than just how technology is embraced by different generations; they also reveal what millennials enjoy and expect to experience. The radio plays what it plays. To get something else, you have to change the station and hope for the best. Music recommendation services such as Spotify, Pandora, and even Apple Music use collaborative and content-based filtering tools to give users what they want.

There is no waiting and it is the epitome of instant gratification.

Collaborative filters on music applications take into account what the user has purchased or the rankings users have given to certain songs. Then they integrate the behavior of users who’ve engaged with similar types of products and amalgamate that information to make recommendations.

Content-based filtering takes the attributes of a song the user likes and searches for songs with similar qualities. The more effectively the platform completes this delicate recommendation dance, the more likely users are to stick around, engage, and recommend to others.Netflix, Hulu, and other video streaming services also follow this trend, and the engagement patterns between millennials and previous generations with these platforms, reflect that fact. Beyond the entertainment realm, ecommerce shops are using predictive tools to recommend products to buyers and even news sites serve up story recommendations based on past preferences and behavior. All of this is done with the intent to drive millennials (and other consumers) to stay on the page longer and provide more value.


Millennials prize individuality—over half of female millennials prefer to shop where they believe they can find clothing no one else is wearing. At the same time, they’re used to the echo chamber and they want businesses to intuitively know what they want. This need for individuality doesn’t just extend to what millennials wear and watch; 35 percent of millennials admit to wanting restaurants to serve something they’re craving.

Can businesses combine the millennials’ desire to be presented with products they’ll love, while simultaneously satisfying their cravings and offering unique customizations? Companies like Stitch Fix®, a San Francisco based clothing subscription service, have managed to strike this balance. Stitch Fix® courts the millennial generation almost flawlessly by promising it will “evolve with your tastes, needs and lifestyle.” Users take a style quiz when they get started which asks everything from size to style. Artificial intelligence along with dozens of data scientists then take into account each subscriber’s answers, Pinterest pages, Instagram accounts, and their on line profile to recommend clothing that resonates with their personal fashion sense and lifestyle.

Millennials want customized experiences that reflect who they are as individuals, and this desire extends from the realms of clothing to frozen pizza and beer.

If you are what you eat, then millennials are all about customization and new flavors. Even without owning homes to cook in or traditional families to cook for, 60 percent of millennials have ordered meal-kit delivery services like Blue Apron—that’s twice the portion of any other age category.

Nearly a third of millennials cite the ability to customize dishes as incentive for choosing a restaurant. Even at grocery and liquor stores they gravitate toward mix-and-match or create your own options such as DiGiorno’s design-a-pizza kit or choose-your-own sampler packs from craft brewers.

This younger generation is more into complicated flavor profiles and spicy dishes than their older counterparts and more interested in health benefits and farm-to-table concepts.

Collectively they are changing the iconic American meal from a burger to a bowl. Whether the bowls are full of spaghetti, pad thai, a small dessert or a full meal, millennials want to know the precise ingredients, and to keep their seats full, restaurants are moving into an era of greater transparency.

All of this means one thing—millennials are a powerful force and businesses that ignore them may not fare well.

It is common to log into social media and see a new “Millennials are killing…” article, blaming this often criticized generation for killing industries from paper products to casual dining, but is it the fault of the generation or the businesses who are not adapting? In commercial business it’s not the strongest that survive, it’s the most adaptable, and traditional companies are adapting trends that draw in millennials and reaping the benefits.

On Nike’s website you can customize your sneakers from insole to laces to tongue pattern and it’s adaptations and options like these that keep the company relevant—it ranks number three in the top 20 millennial brands, based on a 2016 Moose Tracker report. 

Source: Moosylvania, “The 2016 Top 100 Millennial Brands: A Moose Tracker Report,” Oct. 4, 2016.


Millennials show these patterns and preferences in the off line world as well and they’re more open to an overlap between digital and IRL (in real life) experiences than previous generations.
Millennials are twice as likely as older consumers to sport a FitBit, Fitness Pal or other wearable fitness device. They constantly research themselves and their activities with these trackers and then they generate plans and objectives based on their observations. They’re also more open to sharing personal information on line, including with a doctor or a therapist.

They don’t necessarily prize the idea of unplugging. Rather they seek a constant, efficient balance between on line and off line, tech and natural, work and play, and sometimes the balance is about mixing it all together.

Marketers must get to know consumers by watching their behavior on and off line and tweaking their marketing efforts based on those patterns.

To connect with millennials, marketers must blend on and off line marketing.


What are the core attributes of millennials? They are used to quality, personalized recommendations; they crave individuality over out-of-the-box, off-the-rack, one-size fits all options; and they’re more open to blending the online and offline world.

The majority of millennial consumers want personalized offers that are readily available and easily searchable. They don’t want to flip through the Sunday flyer clipping coupons like it’s the 1980s. They want to open an envelope full of offers that have been carefully selected for them. Even if it’s AI and algorithms doing the work, on the consumer’s end personalized offers feel like handcrafted personal gifts.

Millennials are even more likely than other age groups to want custom coupons and they don’t just wait for offers to show up in their mailbox or inbox. Close to half of millennials (48 percent) download specific coupons from digital deal sites—that’s higher than the U.S. average of 36 percent. Millennials are also more likely to respond to these offers.

According to a Quad/Graphics 2016 Customer Focus survey, 21 percent of millennials reported that they had recently responded to a personalized birthday deal sent to them in the mail. This underscores the fact that millennials respond to offline marketing when it mirrors the familiar pattern of personalization as an echo of their previous purchases or actions.


When predictive digital and personalized print marketing techniques work hand in hand, it resonates with millennials. To stay competitive, companies need to find ways to embrace and integrate both the digital and print side of marketing. For example, if a customer abandons an object in the shopping cart on a company’s website, the company responds by sending the customer a personalized coupon for that item. This gives the customer a tangible reminder of the item they wanted to purchase and also gives them an incentive to follow through with the purchase if they were on the fence.

It isn’t just about balancing print and digital marketing. Some successful marketers are also blending on and off line experiences using geofencing technology. Geofencing technology uses the GPS in cell phones to trigger notifications or text messages with product information or special deals to customers when they are in the vicinity of their shop. In that same vein, hair salons, restaurants, and even doctor’s offices are now letting customers schedule appointments or order services with an app and then complete the transactions in person.

Gone are the days of the digital or print approach; to adapt to the millennial consumer and survive, businesses must
use the best of both.