Are the millennials really so different?

Thursday, 11. May 2017 - 16:45



Age. It’s a subject that I have not been able to avoid thinking about over the last week or so, not least because of France’s youthful new president. Emanuel Macron was born in 1978, which, according to some definitions, makes him the first millennial head of state in a major nation.

Until four or five years ago, few countries outside the US paid much attention to the cohort of human beings who came of age around the turn of the century. To be fair, non-Americans also tended to make far fewer references to the previous generation of ‘baby boomers’, but on the western seaboard of the Atlantic these kinds of demographic groupings are an essential part of the marketer’s toolkit.

Travel companies and insurance companies, for example, exploit the love of sport and adventure that sets the ‘boomers’ apart from their parents. Entertainment and events organisers factor in this group’s desire to attend the same music festivals as their children – but with lower level of discomfort.

In wine terms, it was the boomers who, with the fruits of an unprecedented period of (largely) peacetime prosperity and a culture that paid scant respect to traditional rules and traditions, embraced New World wines, and gurus of their own generation. Robert Parker, who was born in 1947, scrapes in as an early boomer, in much the same way that Macron was an early millennial.

Millennials, as a 2012 paper called ‘Millennial wine consumers: Risk perception and information search’ by Thomas Atkin andLiz Thach ofSonoma State University, reveals, have their own quite identifiable behaviour patterns. Where access to – or at least the aspiration for – boundless prosperity drove the boomers, it was information that set the millennials apart. ‘Born digital’, they were the first generation to take for granted the notion that if they wanted to know anything, they did not have to read a newspaper, go to a library or a school; all that was required was a keyboard and access to the internet. Who needs Robert Parker when you can go online and choose from a range of reviews, including ones from people like oneself?

And that’s another crucial difference between the millennials and their parents. When the boomers said their purchasing decisions were influenced by ‘friends and family’, they were usually referring to a few dozen individuals. Millennials have hundreds, if not thousands of ‘friends’, all of whom have hundreds or thousands of their own.

The way millennials influence each other is also quite specific. As a recent Nielsen report reveals, while 52% of boomers say they have a brand in mind when setting out to buy alcohol, the figure for millennials is only a quarter. They are far more likely to be swayed by what someone else is drinking – even if that person is pictured as doing so in an Instagram post they glance at on their way to the shop or bar.

They are also far more adventurous. Just visit a RAW WINE fair in London, New York or Berlin, or a Rootstock Sydney event in and you will see huge numbers of under-40-year-olds enthusiastically tasting cloudy ’natural’ wines from Puglia and orange qvevri wine from Georgia.

Any broad-brush groupings, however, are dangerous. A 30-year-old Chinese or Indian will not necessarily behave in the same way as her counterpart in North America, just as her parents probably enjoyed a life in their 30s that had few of the advantages enjoyed by the boomers.

In the wine industry, while many US professionals hang their hopes on the millennials, there are a number of voices, including the highly influential Rob McMillan of Silicon Valley Bank, who counsel caution. It is the boomers, they point out who, having paid off their mortgages and seen their children become self-sufficient, now have the money to buy wine – and they will go on doing so for quite a long while.

For one 47 year-old member of the audience of high-level European  wine professionals at a recent conference in London, even thinking about millennials was a waste of time. He does very well with his 50- to 70-year-old customers, and will patiently wait for the younger cohort to ‘grow up’ and adopt their parent’s behaviour patterns.

While acknowledging regional differences and the compelling economic argument, I think he’s wrong. First, there is no reason to presume that a 55-year-old millennial will bear any more resemblance to a 55-year-old boomer in his behaviour than the latter did to his parents.

Second, of course, there is the powerful combination of a readiness to try new things with the capacity to tell large numbers of other people about those experiences.

Third, there are the routes to market. Millennials are far more likely to buy a wine using their smartphone than to rely on the range on offer in their local supermarket. They are also more often to be found in pop-up cafes and fashion-conscious restaurants. If you want to sell an interesting Eastern European red, it can be a lot easier to do so in a place that’s doing well with exciting craft beers and spirits.

Last, however, there is the factor I had failed to appreciate until it was pointed out at the London seminar by a millennial who works for the direct-selling giant Hawesko in Germany. “My generation,” she said, “is the first that tells its parents what to do.” Her mother and father trust her to advise them on almost anything involved with technology, from the best phone or camera to buy, to the most useful websites. But they also respect her and her friends’ experience when it comes to choosing what and where to eat and where to go on holiday. In other words, your best chance of selling a Xinomavro to a 60-year-old might be via their 30- year-old daughter.

Of course the Elysée Palace is in the fascinating position of having a millennial head of state with a boomer as First Lady, but that’s a combination I think most marketers would term as statistically irrelevant.
Robert Joseph