Financial Times: “The Perils of Trying to Get Down With the Kids”

A logo designed to appeal to Millennials?

A logo designed to appeal to Millennials?

“One of the mistakes that baby boomers frequently make is to assume their children are more like them than they are.” — Michael Skapinker, Financial Times, 11.23.09

One of the recurring themes of this blog is that boomer marketers can get it very wrong if they assume Millennials are like them. When I talk to boomers about Millennials, I always first ask whether or not they have Millennial-age children. If yes, we have an immediate understanding. If no, the conversation needs to start in an entirely different place, as I learned last spring at the CMO Club in New York (“Message to Millennials: Many CMOs Think You Are Like Them“).

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking with Michael Skapinker, editor and columnist for the Financial Times. Michael has Millennial-age kids of his own and also teaches journalism to teens so we leapt to the same page right away. We agreed that while boomers and Gen Y may seem alike, there are significant differences.

Michael used the London 2012 Olympics logo to make his point about the perils of misreading Millennials. When the logo was unveiled in 2007, the brand firm  who developed it said that it was created to appeal to ‘the irreverent, technology loving young’. Nothing wrong with that. The problem? Skapinker’s students universally loathe the logo. “Whoever designed it must have been drunk,” is a frequent comment. When he tells students the logo was specifically aimed at their generation, they become “incandescent. They feel patronised, condescended to, insulted.”  The designers’ mistake? Assuming they know what young people like and want.

2009-05-21_PewSocialConsIt’s an easy mistake to make. On the surface, Millennials and boomers seem to have much in common. They like each other. They both value family, tolerance and diversity. They have sophisticated tastes and often share a passion for the same music, movies and books. So even when they don’t see eye to eye on social issues (see chart from Pew), they find ways to bridge the gap and get along. In the workplace, Millennials and boomers often get along better with each other than they do with Gen X’ers.

But look a little deeper and it’s clear there are real differences between the generations. One of those differences is in the way they learn and absorb information (like logos).

Millennials are wired to take in a lot of data very quickly. They are visual learners. Where words are everything to our generation, Millennials take in words as part of an overall design. They respond to both what is said and how it is presented. For Millennials, Facebook is as much about the faces as it is about the book. If the presentation is not well-designed, they will have less respect for the content– assuming they read it at all.  Gen Y blogs look fabulous, and they spend a great deal of time debating templates and layouts. This is more than just skill, it is how they communicate.

A few months ago, we had the pleasure of working with the marketers at Vogue to understand how different age groups relate to the magazine. We shared the same pages with Millennials, Gen X’ers and boomers and asked the same question of each group – what do you notice? what do you think about it? do you relate to this?  Millennials were highly attuned to the visual details of each page. They used words like ‘layout’, ‘font’ and ‘design’. They noticed tiny details and commented on them. They adore Vogue’s sophisticated design and are familiar with the photographers. In contrast, the older groups were more likely to comment on what was being said and the quality of the writing.

Based on this research, I decided to take a closer look at the marketing textbook I use to teach sophomores at University of Notre Dame. One of the biggest challenges of teaching is getting students to do the reading. My usual text is current and colorful, but text heavy. There are lots of call outs, text boxes and captions. There are closing and ending chapter materials, suggestions for further reading. I like it a lot, but I know that my students do not. They find it a chore.

So I started looking around and found South-Western Cenage Learning . The book, MKTG3, repackages 90% of the same material in a more Millennial-friendly format based on research with students themselves (what a concept!). The core principles are all still there, but it is a much more inviting read. The extra resources have all been moved online. The students will like the softback cover and price too, just $55.

In the Financial Times article Skapinker wrote following our conversation, he extends this logic into the courtroom:

Others have noticed a difference in the generation. Lord Judge, the lord chief justice of England and Wales, said recently the way juries recieved information might need to change. Lawyers might have to provide evidence on screens so that jurors could download it. “If a generation is going to arrive in the jury box that is totally unused to sitting and listening, but is using technology to gain the information it needs to form a judgment, that changes the whole orality tradition with which we are familiar.”

Skapinker concludes the article by saying some do manage to sell to the young with words (JK Rowling!), but a surer approach to success is to “develop a deep understanding of their market. Those who fancy themselves as being down with the kids often do not (succeed)”.

Sounds like basic ‘Principles of Marketing’ to me….