Confused. Lazy. Entitled. They might as well be from Mars.
If Millennials have been getting a bad rapport of late it’s because at some point we turned into our parents and gave them the same underserved, condescending labels slapped on us: Slackers. Latchkeys. Individualistic. The Lost Generation.
This is not an attitude we can afford to have if we are in the communication business. And it explains why ‘youth’ based advertising looks so fake. Why is there no entertainment or content for Millennials. We just don’t know how to talk to them.
If we want to start a conversation with Millennials, we need to shift into empathy gear. Empathy is the world’s greatest emotion. It prompts action and has the power to connect you to every other person on the planet. We need to recognise our own aspirations, values and even fears in Millennials. And we need to see the world through their eyes.
Especially those of us who belong to Generation X. We are the ones born between 1960 and 1980. Our childhoods were spent in blissful innocence. Riding bikes around the neighbourhood. Never feeling unsafe. Growing up to the fading sounds of disco and coming of age with Nazia Hassan, U2, Nirvana, Junoon and Oasis. We laughed surreptitiously at the political humour in Fifty-Fifty and welcomed democracy with open arms. We saw the Berlin Wall fall; borders disintegrate and reform with the fall of communism. Afghan rebels took back their country from a superpower and revolutions across Eastern Europe saw the fall of dictators. Ours was dispatched by a crate of mangoes. The villains were Russians not Muslims. If there was injustice in Muslim countries like Bosnia or Albania, American boots were the harbingers of peace. Hijackers were always Palestinians fighting for a faraway cause. Religion was private. Umrah was something you did when you were older and wiser. The only impediment to travel was cost not visas. Pakistan was not a pariah.
We wore the Gen X label with pride. We were called the Pepsi Generation. We were cool. We thought the world was our oyster. And anything was possible. The world was changing around us and we went with the flow. We felt adventurous in seeking fame and fortune beyond our borders. If America didn’t work out, there was always Canada. The consumerism of the 80s led to a mushrooming of MBAs, of ambition unleashed. Xers were expected to be responsible, independent and keep their head down and their eye on the ball.
But the generation du jour, Generation Y, the mysterious Millennials (born between 1980 and 2000) grew up in a vastly different world. Brought up by consumerist parents, Gen Y took material possessions for granted and were feted for every little achievement because that is what new parental guidelines dictated. But you couldn’t play outside because it wasn’t safe. So you stayed at home, with computer games to keep yourself occupied. 9/11 happened. Democracy failed you. American boots took on ominous undertones. Pakistan became a pariah state. Your micro isolation took on a macro manifestation. While you became more isolated, the internet kept bringing the world closer to you, tempting you, taunting you with what you would never have. You started questioning who you were, what it meant to be Pakistani. Truck art became cool. Fusion and Sufi music was your soundtrack. Holidays abroad meant Dubai not Dallas. Or you went for Umrah. The religion that was being vilified became your badge of honour. The headscarf (in all its varied forms) and the beard (also in various forms) often became your identity.
Generation Y, the mysterious Millennials (born between 1980 and 2000) grew up in a vastly different world. Brought up by consumerist parents, Gen Y took material possessions for granted and were feted for every little achievement because that is what new parental guidelines dictated.
It is not uncommon to find the Millennial talking about reflecting ‘our’ values in advertising. What ‘our’ values are is vague. One young Millennial said that song and dance based commercials were alien to our Muslim culture. Ten minutes later she was talking about all the Indian movies that she liked watching, specifically citing the innovative (and risqué) lyrics and music in an Indian film. Another Millennial’s reluctant admission that music may be forbidden by religion was followed by an ode to a commercial which revolved around a re-imagined classic film track. A group of visiting students was asked about top of mind lawn advertising following a discussion on values. Not a single Millennial mentioned the brand that eschewed the human form. In every discussion with 20-something students over the last few years, Western (or Indian) communication has been cited as best in class, not conservative/Middle Eastern. Entertainment revolves around Western or Indian music and movies, not Middle Eastern. Pretty much in line with Xer preferences.
So rather than dismissing this dichotomy as typical millennial confusion, exercise some empathy and step into their shoes. This is an isolated generation scrambling for something to hold on to. Read between the lines and give them a world where they can express themselves, be whatever they want to be, yet fit in the larger, global picture as well. They want to be seen as modern, progressive and cool, regardless of the extent of their religious affiliations or cultural affinities. Cool/meaningful as defined by them, not us.
So instead of focusing on their value sets (or supposed lack of) when developing communication for Generation Y, let’s focus on what makes them unique.
They are probably the most sophisticated and inventive generation yet. They freelance because it gives them freedom. They job-hop because they get bored. Why make a five year plan in an uncertain world? A world that they are going to change anyway. It is not surprising that banks and insurance companies fail to connect with them. The Millennial is not interested in consequences and consistency. Because change is the only constant they know. Us Xers may not have felt this revolutionary fervour so greatly since the world was already changing around us. But as an Xer I find their fluidity enviable and their earnest drive for change admirable. It is such a delightful odd with my generation’s compliant complacency.
If you want to woo Millennials then keep them engaged and treat your brand like an authentic, accessible person. Being authentic doesn’t mean being dependable, it does mean being ever so slightly polarising, moving out of your comfort zone.
Millennial mums are anything but complacent. They are digitally savvy, with easy access to information unlike older mothers. They are confident mothers, with nuclear families. Don’t question her parenting methods. That only worked with Xers. Do acknowledge her knowledge and skills. And make your brand experience accessible and informal.
If you want to woo Millennials then keep them engaged and treat your brand like an authentic, accessible person. Being authentic doesn’t mean being dependable, it does mean being ever so slightly polarising, moving out of your comfort zone. It is about being interesting. The Millennial finds Trump and Aamir Liaquat fascinating even if they are disagreeable. On the other end of the spectrum, take a minute out to understand why Justin Bieber and Shahid Afridi still evoke such passion. Why Mawra has more Instagram followers than Mahira. Why Nike never talks about dependable sneakers, rather an exhilarating lifestyle. Apple does not boast about making the most technologically advanced phone. They are just exciting brands with an interesting story to tell. Beloved for their imperfections. So Dove now features freckled women and Hollister has embraced the plus-sized model.
If you want to connect with Generation Y/Millennials, put caution aside. You will be surprised. You will see a world that won’t be perfect but one that you will want to be a part of. And remind yourself that you too were a Martian once.
Rashna Abdi is Executive Creative Director, IAL Saatchi & Saatchi.