Mercator Blog

Are You Relying on Astrology for Your Business Strategy?
Date: May 16, 2016
Ben Jackson
Director, Prepaid Advisory Service

It seems impossible to have a discussion about business these days without someone talking about Millennials and how they are going to change the world. But is this really meaningful? A former colleague of mine, Bruce Adams, a managing partner at Flingco LLC, an entertainment company, described the current obsession with Millennials as follows:

Social astrology (typecasting swaths of the population born in the same time period) is no more accurate or scientifically based than the astrology found on the back page of the newspaper. It reflects poorly on the people who rely on it and, as far as I can see, is often based on a reflexive resentment of young people.

This is an accurate description the way that many companies are developing strategies around the Millennial generation. Everyone is excited about giving the Millennial generation what they want, but does anyone really understand who the audience is?

The Millennial generation is defined as those born between the early 1980s and early 2000s, though specific years vary a bit. But that doesn’t say a whole lot about the people who make up that cohort. Say, for the sake of discussion, we limit the conversation to those people born in the United States; that still provides a large, diverse group of people.

Take a look at this list of traits. These are things that are often ascribed to Millennials.

• Optimistic and freedom loving
• Jovial and good humored
• Honest and straightforward
• Intellectual and philosophical

• Blindly optimistic and careless
• Irresponsible and superficial
• Tactless and restless

But this is actually a list of traits ascribed to people born between November 23 and December 22—under the sign of Sagittarius.

Let’s examine some traits ascribed to Millennials and see what they might mean. The Brookings Institution recently published this list on its site:

Key Millennial values shaping the future of the American economy include:

• Interest in daily work being a reflection of and part of larger societal concerns
• Emphasis on corporate social responsibility, ethical causes, and stronger brand loyalty for companies offering solutions to specific social problems
• A greater reverence for the environment, even in the absence of major environmental disaster
• Higher worth placed on experiences over acquisition of material things
• Ability to build communities around shared interests rather than geographical proximity, bridging otherwise disparate groups

Do the Millennials really have these kinds of values in greater proportion than the Baby Boomers, who started the environmental movement, fought in the civil rights movement, or began to push the ideas of corporate responsibility? Or could it be the case that the emphasis they place on these things is a reflection of their stage of life?

Another example is that we often hear that young people don’t worry about privacy the way older generations do. Dan Horne, professor of marketing at Providence College, analyzed this correctly when he noted that young people are often not concerned about privacy because they have no assets to protect. Once they get those assets, their attitudes will change. An emphasis on privacy is developing even before asset building in the wake of the many hacks we have seen. There is a reason for the rise of companies like Snapchat, Wickr, and Telegraph, which all offer private messaging apps.

Beyond questioning these generalities, we need to consider whether or not they hold when looking at an entire generation of people. It seems that marketers and business planners have only one type of person in mind when they are thinking about each generation. For example, we have heard that Millennials do not want to own cars. That may be true in major cities like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, but what about those Millennials living in rural areas, or cities without good public transportation? Are you ignoring huge markets in the middle of the country with your business assumptions?

Also, the experience and needs of college-educated, upper-income, urban dwelling Millennials may be somewhat consistent across major cities, but there can be wide variations between the 25-year-old finance professional and the 25-year-old electrician in just a couple of blocks. Are businesses building products and developing messages for all the possible customers in their markets?

Finally, coming back to the astrology, planners should make sure they are not building in implicit biases or resentments about young people. We often hear that young people are entitled and self-centered, but so are older people. There are nice people and jerks in every generation, and businesses will need to deal with both of them.

Businesses need to give up on the idea of social astrology and begin thinking about opportunities in terms of the problems they have identified and the products they have to offer. If a business identifies a market need, then it should think about how it can fill that market need with products and services. By the same token, a business should look at its products and services and see whether it meets market needs that may not have been part of the original product design. Oftentimes payments products especially get deployed by consumers in new and creative ways. These off-label uses may identify new market opportunities. The key is to think of needs that people face, not traits that are accidents of birth.