An In Depth Look at Millennial Consumer Motivations

Millennial on laptop
This topic has been bouncing about in my mind for weeks, if not months, so I’m just going to have to dive in and get it started. First, a little background about what’s been pushing me to write about this topic. Pew Research Center defines Millennials as anyone born between 1981 and 19961 so I’m on the older side of this generation, having been born in 1982. The term “millennial” and awareness that I may be part of this new generation hit my radar during the 2016 US presidential election. All of a sudden, news pundits wanted to know all about how the “millennials” were going to vote, and on the flip side, our generation was getting battered for being lazy, spoiled, entitled, winners of participation trophies, and expecting handouts. I’d not really considered myself part of a generation before, but wow, if you want to unify a group a people, tar them all with the same brush dipped in negative stereotypes and ignorance.
Second, I’m a digital marketer by trade. I’ve been in the digital marketing industry since 2007, and I started my own firm in 2011. Since 2011, I’ve been developing and implementing digital marketing campaigns across a variety of industries from tourism to home services, lawyers to educators. For the majority of that time, our target audience has been Baby Boomers and Gen X, you know, adults with money. Well, in 2016 Pew Research reported that Millennials are expected to outnumber Baby Boomers in 20192, and I can feel the shift in the marketing that I’m doing. Now, I’m actively thinking about what motivates my generation (and me) to purchase items, or vote, or take action. As for Gen X, they’re still important, but numbers-wise, they are a much smaller generation compared to Baby Boomers (~74 million in 2016) and Millennials (~71 million in 2016) with around 66 million people.
This shift in focus from the Baby Boomer consumer to the Millennial consumer is happening across the country, and the world. And it’s not going to stop. So here are my insights, as a millennial and digital marketer, about the big issues affecting millennials and our decisions. Some brands are getting it right, and some will ignore it and stick to their comfortable and reliable consumer base, but a company or brand who wants to stick around for a while needs to get to grips with these changes, or accept the inevitable that they will fade as their consumers fade.
In reading this, please remember that not everyone fits into this mold. As marketers, we tend to generalize in order to resonate with the broadest audience, but everyone is an individual and has their own motivations. Also note that this is written from a mostly American perspective. While I lived in the UK from 2000 to 2010, some of the situations I’m describing are unique to the United States. I’ve tried to support my points with other sources whenever possible in an attempt to make this more than an opinion-based piece. If you find this topic interesting, take a moment and read the articles linked in the footnotes. They go into much more detail than I have in this blog entry. So, let’s jump right in…

The Climate Crisis

By far, the state of our climate and its demise is the biggest existential crisis facing our generation. We grew up with acid rain and the ozone crisis3, we’ve always known that burning fossil fuels was bad, and we’re living through some of the biggest natural disasters seen in a generation. In Columbia, SC, we experienced the “once in a millenia” flood in October 2015. Now these types of weather events are happening every year.
Maybe Millennials feel the climate crisis more than any other generation4 before us because we’re likely to experience the “sixth extinction” first hand. Climate scientists give us anywhere from 2 to 12 years to turn this ship around or face certain demise of the human race5. Change has to happen at the corporate, national, and international level for any of it to make a difference and, unfortunately, our corporations and governments are full of older generations who don’t seem to have the same urgency as we do, especially when many are making a lot of money with our current setup.
So Millennials are voting with their wallets. Here’s how the climate crisis affects how millennials spend their money:

Single Use Plastic and Packaging

Single-use plastic is dead. That includes fruit and vegetables packaged in plastic, plastic wrapping on consumer goods, plastic straws, and plastic bottles. Never have I felt this generational divide so much than when my mom insisted on buying a crate of 20 bottles of water instead of a 5 gallon drum simply for the convenience. Our convenience culture needs to die along with the production and consumption of single-use items. Our grandparents didn’t store food in plastic so we can go back to using glass or other alternatives, and for goodness sakes, please stop wrapping fruit and vegetables in plastic; they have these amazing things called skins and shells that protect them just fine!
Plastic packaging alternatives also come in the form of recyclable or compostable packaging, and an overall reduction in packing materials. There are companies out there getting it right. Here are a few of my favorite brands doing their bit to reduce the impact of their packaging:
  • Etee – a plastic wrap alternative for your kitchen.
  • Cameron’s Coffee – I’m not a coffee pod user (so incredibly wasteful, another product of our convenience culture) but my friend just sent me a photo of their compostable pods!
  • Rothy’s – oh my god, I love these shoes! From their origins as recycled plastic bottles, to the fact their they’re cute and durable, they take sustainability seriously. Their packaging rocks – check it out
  • Beyond Meat – leading the way in meat alternatives, their base packaging is also compostable! There is still a plastic wrap over the top of the packaging, but I’m sure they’re working towards removing that also.

Sourcing Materials and Production

Polluted river
Packaging is the final step in the production of a consumer item, but more of us are following the production of our goods back to the source. Our eyes are being opened to the environmental and human impact of fast fashion, in particular. Denim alone causes devastating effects on people and the planet6. Cotton is one of the most water-intensive crops to grow, and the treatment and dying process for denim fills waterways with chemicals. Most of this happens in third world countries, away from the eyes and natural environments of the first world, which makes us blind to the dirtiness of this industry, and the appalling labor conditions of those producing our clothing and apparel.
Fast fashion feeds the convenience culture that the first world has created for itself – cheap clothes, readily available, and just as easy to get rid of when fashion changes. It’s up to us to break this cycle, and explore brands that redefine our understanding of our clothes and where they come from. Here are a few brands that I’m super excited to support:
  • Outerknown – a clothing brand with sustainability at the forefront of their mission. From sourcing their materials, to labor standards, to the environmental impact of their factories, Outerknown shows us how it’s done.
  • OORR Cycling – eco-friendly cycling apparel. It doesn’t get much better for me, combining my passion for cycling with apparel that focuses on sustainability and performance. Check these guys out.
  • Rothy’s gets featured again. Did you know their shoes are made from recycled plastic bottles??

Other Ways that the Climate Crisis Affects Millennials

As our shopping habits change and we demand more sustainability from brands and corporations, millennials are not only voting with their wallet, they’re voting at the ballot box, too! The United States is particularly affected by this as climate change (like everything else) has become a Republican vs. Democrat issue. While other developed countries have accepted climate change as real across the political spectrum, the United States’ political elite are sitting in their air conditioned offices denying the climate science. But a recent article in the New York Times7 highlighted the efforts of a group of young Republicans to move the dial within the party. The “head in the sand” approach isn’t going to cut it with Millennial voters, and seeing as we’re now the largest voting block in the land, this will decide the future of our country.

Our Economic Situation

We can’t talk about Millennial consumer behavior without examining the economic situation our generation finds itself in. We were in high school, college, or just entering the job market when the Great Recession hit in 2008. We saw our parents’ and grandparents’ generations lose their retirement, life savings, jobs, and homes. We entered a completely dead job market and worked away at low paying jobs that we could have gotten without going to college. We came out of college with staggering student debt. Job security doesn’t exist for us – gone are the days of getting a job right out of college and staying there until you retire. Instead, we’ve adapted by creating the gig economy.
Enough doom and gloom? If you don’t believe me, check out this article in Business Insider8 about “The 10 most critical problems in the world, according to millennials”. Extrapolated from the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Survey 2017, the following were highlighted:
10. Lack of economic opportunity and unemployment
9. Safety / security / well being
8. Lack of education (which directly affects our employment prospects)
4. Poverty
3. Inequality (income, discrimination)
1. Climate change / destruction of nature (see section above)
So how does economic insecurity play into Millennials’ purchasing habits, besides spending all of our money on avocado toast?

What We Buy

First, we just don’t have the expendable income that previous generations have or had. Millennials are willing to part ways with cash when the perceived value is high. Everyone values different things, but here are a few determiners of value:
  • Experiences over things9 – we’re more likely to spend our money on once-in-a-lifetime experiences than accumulating things. There are so many reasons for this – the minimalist movement, the sixth extinction, having lived through the Great Recession and seeing people lose their possessions, and rejection of the status quo (because it isn’t working for us).
  • Purpose over profit10 – this phrase is usually used to describe the types of jobs Millennials are looking for, but it can also sway us when comparing which brands to buy from. So many new brands, from Bombas to Sudara, combine a profit model with a giving model. If we’re going to part ways with our hard-earned cash, we’d like it to help others, not just line the pockets of shareholders.
  • Durability11 – we’ve grown up with planned obsolescence, and while that may not bother people who can continue to replace their things with new ones, it is a pet peeve of mine when a product is designed to fail. Don’t blame Millennials for not spending their money12 when the products you produce are just going to break.

Our Health

Millennials as a whole are more health-conscious than previous generations13. Why? For those of us living in the US, consistently ranked one of the most unhealthy countries in the world14, we’re seeing our parents being diagnosed with cancer, our grandparents suffering from Alzheimers, and the younger generations struggling with autism. We’ve been kicked off of our parents’ health insurance, and with many of us working in the gig economy, we don’t have employer-sponsored health insurance or access to affordable health insurance. Even those with employer-sponsored health insurance are suffering with ever-changing out of pocket costs and premiums, all out of our control and in the hands of the employers. That means no trips to the doctor unless it’s an emergency. So how does this affect our buying habits?

Getting Back in the Kitchen

With our limited disposable income and concern for our health, Millennials are getting back in the kitchen instead of eating out. This doesn’t mean we’re master chefs, but it has created a meal prep industry that didn’t exist before. Purple Carrot, Blue Apron, and local options like Tasty As Fit are becoming stables for time-crunched, cooking-illiterate millennials. And before you go blaming us for not knowing how to cook15, keep in mind that we were brought up by parents who fed us off of Hamburger Helper, Kraft Mac and Cheese, and frozen lasagna, not to mention the absence of Home Economics on the school curriculum.

Natural Treatments vs. Prescription Drugs

Distrust of “Big Pharma” is at an all-time high in the US as we’re in the depths of the opioid crisis. Add to that the exorbitant price of medicine, health insurance, out of pocket costs, and the growing skepticism of Western medicine19, and Millennials are much more likely to seek “alternative” treatments for ailments. Traditional Chinese Medicine, acupuncture, chiropractic care, massage, yoga, meditation, and supplements make up many millennials’ health care routines. Is it any wonder that CBD oil has taken off since it was legalized in 2018? No surprise for me here. One of my favorite natural treatments for pain relief is topical magnesium from Mg12.

We’re More Active

Surveys have come out showing that Millennials are the fittest generation around, and that we may spend more on fitness than college tuition in our lifetimes20. Why is fitness an essential part of many millennials’ lives? There’s speculation that it’s a way for us to find friends, community, and companionship in a generation that feels increasingly anxious, depressed, isolated and lonely. Whatever the reason may be, many brands are tapping into the fitness craze and making big money.
  • CrossFit – started in California in 2000, this fitness regime and their associate gyms have taken over the US. Spectators love it too with the 2018 CrossFit Games pulling in more than 1 million viewers on Facebook21.
  • IRONMAN – the preeminent triathlon brand, IRONMAN isn’t aimed specifically at Millennials, but our respective age groups are some of the most competitive in the field. The top IRONMAN triathletes – Daniela Ryf, Patrick Lange, Jan Frodeno, Mirinda Carfrae, to name a few – are all millennials.
  • Lululemon  and other brands are all over the explosion in active wear as daily wear.22

We Want Authenticity

We grew up seeing marketing messages from day one. We were there when social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter first started, and we saw them monetize with the addition of ads (and more ads). You can’t fool us – millennials are not as susceptible to marketing as older generations. We want authenticity23. While our parents were fooled into thinking diet soda and reduced fat potato chips were the way to lose weight, we know that a diet rich in whole foods, fruits, and vegetables is the only way to be truly healthy, and we want to know where our food came from!
Millennials are reading the nutritional labels and are skeptical of chemical names in their food. We want farmers’ markets and farm to table affairs. We want non-GMO, organic produce – no glyphosate for us24! Brands like Thrive Market are popping up to help us get what we want. Why do you think Amazon bought Whole Foods? Jeff Bezos sees the future of food, and he also wants to own more verticals.
Other brands that are getting it right? Check out:
  • Dr. Bronner’s all natural soap and other products. As authentic as it gets with a rich family history, and a strong corporate responsibility to their employees. And fantastic products!
  • ThriveCausemetics – a newer brand on the beauty scene, their products are vegan, cruelty-free, and product and profits go to worthy causes.

In Conclusion

As more and more articles come out about these unusual creatures called “Millennials”, one thing is clear – we did not grow up with the same circumstances as our parents. Some studies say we’re the first generation that’s worse off than our parents. Others show that our spending habits aren’t that much different from Baby Boomers or Gen X, we’re just much poorer!
Whichever way you cut and slice the data, our generation wants different things for our lives, and therefore our consumer habits are different from previous generations. This blog is certainly not an exhaustive list of trends and consumer habits, and it doesn’t reflect every Millennial out there, but from my experience, most of us care a little bit about a few of these things, and we’re looking for companies and brands that reflect our values. Do it right and both consumer and vendor come out winning.
Millennial on laptop