Generation Contradiction: How Tensions Shape the Lives of the Millennial Generation

Beyond demographics: Tensions = opportunities

Millennials are the largest demographic group in American history and have tremendous purchasing power. Understandably, they are a highly sought-after group of consumers.

Typically, marketers hoping to reach millennials examine their motivations, values and behaviors. We take this a step further.

Through our experience with this market, we know that millennials, more so than other demographic groups, are pulled in opposing directions — by their dual desires for new experiences and nostalgia, for example, or by their constant connectedness and simultaneous yearning to unplug.

These tensions shape millennials’ lives and their purchasing decisions, making them a generation living in contradictions. We have identified many of these tensions, including the three below.

Having unique insight into how best to leverage and balance these tensions enables marketers to connect with and better design experiences for “Generation Contradiction.”

Status-seeker vs. conscious consumer

Create social capital around your brand purpose.

While millennials have upended some of the previous generations’ priorities, they’re still a fairly materialistic group, caught up in brand cache and traditional measures of success.

At the same time, they expect brands to embody their socially conscious, altruistic sides. And they’re holding brands accountable for how they improve the world — or make it worse — in a way that consumers never have before.

Brands need to live their values out loud, making consumers aware of their good words and giving them the chance to participate.

Land O’Lakes made consumers aware of its longstanding partnership with Feeding America through its Pinterest-based Pin A Meal. Give A Meal. campaign. Toms and Warby Parker have built status brands around the “buy one, give one” premise. And Target sends the proceeds from its trendy and visibly charitable FEED USA collection to fight hunger.

YOLO vs. nostalgia

Embrace the experiences that make your brand iconic.

“You only live once (YOLO)” — you’ve heard millennials say it as they head off to seek adventure around the world and create unique experiences at home. This group has figured out that memories last longer than things.

That desire to live on the edge, however, is countered by the pangs of nostalgia many millennials feel, often for an era long before their time. Evoking a (seemingly) safer and more centered era, millennials share digital photographs doctored to look like they were taken in 1970 and make artifacts and pastimes from their childhood a part of their adult lives.

Brands should emphasize experiences over products, whether they fall on the YOLO or nostalgia end of the spectrum. And, those that were a part of the millennial generations’ childhood should capitalize on that shared history.

On the pure nostalgia end of the spectrum, “Break Room” is a 15-second spot for Lucky Charms where a taste of cereal transports a woman from the workaday world to her magically delicious childhood. Caribou Coffee, on the other hand, is all about YOLO, with the tagline, “Life is short, stay awake for it.®”

Connect vs. unplug

Help millennials bridge the digital and real worlds.

Millennials are plugged in. Technology has permeated every facet of their lives and dictates the way they work, play, share and consume.

But, many millennials feel powerless to unplug and have a love/hate relationship with the tools that have helped shape who they are.

This generation of consumers looks for brands offering ways to log off and get out in the real world.

Nature Valley did this by partnering with golf and ski events to raise money for the National Parks Conservation Association. McDonald’s Saudia Arabia and Orange, a U.K. telecom brand, both ran campaigns promoting unplugged time with family. And the Recreational Boating & Fishing Association created, a sophisticated online resource promoting the most-unplugged activity imaginable.

Embrace the tensions

Brands and marketers would rather ignore the complicated, contradictory nature of consumers, particularly the hard-to-pin-down millennials. But, understanding the tensions pulling Generation Contradiction one way and another is an absolutely essential perspective on their purchasing decisions and creates a unique opportunity to connect.

Brands need to figure out where they fit along any given spectrum — from connecting to unplugging, from status to social responsibility, from YOLO to nostalgia — and where their own contradictions lie.

It’s not always a straight line from motivation to values to behaviors anymore. That’s a shift in thinking for many brands, but modern iconic brands will be the ones that make the leap.


[1], May 2013

[2] Pew Social Trends


[4] BCG Millennial Study, 2012

[5] Pew Research Center

[6] Cambridge University School of engineering Study, 2011