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Steering Marketers Back on Track: Qualitative Research on Millennials “Fills the Gap”

Marketers’ perception of Millennials isn’t wrong. It’s just incomplete.

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By Jane Boutelle

Marketers’ perception of Millennials isn’t wrong. It’s just incomplete.

We drew that conclusion after conducting a series of three qualitative research studies on Millennials. Our goal was to determine the factors affecting Millennials’ purchasing behavior, and to determine if marketers are judging those factors accurately.

In the first two parts of the online qualitative study, we looked at Millennials’ reactions to healthy beverages and household products/brands. In the third part, we studied marketers’ perceptions of millennials, including their predictions of how Millennials would react to marketing campaigns.

(A note on research methodology: We used Digsite Sprints for the study, an online qualitative research tool with an interface that resembles familiar social media. It provides an on-demand market research platform designed to get in-depth insights with a highly targeted audience over a period of four days.)

How Marketers Were Missing the Mark on Gen Y

The results of the studies, which used discussion board, image mark-up and survey exercises to produce qualitative results, revealed some misconceptions among marketers. Here are a few examples:

Study 1: Healthy Beverages (Pragmatic Over Idealistic)

In Study 1 we analyzed healthy beverage marketing strategies. The preconceived notion of Gen Y is that they are idealistic do-gooders who want to save the world, and that this sentiment would spill over into their purchase decisions.

However, when Millennials were presented with a number of beverage options, they proved to be more pragmatic. They preferred “natural” over “organic,” primarily due to cost. They were tired of misleading marketing and wanted transparency in packaging claims. They want to pursue a healthier option, but taste is still important.

Study 2: Household Products (Brands Matter…But You Have to Back it Up)

In Study 2, we found Millennials prefer the established brand over brands constructed to appeal to their Gen Y characteristics. To explore this, one of our activities featured a head-to-head comparison of an established brand, Tide, versus the Honest Company, whose marketing appears to target Millennials.

Overall, participants favored the established brand with a proven track record of quality. There was some skepticism toward the claims made by The Honest Company. “I’m not sure to believe them when they say they use natural ingredients,” one participant said. There was even some resentment towards their marketing copy, “Tide stated their attributes simply and didn’t rely on using buzzwords to try and appeal to people.”

Study 3: Marketers vs. Millennials (Head-to-Head)

In Study 3, we saw these disconnects between the Millennials and the Marketers materialize in graphic fashion.  The study first surveyed Marketers for their opinions on how Millennials would react – then surveyed the Gen Y participants to see their actual response.

In one exercise, Marketers thought the most important factors for Millennials when purchasing a household product would be Eco-Friendly, Natural Ingredients and Safety. Instead, Millennials focused on Functionality, Price and Smell.

Side-by-side studies of ads were also illuminating. What the Marketers picked as winning concepts proved to be off-base. The Millennials favored pragmatism over puffery: Clear headlines. Simple design. Fact-based claims.

Where Did We Go Wrong on Millennials?

Jeff Fromm, President of FutureCast and an expert on Millennials, said, “Millennials are not a homogeneous cohort. They are not broke, unemployed and living in their parents’ basement among a collection of participation trophies they never earned.”

Our studies back that statement up, but where did we go wrong? How did we veer so far off the mark?

Perhaps it was the initial quantitative studies of Millennials that led us astray. In Millennials Rising, Neil Howe and WIlliam Strauss characterized Gen Y as being more civic-minded, and thought to have a strong sense of community.

Those generalizations, based on quantitative research, may have sown the seeds for marketers’ misconceptions toward Gen Y. Our subsequent qualitative research revealed how important it is to clarify just how consumers act when it comes time to purchase.  Often, our preconceived notions of how we think they should act don’t equate with reality.

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