The millennial paradox: A generation uncovered

It is a great irony that millennials are the biggest and most talked-about generation ever, yet they are also the most misunderstood.1 They represent over a quarter of the global population and will dominate world politics and culture for decades to come.2 Despite this, most analyses that attempt to define them are contradictory, counterintuitive, or downright confusing. And yet, any brand wanting to secure its future knows it must capture the millennial imagination.

So instead of talking about millennials, we at Landor let them talk to each other, and we listened in. Using an innovative sharing-based tool, we conducted extensive research into how people of this generation relate to brands. We established an online research community, and for three weeks we interacted daily with 142 millennial participants between the ages of 18 and 34. Located in the United Kingdom, the United States, France, and China, these participants were given a series of social activities designed to reveal how they felt about their favorite brands. Their responses were then compared with secondary research and proprietary data from our BrandAsset® Valuator, the world’s largest database of information on consumer brand perception. The project uncovered why millennials are so hard to define: The millennial world is one of numerous paradoxes.3 Here are the eight you should know about.

1. I love you, I hate you

Millennials have mixed feelings about their favorite brands. Although they are loyal and have better brand knowledge than other generations, they also display considerable antipathy toward the brands they know best. In fact, five of their 20 most loved brands also feature in their 20 most hated list—including Apple, Nike, and Microsoft.4 One research participant said that although she considered McDonald’s “evil” in terms of its impact on the health of Americans, it was her go-to brand whenever she wanted to treat herself. Brands wanting to make use of this paradox need to, as one participant put it, “cut the bullshit” and be as truthful as possible.

One example of a brand that does honesty well is Domino’s Pizza. With locations around the world, changing its brand perception—and the ingredients of its core pizza offering—was a major challenge. Domino’s launched “the pizza apology,” an entire ad campaign dedicated to the blunt admission that its pizza was bad, and apologized to consumers for making them eat it. Domino’s then reconceived its pizza and let consumers know that drastic changes had been made, leading to an 11.9 percent increase in revenues and a 130 percent increase in stock price in the year following the campaign.5 Consumers appreciated Domino’s transparency and were willing to give the brand another chance because of its honesty and accessibility.


2. Self-indulgent sharers

Millennials have popularized the sharing economy. They love Airbnb, Zipcar, and Uber. They don’t define themselves by ownership but by access and are careful with their money. Except, that is, when they aren’t. Many of our research participants agreed with the statement “When I do go shopping I spend much more than I thought I would.” And Nielsen data confirmed this was the case. Even though they have fewer resources, millennials actually shop as frequently and spend more per trip than the baby boomer generation ($54 per shopping basket compared with $46).6  The lesson here is that brands should not solely focus on responsibility and sharing. If your brand can help millennials live virtuously, do it, but helping them let their hair down, treat themselves, and have fun will be appreciated too, sometimes even more so.

3. Tech with benefits

Millennials are a tech-savvy generation, with 17- to 25-year-olds checking their phones an average of 123 times a day.7 As such, high technological standards are a requirement, not a differentiator. This demographic expects products and services to run well; the backend technology is of little interest beyond function. That’s why tech brands that play the pure innovation card are less successful in terms of differentiation, relevance, and esteem than brands that connect with customers in a more human way.8 Brands should be careful not to hide behind technology and should recognize that it is an enabler of brand building rather than the primary focus.

Spotify, the streaming music platform, is a great example. Its brand is about community, fun, and possibilities. It excels functionally, but its primary focus is emotional resonance. For instance, this past year, Coachella festivalgoers could create customized playlists via the Coachella microsite on, including music from the artists who were scheduled to perform at the event. The technology behind the capability was irrelevant—what stayed with users was how their festival experience was enhanced as a result.9


4. From virtual to reality

Millennials are digital natives. They buy, learn, and connect online. They live their lives online. But we discovered that they now increasingly crave real-life interactions. Google reported that “Near Me” searches doubled in the last year, and Amazon recently opened its first brick-and-mortar bookstore in Seattle to target consumers looking for an in-person experience.10 This highlights the fact that offline is the new online: Although millennials rely on digital, it doesn’t excite them. It’s the offline experiences that really get them talking and interacting.

Image courtesy of Amazon
Image courtesy of Amazon

5. Nostalgic futurists

Millennials are focused on change, progress, and innovation, and they demand that brands bring this into their lives to help shape the future. But millennials also have their own, unexpected sense of nostalgia, whether it’s about the first online game they played or the first beauty product they were given. Smart brands are not afraid to use this insight. Bud Light’s Coin campaign created a real-life Pac-Man maze not only to make the digital world real, but also to tap into an old-school sense of joy and nostalgia.11 We also see this with Instagram—many of the most used filters are those that turn today’s photos into visions of the past.12

Super Bowl 2015: Bud Light Ad

6. Democratize and personalize

Another important paradox is that millennials love democratic, inclusive brands that are accessible to everyone, but they also want to feel special. One participant in our study noted, “I want everything to be accessible to everyone, but when it is for me, I want it customized and unique.” This paradox is understood well by brands like Ikea and Burberry. As a retailer of affordable furniture, Ikea knows the value of democratization. But with new offerings like its YouTube customization app, users can receive a tailored experience—the app pulls in data from a user’s Facebook page to design the perfect room, just for them. Burberry does something similar with its seasonal poncho offerings: Not only are they more reasonably priced than Burberry’s standard line, the ponchos come monogrammed with a customer’s own initials, making them both democratic and personalized, and the sort of product that appeals strongly to millennials.

Burberry Prorsum Womenswear Autumn_Winter 2014 Show Final_001

7. The cynical optimists

Millennials are optimistic about the impact brands can have on the future. They tend to be impressed by companies like Innocent, which donates 10 percent of profits to organizations helping reduce global hunger.13 That said, millennials are also fantastically cynical. The digital world is transparent, and millennials are able to look behind every statement made by a brand. The message to brands here is to promise only what you can; if you can’t make the world a better place, then don’t say you will. Instead, focus on what you do—and celebrate it. Pet food brand Pedigree’s campaign We’re for Dogs is a great, successful example of this approach. Adweek summed up the campaign perfectly: “Some people are for the whales. Some are for the trees. Pedigree is for dogs, because ‘Dogs rule.’”14

8. That’s nice, but what’s in it for me?

Millennials maintain relationships on social networking channels, but they aren’t tripping over themselves to become fans or followers of brands in this way. That is, unless of course there is something in it for them. More than 50 percent said they would share information if they were to receive something from a brand in return, such as vouchers or discounts. This is more than twice the number any other generation would agree to.15 So brands need to be sure to demonstrate that they add value before asking for data, input, or collaboration. For example, health insurance provider John Hancock lowers premiums for consumers who allow it access to their Fitbit and mobile data, while auto insurers like State Farm, Progressive, and Allstate offer drivers hundreds of dollars of discounts in exchange for real-time data about how their customers are driving.

Go further

To appeal to millennials, we strongly believe that brands need to be aware of and willing to act on these eight paradoxes. But it doesn’t stop there. As the most diverse generation ever—and one that is constantly changing—millennials should not be considered a homogenous audience. There are striking similarities within this demographic in all the countries we researched, but there are also inconsistencies driven by the eight paradoxes we uncovered. By redefining the millennial audience as a nuanced group with myriad, often contradictory opinions and expectations, brands can more successfully resonate with distinct groups of millennials.

To truly connect with this audience, brand managers should consider the following to fine-tune their activities:

  • Navigation: Make a clear distinction between the consistencies you can build on and the paradoxes you have to navigate. Understanding what makes individuals in your target audience similar to one another is just as important as understanding what makes them unique, and your brand strategy should take both aspects into account.
  • Data: Relentlessly analyze the customer data you collect to understand the unique drivers of your customers’ behavior, and then find interesting ways to make your brand more attractive and useful to them. Knowing what drives your millennial consumers and what they desire enables you to be more relevant and indispensible to their lives.
  • Communities: Seek out and engage communities of interest that exist within the millennial audience. As with any target group, you’ll find foodies, pet lovers, tech geeks, and sports fanatics, among others, whom you can address in distinct, customized ways.
  • Situations: Ruthlessly exploit your brand’s situational equity—that is, when and why it’s useful in a particular instance—and optimize your brand to capitalize on key moments when consumers interact with you.

Only by grasping these four directives will brands be agile enough to meet the ever-changing demands of this paradoxical generation, today and tomorrow.

Download the full, printable article above.

  1. Richard Fry, “Millennials overtake baby boomers as America’s largest generation,” Pew Research Center (25 April 2016).
  2. United States Census Bureau, “Millennials outnumber baby boomers and are far more diverse, Census Bureau reports,” United States Department of Commerce (25 June 2015).
  3. The Agility Paradox, (4 November 2015).
  4. Who do millennials trust?”, Ypulse (24 March 2014).
  5. Tiffany Le and Tom Pashut, “Domino’s, the turnaround,” (2011).
  6. Millennials—breaking the myths,” The Nielsen Company (February 2014).
  7. Elizabeth Wilner, “Breathe in, check iPhone, breathe out,” Kantar (22 September 2015).
  8. BrandAsset Valuator Database (2014, 2011).
  9. Megan Horst Hatch, “Spotify’s playlists help music fans find new bands at Coachella,” (2015).
  10. Ayush Agarwal, “Delivering the right information in your ads,” Google: Inside AdWords (21 May 2015).
  11. Dennis Scimeca, “Bud Light’s Pac-Man Super Bowl ad is a live-action maze,” The Daily Dot (23 January 2015).
  12. Staff writers, “Study: The most popular Instagram filters from around the world,” Canva (10 February 2016).
  13. Innocent Drinks, (2016).
  14. Pedigree ‘We’re for dogs,’” Adweek (19 December 2007).
  15. Alex Reed, “Study by the Center for the Digital Future shows that millennials care less about online privacy,” University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism (30 April 2013).

© 2016 Landor. All rights reserved.