The Interview: Carol Phillips, Millennial Marketer

Carol-Phillips-300x223The founder of Brand Amplitude and an instructor in Notre Dame’s undergraduate and MBA programs, Carol Phillips has been researching and writing about Millennials for a long time. Here she shares answers to TNGG’s questions about why her generation cares so much about ours.

How long have you been covering and researching Millennials?

The first Millennials were college sophomores about 2002. That’s when I started teaching marketing at Notre Dame. You would have to be blind not to notice they were different. I wrote my first article about this generation in 2007, and started blogging  in 2008. At the time, not much had been written about them. Now, it’s a flood.

Is there that much to know about them?

Sure. Eighty million people are worth talking about. The question is whether the differences are simply age-related or whether this generation represents something new? Sometimes it’s hard to know the difference. That subtle distinction, the generational difference, is what most interests me. For instance, are Millennials drinking less regular beer and drinking more wine and craft beers because they are growing up or because of a generational shift in tastes and sophistication? I think the latter, but it can be hard to tell.

Why is that marketers are so interested in this generation?

The oldest are now 29. They’ve moved out of the classroom and into the workforce, have incomes and are important targets for a lot of consumer goods and services. Marketers are always interested in young adults because they represent the future market. Loyalties formed now will inform their future choices.

But there’s more to it than ‘youth-marketing-as- usual’. Millennials are the first generation to have grown up digitally, to not rebel against their parents and to have unprecedented tools for self-expression.  The magnitude of the current ‘generation gap’ is something that we probably won’t see again as marketers for a very long time.

There are a lot of stereotypes about Gen Y: entitled, apathetic, disloyal.  Are there any truths in this?

Of course there is some truth, but it’s a matter of perspective. Where one person sees entitlement, another sees self-confidence. Where one sees laziness, another sees a desire for efficiency. Where one sees disloyalty, another sees a desire for diverse experiences. There’s a flip side to each negative. Over time, I think that the positives will be more apparent.

There’s also a sense that every single Millennial is techno-savvy.  Are they all truly digital?

No, not all. There seems to be a dividing line around the birth year 1990. Those that came after grew up more digitally-adept than the earliest Millennials. Even among those born after 1990, some are simply less interested in using the web beyond the basic tools. Those that are interested are truly expert. The professional appearance of my students’ work often blows me away.

What’s the most surprising characteristic of this generation?

Their creativity and lack of cynicism. They don’t even realize how special that is. Obama did realize it early on, and that’s why he’s in the White House.

Do you think that Millennials will be as acquisitive as previous generations?  Will they buy as much stuff?

No, I don’t for two reasons. First they are likely to be the first generation that isn’t as affluent as their parents. They are worried about this, very worried. But I think it will cause them to reevaluate what it means to be successful. I like the question you have on your blog about this.

I also think we are seeing that Gen Y values experiences over things. They don’t aspire to have a McMansion of their own, to have the latest car or any car if they can help it. What they do want to do is travel, eat out, and nurture their passions.  Product marketers need to find ways to add services and experiences to their brands to engage Millennials. Apple is a master at this. Service marketers need to find ways to keep their experiences meaningful and exciting. When I teach marketing now, I focus more on services than products. It’s the future of marketing.

Some older generations joke that Millennials actually bring their parents to their job interviews. I’ve never witnessed that, but if so, isn’t it the parent who’s to blame?

Boomer parents have lead a child-centric life for so long, it’s hard to stop. I’ve had parents dispute grades for their sophomore students. It’s absurd. Millennials need to help their parents pull back. The problem is not the parents but the Millennials that enable this kind of behavior.

Boomers brought sexual liberation, rock and roll and a distrust of authority to much of society. What do we think Millennials will or are bringing to pop culture?

Great question. There’s evidence to suggest they will bring a greater sense of social responsibility. The “Next Great Generation” expectation is based on a theory of the ‘fourth turning’ that predicts Millennials will be more civically oriented. I think there is evidence to suggest that is true in values, if not always in behavior. The recession is a wild card; Millennials may not be able to fully live their values. I worry about the drag of college debt and national debt on their aspirations.

This is a tough time to graduate and enter the work force, or even get secure in a career.  Do Millennials have any traits that will fare them well in this recession?

Creativity and entrepreneurship. Many who can’t find jobs are creating them.

What do your clients want to know about this generation more than anything else?

“How can I reach them?” This is the question I hear most often. Gen Y has so many filters it’s hard to know the best way to break through.

Would you rather have grown up a boomer, or would you like to go back in time and be a Millennial?

A Millennial growing up in the 60’s and 70’s as I did would be incredibly frustrated. Parents were very different (just watch Mad Men and you’ll know what I mean). Believe me, no one helped me with my homework or toted me around to lessons. What I am trying to do now is resist my boomer tendencies and think more like a Millennial. I am a Millennial-wanna-be. I have a long way to go. Perhaps I need body-art?

If you could get them to answer any question at all, what would it be?

As a professional market researcher and brand strategist, my biggest questions are about their brand relationships. Why aren’t there more Millennial-specific iconic brands? Even though they are so different, they like the same iconic brands as everyone else – Vogue, Apple, Coke, Nike, Coach, Trader Joe’s. That’s curious to me. I think it has to do with ‘authenticity’ but that word is overused. Can you help me understand this?

Edward Boches I'm the founder of TNGG. I blog, teach, speak, crowdsource, create communities and try to stay current. One of the original four partners at Mullen, I'm still there every day as chief creative officer and champion of change. Admittedly, I'm over 25, but they're letting me be part of the project. Twitter: @edwardboches

View all posts by Edward Boches

7 Responses to “The Interview: Carol Phillips, Millennial Marketer”

  1. ChristinePeterson

    That question is so complex that I have a hard time wrapping my head around it, but I’ll try to answer it nonetheless.

    I think that what makes an iconic brand comes down to the experience or lifestyle it provides. We still love these brands because we grew up knowing what they represented and who they would allow us to be. Vogue is high fashion and glamorous. Apple is modernity, intelligence, and fun. Coach is exclusivity and wealth. Trader Joe’s is healthy and environmentally friendly. It’s easy to buy into that because the cultural framework was already there.

    On the other hand, I do still think there are Millennial-specific iconic brands. Nintendo might be a good example. We grew up with Nintendo and that single brand is loved by gamers everywhere.

  2. Adam Di Stefano

    This was a great interview. Love hearing the marketer’s perspective of my generation (I am a marketer and belong to my generation, but that doesn’t count).

    Carol’s question was: “Why aren’t there more Millennial-specific iconic brands? Even though they are so different, they like the same iconic brands as everyone else.”

    The answer is that that’s the wrong way around. Everyone else like the same iconic brands we do. Carol calls herself a Millennial-wannabe. Well, she’s not alone. Millennials have the ability to influence older generations, rather than be influenced by them. As a a result, brands that find success with Millennials find success with the mainstream. Maybe it’s because we grew up in an age where it’s all about sharing and word-of-mouth and connecting. Maybe it’s because we’re just so cool. Whatever the reason, if a Millennial talks to his/her Boomer parents about how great the Nike+ iPod gadget is, there’s a good chance that the Boomers are going to buy that gadget.

  3. Seth Simonds

    Hollister. Abercrombie & Fitch went to the banks in the late 90′s and leveraged their existing stores to fund an entire clothing brand based on the SoCal surfing lifestyle.

    They did more than just try to sell flip flops and t-shirts printed with mottled letters. They created an entire story behind the brand. My generation, if you looked at the other article published today, really likes stories. Even the ones that aren’t entirely true. Hollister opened it’s first store in 2000, not 1922 as all the clothing says. It’s just a story. But unlike our desires when it comes to politicians and news, we don’t mind a bit of fibbing when it comes to the companies that make our clothing so long as the story is a good one.

  4. Food coma

    [...] What they do want to do is travel, eat out, and nurture their passions.”  (See the full post here.)  So you’re welcome, you now have something halfway intellectual to bring up around your [...]

  5. giulia baldi

    Interesting pow that of the Millennials being attached to the same brands of the generations before them (in between boomers and millennials, gen x should not be forgotten)…

    But sorry, I don’t think it’s because anyone is trying to copy you guys: most of the brands we are talking about here are around since ages, and loved since ever, and when we (b. 1968) were playing Nintendo we were teenagers and you weren’t even born.

    I just think some brands have anticipated times, some others have done their homework and applied adaptive marketing practices, some are just so cool (modern classics since the beginning) that new generations are loving them even if (or exactly because) their parents do.

    So, let’s now find out which are the millennials-specific brands, which is much more interesting than any generation competition.

    You first guys (b. after 1980), you are the one that got the direct knowledge and experience…


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