COVID is Hitting Millennials Hard. Here’s How to Market to Them Now.

October 13, 2020 | by David Lemley

Every demographic group has faced its own set of challenges during the COVID-19 crisis, from health concerns to economic hardship to personal stress. But experts suggest that millennials have been hit especially hard.

So what you think you know about this demographic group—and how to reach them—may have changed in this unprecedented time.

First, let’s do a quick review of the generational breakdowns:

  • Gen X (born between 1965 and 1980) are the children of the Baby Boomers; the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that Gen X would peak in population in 2018 with 65.8 million people. The youngest Xers are 40 this year.
  • Millennials (born from 1981–1996) are now the largest adult population in the U.S. They range in age between 24 and 39.
  • Gen Z (born from 1997–2015) ranges in age from 6 to 23; as of 2019, there were 67 million Zers in the U.S.

The Paradox of Millennials

The millennial generation has been heralded by marketers for its spending power. This cohort’s collective annual income is estimated to exceed $4 trillion worldwide by 2030. But these 20- and 30-somethings have always been a tricky bunch to market to, because they’re a giant walking paradox.

  • They consider themselves to be tastemakers, but they’re extremely price-conscious.
  • They want the finer things, but they’re putting off major purchases like cars and homes (preferring instead to lease or rent).
  • They’re interested in health and wellness, and are heavy consumers of natural food and beverage products, yet they’re more concerned about the results of those products than the products themselves. In other words, they’re willing to accept artificial sweeteners in pursuit of a keto lifestyle.
  • They want brands to uphold values they share, but they’re not willing to sacrifice convenience and price.
  • Just 30% say they feel loyal to certain brands, but that loyalty tends to be longstanding and powerful. We describe their loyalty as a slow burn—they fall in love with brands gradually over time; in the meantime, they’re willing to “date around” and try out other brands and products.

Millennials are Getting ‘Walloped’ by the Pandemic

Financial analysts and demographers suggest that millennials are being “disproportionally walloped” by the COVID crisis and its fallout, particularly related to employment.

“With this current recession, millennials — especially younger millennials — were more likely to lose their job than were older generations. And since millennials are more likely to rent than older generations, the looming eviction crisis will be worse for millennials, too.”

University of Alabama associate professor Peter Jones

“The oldest millennials lived through the 9/11 terrorist attacks and entered the labor market in the recession that hit around the same time. They spent their early years struggling to find work during a job recovery, only to be hit by the Great Recession and another recovery. And, of course, yet another recession.”

“The Unluckiest Generation in U.S. History,” Washington Post

Furthermore, millennials (particularly women) are assuming responsibility for managing school at home for their children. And they’re more likely than other generations to be returning to their parents’ home to live during the pandemic.

Is Your Pre-COVID Understanding of Millennials Still Relevant?

The short answer is, probably not.

Certain influential aspects of their buying behavior remain: They’re the first digitally native generation, so they’ve always been comfortable browsing and buying online. That preference has solidified during the crisis. And their desire for curated, personalized products and experiences hasn’t changed.

The key to increasing (or maintaining) your brand’s relevance with millennials in the new normal is this: Don’t go back to business as usual. This is the time to understand some new truths.

Millennials want brands to be more human—but still highly curated and well designed. (There’s that paradox again.) In other words, they want brands to reflect their own reality: put together on the outside, but also honest, real, and authentic.

As they’re tightening their belts, millennials are becoming even more price sensitive, even as pre-COVID research indicated that they were cost-conscious to begin with. They’re more inclined to buy private label products than before. And they have become more likely to join a loyalty program or use coupons (a 30% jump compared to pre-COVID habits). Previously, millennials shunned those discount programs because they were something their parents did. Now is absolutely the time to review your pricing, promotion, and loyalty strategies to respond to these changing consumer needs.

And if we combine the previous two points—outward appearances and value consciousness—we get a third change in millennial shopping habits. They’re still willing to pay a premium for technology, fashion, and CPG items that they believe help them to look or feel better even in these trying times. And they are cutting corners where they can on the stuff that nobody really sees—like pouring low-shelf booze into the empty bottle of premium vodka or wearing a designer shirt with sweatpants for a Zoom meeting.

As COVID has driven shopping online, it has forced brands to get savvier about delivering a great online experience to consumers. Millennials always had high expectations, and now that we’ve all been exclusively buying online for the past 8 months, the bar has been raised.

Brands must figure out how to reach all consumers—and especially to overdeliver for millennials. COVID has added friction to everything they do in their lives, from fitness and fashion to friends and family. Millennial women in particular are bearing the brunt of managing education for younger kids and sacrificing their productivity or career or self-care in order to keep the family solvent. The key to wooing them and winning that valuable long-term loyalty is to reduce the friction. Make it easy for them to find, choose, and learn to love you.

Your brand can’t afford to overlook or miscommunicate with this cohort, because the efforts you make now have a long tail with millennials. Let’s talk about how you can connect with them.