Millennials Aren’t Special

Posted by | Posted in Out of the Glass | Posted on 07-28-2011

Marketers are obsessed with targeting “Millennials.”

Roughly speaking, the Millennial Generation began in 1980 and ended in 2000. Targeting these consumers makes sense — there are around 75 million Millennials, and they have money.

I’m a Millennial. I was born 1982, and I’m quite fond of Google, Facebook, and Twitter – and excited about mobile apps and every new tech toy.

But I’m really not that special. The underlying basics of sales and marketing have not changed. And there’s no reason to think that today’s teens and twenty-somethings are so unique that wineries – or any businesses, for that matter – need to fundamentally change their approach.

So if someone tells you they’re an “expert” on what Millennials want, run the other way. This applies equally to Generation X and Baby Boomers. Americans are too diverse for any generation to be generalized.

At this year’s Wine Blogger’s Conference, I attended the “Millennials and Wine” panel discussion. The panelists were Pia Finkell, a wine PR specialist at CRT/tanaka; Hunter Smith, who runs marketing at his family’s winery, Afton Mountain Vineyards; and Leah Hennessy, owner of Millennier, a digital marketing firm. The discussion was moderated by Joe Roberts, aka 1WineDude.

The discussion was fun and informative, and the panelists were smart. But on so many points, they were wrong. And they were wrong for one simple reason — they were making broad generalizations about what the Millennial Generation wants, and arguing that wineries should adapt to these false generalizations.

Early on in the discussion, for example, the audience was informed that Millennials don’t care about tasting notes. Many in the audience agreed.

They were all guilty of projecting — assuming that because they felt a certain way, every person of a similar age must agree. Some Millennials don’t care about tasting notes. Others do. And in the marketplace, it doesn’t make sense to paint Millennials with such a broad brush.

Consider my own experience at Terroirist. When I launched the blog, I had no desire to offer back-of-Wine-Spectator tasting notes. And I told several people that our blog would never have them.

Yet now we do. The reason? Our readers demanded it. Readers wanted to know what we were drinking and what we recommended – and they were looking for formal notes. And other Terroirists – all Millenials — were thrilled to have an outlet for sharing their personal tasting notes.

Gary Vaynerchuk is awfully popular with Millennials, and while he might use interesting descriptors (instead of smelling wine, he gives it a “sniffy sniff,” and he’s been known to find cereal and candy bar aromas in his wine), at the end of the day, he’s still putting together formal tasting notes. And they’re fun as hell.

Several of the panelists also argued that the only number Millennials care about is the price. This, too, just isn’t true.

Some consumers, including Millennials, are motivated solely by price. But many Millennials, like other wine consumers, have money. And many don’t hesitate to drop serious coin on wine. In fact, today’s twenty-somethings have more discretionary income than any previous generation.

In the United States, first-time mothers are older than ever before. It’s only logical that this has resulted in more discretionary income for today’s young professionals.

Virtually every consumer thinks about a wine’s quality-to-price ratio. But it’s silly for any winery – or any business – to pretend that Millennials are primarily driven by price. Particularly for an industry like wine (more than, say, socks), value matters.

In a recent blog post about Millennial wine consumers, Joe Roberts highlighted Kayla Koroush, a twenty-something who “was age-profiled when visiting a winery tasting room in California. I.e., no one wanted to talk to her, take her seriously, or treat her as an educated consumer (and, therefore, a potential customer).”

Joe is absolutely right that wineries need to appreciate the fact that their customer base is changing. Boomers won’t forever be their customers. But what matters is Kayla experienced crappy service. Treating any customer – in wine and elsewhere – in such a fashion is just inexcusable.

It’s reminiscent of the scene in Pretty Woman when Julia Roberts is snubbed at a Beverly Hills boutique. When she returns the next day – decked out and with lots of money, thanks to Richard Gere – the staff is mortified. And they’ve learned (one hopes) a lesson in customer service 101: Treat every customer as if he or she is incredibly important.

During the panel discussion, a winery in British Columbia – Black Cloud Winetweeted at participants to let us know it has “a special area for #millennials in the wine shop with magazines, bean bag chairs and toys.”

While toys and beanbag chairs might appeal to some Millennials, I’d be horribly offended if I walked in a wine shop and was directed to the kid’s section. I last enjoyed beanbag chairs when I was 12, and haven’t played with any toys since I was nine.

Last year, the New York Times published a piece about marketing wine to Millenals. The piece highlighted a company called hobnobwines.com, and its effort to target Millenals by being  “totally life-style-focused.” In the piece, the company’s CEO, Tom Steffanci, promised that his site would never have “pictures of oak barrels and 589 biographies of winemakers whose names you can’t pronounce.”

Both tactics seem like good ideas. But that’s because they’re good business advice for everyone in the wine industry, regardless of your target demographic.

Yes, Millennials use technology. But so what? Technology is always marching onwards. And businesses — and those who market — will forever have to adapt.

Does this mean that wine companies must learn how to adapt to the changing technology their customers are using? Absolutely. But the Millennials’ use of cutting-edge technology doesn’t make us special. It just means the world is changing, as it always has.

The underlying principles of sales and marketing don’t change.

If you make a good product, price it well, and tell people about it, it will sell. Customer service matters. Relationships matter. A good story is icing on the cake. And trust is paramount. Our grandparents recommended new products to their friends in person and by writing letters. Our parents recommended new products in person and by picking up the phone. Millennials recommended new products in person, over email, over facebook, over twitter, and all sorts of other ways.

So for business owners, the principal challenges remain unchanged.

Have there been some pretty big cultural shifts?

Sure. Going “green” might help with sales to Millennials. But that has more to do with our wealth as a nation — today’s teens and twenty-somethings are growing up in a country where every basic human need (water, food, shelter, sanitation, representative government, etc.) is met, so we can afford to care about environmental stewardship.

Yes, broadly speaking, attitudes are slowly shifting on social issues like gay marriage (for it!), booze (this was illegal in the 1920s?!?), drugs (smoke ‘em if you got ‘em), and others.

But there’s still lots of disagreement on these and other hugely important issues. Millennials can’t agree on whether Barack Obama should be re-elected. So why would anyone think that twenty-something wine consumers can agree on beanbag chairs or the value of tasting notes?!?

Millennials, like every generation before them, can’t be painted with one broad brush.

At every age group, different consumers have different needs and different desires and different motivations. That’s why, at some point, every generation has been described as the “me” generation. And that’s why the very concept of an “expert” on Millennials is a contradiction in terms.

Wineries need to adapt to changing times. So if you’re in the industry and wondering how to adapt, hire to a technology expert to make sure your website and sales operation is in line with the current times. Make sure your PR team – whether it’s internal or outsourced – understands the changing face of the media, and understands the importance of bloggers, twitter, and other platforms. Give serious thought to what mobile apps are going to succeed. Make sure you’re nimble — and make sure everyone is working together.

But when it comes to your actual product – your wine, your tasting room, the experience you provide to your guests — don’t go making broad assumptions about the desires of twenty-somethings.

Comments (18)

  1. David, you sum up marketing to a specific generation in one sentence — it doesn’t make sense to paint *any generation* with a broad brush.

  2. This is so true, not all millennials are the same. Product of 86′ myself & I personally enjoy tasting notes. But the main focus point in what you said is the willingness to change to your customer base. Just because someone looks young doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate or understand wine, or have the discretionary income to enjoy your top wine or wine club. You need to create that relationship now when they are young even if they can’t afford your expensive juice, because later in life when they can afford it they will already have that bond with your brand. That’s a life long customer. Great post!

  3. The tweet by B. Cooper of Black Cloud Wine was in jest. Good piece but I don’t think that Millenials are experiencing anything different than the Gen Xers went through and some are still going through. (Those of us who are thin, have our hair, etc still look quite young and we don’t get treated with the same open arms our boomer predecessors get.) I think the Millenials make more noise about it though and that’s why you see so much Millenial marketing chatter out there.

  4. great post today. millenials, gen x’ers, white hair’s…we are all using technology for researching before we buy and buying direct. wineries should focus on their website experience and ease of use to purchase. followed up by good old fashioned customer service will create loyalty for all. positive peer to peer word of mouth (both hi & low tech forms) is as strong today as a good tasting note/review.

  5. Very well said David, I am a young winemaker (vintage 1986) and to me being engaged is probably one of the most important things when visiting a winery. Yes, I might look young and not have the biggest disposable cash flow right now, but I would like to feel like the person helping me is doing so in a way that speaks to my manner of wine appreciation (a more technical, informed tasting is usually what I am after). Wineries need to be honest and authentic when trying to cultivate a relationship with any wine consumer. Keep up the great work

  6. Thanks for the post, David — the panelists did indeed generalize their own opinions to their peers, and we’d probably do the same. It would have been helpful to have someone who actually markets to millenials and others up there to give a little perspective and talk about any differences.

  7. Thanks for your post on the panel David. I appreciate your perspective, and while I hoped we talked quite a bit about why you can’t broadstroke the generation, I also know that a panel on a generation tends to lend itself to making some generalizations (while making it clear that they are generalizations).

    As a Millennial myself, and also as someone who helps my clients reach this market segment (and other market segments, as well), what I hoped to get across was that there are some generalizations that might be helpful if a winery, region or even a blogger hopes to appeal to the Millennial generation, as a whole. Of course, everyone is different and there’s nothing “special” about Millennials over another generation. Good customer service and a good product are key for anyone. I do think it’s an interesting topic, however, and worthy of discussion. One point I tried to get across is that you shouldn’t change your message, but rather the forum, medium or outlet to reach a certain audience.

    I’m happy in the end that the panel sparked a discussion, and really do appreciate your perspective, and that of the commenters.

    Thanks again,
    Pia (@piamara)

  8. Eh. Just b/c you think you’re not special doesn’t make other Millenials UNspecial. It’s not about being special or different. It’s about acknowledging the unique circumstances that have brought Millenials to the forefront of appreciating wine, HERE and NOW. More than any previous generation, Millenials are purchasing AND appreciating wine (in tandem with beer/liquor, not in opposition) unlike any generation before. This presents unique marketing opportunities to those trying to cash in on the momentum.

    Of course, the Millenials are going to turn 40 (like their parents and grandparents before them) and buy “baller” bottles of wine from appointment-only tasting facilities in Napa. That’s apparently what being 40 is all about (ask any tasting room hourly employee). They’re just not waiting to turn 40 to do so.

    Generalizations are inherently and inevitably “sweeping.” Yours achieve little in the way of distinguishing the unique problems that, unfortunately, the wine industry is just now recognizing and attempting to address. If Millenials are approached like their parents and grandparents have been for the last 50 years, then none of us should be shocked when Millenials drink nothing but “Cult Cabs” and Harveys Bristol Cream Sherry.

    But, then again, we all know that isn’t happening, now is it?

  9. Thank you for this post. This message needs to be repeated time and time again because only through constant reminder, it would seem, do people remember things like the ‘golden rule’ and to stay acutely aware of their customer relationships.
    As author of the ‘bean bag’ tweet, I wanted to make sure that overarching stereotypes were brought into sharp focus. I had to chuckle at the tone of the conversation in Virginia; it seems it was only yesterday I was part of a group like the millenials, only we didn’t have a name.
    Take home point here and made above: treat your customers, clients (lovers?) the way you’d like to be treated and reap the rewards. Don’t at your own perils.
    BTW: I’m all hot for a bean bag chair recently. Not sure why.

  10. I agree with at least one point you make in this post – do not generalize millenials. I think the bigger point that is missed however is that the vast majority of wine marketers do not have a handle on who there consumer is and how they behave. This is even more so when it comes to millenials. So if marketers want to be assured they have customers tomorrow, they had better get to know millenials – and what make them different – yes there are differences.

  11. Nice to read a post that doesn’t tell me I’m an idiot for not worshipping at the Millenial alter. In the end, making a great product, offering it honestly, and being aware that nearly everyone these days falls into several different camps, regardless of age, will always win out. Reaching out to every channel, as efficiently as you can, is the hallmark of a winner.

  12. Kudos for this articulate, insightful piece! “…The underlying principles of sales and marketing don’t change. If you make a good product, price it well, and tell people about it, it will sell. Customer service matters. Relationships matter.” Couldn’t have said it better, no matter what “age” you’re observing!

  13. Isn’t it true though that a third of Millennials aren’t old enough to drink yet. Another third are under-employed, or unemployed.

    With SABMiller and A-B spending billions trying to gain the milennials’ dollars, does it or does it not make sense to work harder on Boomers who truly do have money, free time, and the sophistication that comes with living on the planet a bit longer?

  14. AMEN. AMEN. AMEN. AMEN. And…amen. Thank you for this post, I am SO tired of this topic. I was born in 1980, work in the wine industry in the e-Commerce area, love social media and use different avenues daily, and am pretty educated when it comes to wine. I can’t wait until this is the topic we all kind of poke at, like – hm…did we really spend $20K in consulting fees on Mr. Millennial Expert only to have no return on the investment? Right.

  15. Hi David,
    Great post. Congrats again on your WBA.
    There’s one point the panelists made that I didn’t think was a broad stroke generalization, and I’m wondering what your thoughts are. Someone (or all) said that the days of a consumer walking into your tasting room and buying a case of a single wine are over (or will be extremely rare) as the Millennials increase their incomes/mature as consumers. I think it was the guy who said that Millennials are more likely to purchase two bottles of a wine from a winery, two bottles from another, etc., to get that full case–whereas the Boomers are more likely to just buy a case of a single wine and stick to that brand. (He said they might come back the next weekend and buy another two bottles and bring some friends if they had a great time.) So, the idea is that winery tasting rooms need to be ready for a possible buying behavior shift to bottles vs. cases with this younger generation of wine drinkers. More broad strokes?
    Lisa

  16. [...] Thursday, White posted his views on the sexy topic of Millennials and their love of wine, in which he mentioned that he was born in 1982. I was already old in [...]

  17. THANK YOU. This is an spectacular post that makes excellent points throughout. Sometimes I feel like the wine industry treats Millennials like some sort of alien species — it’s not that complicated.

    There are obviously some differences in the ways and words Millennials use to communicate, how they shop and what they’re interested in doing. But that happens with every new generation, as you point out.

    Millennials are just seeking the same things from the wine industry as any other generation. People want an engaging story that connects them to the brand, at a price that they feel is a good value for the quality of wine.

    My take? Don’t be boring. Millennials don’t like boring. Then again, neither do Octogenarians. Or Baby Boomers. Or Generation X. It’s pretty universal. The wine industry’s marketing efforts are sometimes pretty boring.

    Lisa, I don’t think that’s a broad stroke. That’s an interesting, actionable tidbit and I’d love to see more research done on it. It’s certainly a lot more concrete than “Millennials like variety.” How can wineries work with this buying behavior shift? Quarter-case specials? Cross-winery promotions or discounts? Are Boomers shifting, too, or is it truly just Millennials and maybe Gen X? Has there been a good study about the buying behaviors of consumers by generation? I’d love to see it.

  18. I agree and well said. Making broad generalizations is mass marketing. Target by interest vs age group and they will come.