Millennials: Mapping Their “Culture Code”

Transformers:The key to Gen Y's Culture Code?
Are The Transformers a Key to Gen Y's Culture Code?
Written by Carol Phillips in BlogBoomers vs. MillennialsGen YMillennial Marketing

One of the challenges and fascinations of understanding Millennials is mapping the connection between who they are – their identities and values — and pop culture.
As with earlier generations, Millennials both reflect and shape pop culture.  Tweens and teens are in the process of discovering their identities, trying on and discarding different personnas. They find inspiration within pop culture, and in the process contribute to it.
For example, it is fruitless to debate whether the current trend of portraying successful teen mothers in movies (Juno), TV (Secret life of the American Teenager) and now magazines (current cover of Teen Vogue) is a reflection or a driver of the trend. It is both. The advent of technology enabled social networks has sped up the transmission and sharing of culture, but it is nothing new.
Millennials are both products of their culture as well as influencers. The complexities of this dynamic are critical for brands, which are themselves part of pop culture, to understand.
Tim Stock, Managing Director, of Scenario DNA has been studying the intersection of youth and culture for many years and teaches courses in analyzing trends at the Parsons School of Design in New York. I first learned of Tim from a slideshare presentation he posted titled “Culture Networks” that discusses how social networks (of all kinds, not just social media) influence and shape trends.
According to Stock, “the nature of the network imprints how we form our identity.” In Stocks view, ‘culture trumps demographics’ as a definer of generations and segments within generations. He points out the importance of “childhood and rites of passage” in creating “generational code” and suggests the roots of each generation can be traced to their shared experiences of movies, books, cartoons, etc. 
Culture defines the ‘code’ or set of shared meanings and values that was shaped during the maturation process. This code is important for marketers to understand because the image of products is shaped by this imprinting and set of shared values. Networks are the mechanism by which the meaning of products and brands evolves. This evolution of meanings is the source of trends. To understand trends, you have to crack the code and study the networks. (Serious implications for research here, but that is the subject of another post).
Stock provides several concrete examples of cultural imprints for each generation. Another slideshare presentation, The Transformer Generation, shows how culture can be used to understand the “Gen Y Narrative”.  The Gen Y code includes such factors as fame, privacy, surveillance, ambiguity, and consumption as part of identity. Gen Y’s many iconic models include Sex and the City super-shoppers, Metrosexuals, American Idol stars, and EBay. The overriding theme is one of ‘empowerment’ and ‘self-expression’. This generational code is quite different from the Boomer code which stressed ‘individuality’ with icons that included the Easy Rider, the ‘road culture’ of the car, the fear and disillusionment of the Vietnam war and the struggle for civil rights.
In a follow up conversation with Tim Stock last week, I learned ScenarioDNA has conducted extensive research on culture networks all over the world. The research confirms connecting ‘instantly to like-minded friends and social networks is a priority in the lives of young people everywhere’. Connections help move them closer toward ‘finding’ their identity.’  The research identified four global archetypes (What Unites Global Youth, 2006, WARC). The are:
  • The In Crowd
  • Networked Intelligentsia
  • Thrill Renegade
  • Pop Mavericks
Individuals may exhibit qualities of each archetype at once and shift over time as they try on different identities or personnas. The archetypes also play off one another.  My read of the research is that marketers have a tendency to focus on the “In Crowd”, which value achievement, tradition and status to a greater degree than the other three.  Innovation is more likely to come from “Pop Mavericks”, which are described in terms of passion, individuality and instant gratification. Networked Intelligentsia are often the ‘hubs of social networks’, highly influential, while “Thrill Renegades” are more about anarchy and revolution. The paper describes brands successfull with each type. Marketers would do well to at least consider the roles of all four archetypes when targeting products and programs.
If you have time, I highly recommend viewing the two slide share presentations referenced above – very thought provoking.

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