More signs that Gen-Y is different

Late last week, I gave a guest lecture at Nottingham University to a group of undergraduates studying marketing. They were 2nd years, and my hostess was quick to let me know that I shouldn't expect them to behave in the ways I'd been used to in large corporate meetings. I wasn't, for example, to expect rapt attention, punctuality, or any kind of animation from the audience.

Since I am used to this behaviour anyway from bankers at various industry events, I reassured her that this would be of no concern to me whatsoever. Anyway, as the 400 or so students filed in, it took me back to my own years sitting in lecture halls, wondering just how much longer I would have to put up with some boring person talking about stuff I didn't care about, instead of letting me go straight to the student bar where the real work was going on.

Surprisingly, these students were engaged and interested.

But let me tell you one thing that was very different about them: they never laughed at my jokes.

Now, I am pretty confident these were funny jokes. I know this because several members of the university faculty were there as well. And they were laughing.

But not the students. When I spoke about idiot-repelling force fields that surround new self service innovations, ensuring a complete lack of use at introduction, they didn't crack a smile. When I tried to explain the difference between incremental and breakthrough innovation, by pretending to be Boeing 737 on stage with wingtips, they barely looked up. And, finally, when I was talking about new customer experience, using Vatican Airways as an example (an airline that has a prayer on the headrest for every passenger) I asked offhandedly what the chances of such a plane crashing might be. All I got was a yawn.

What do I deduce from this?

Gen-Y – those born after 1980 – have quite a different reaction to stimuli than other segments. My experience – with old people laughing, and young ones ignoring – is illuminating. It means that if you want to reach this new generation, you can't just do what you did before, perhaps with some minor age-related tweaking.

It means you have to do something completely different. And finding that thing will likely require putting Gen-Y in positions of authority, with full ability to create their own products and define their own experiences. You don't give a caveman a computer and hope you get software. Neither is it reasonable to expect a non-Gen-Yer to create stuff of interest to Gen-Y.

Of course this leads to the penultimate question: how many institutions are going to hand over the authority define and create products and experiences to someone in their early twenties with practically no banking experience?

The answer, of course, is very, very few.

12 Responses to“More signs that Gen-Y is different”

  1. Mark Higgins
    March 23, 2009 at 11:59 am #

    As always, enjoyed reading your posting James, but I am not totally sure about “handing over the authority to define and create products and experiences to someone in their early twenties with practically no banking experience.” We’ve all seen what happens when you put someone in charge of the whole bank who has no formal banking experience or qualifications!!

  2. March 24, 2009 at 6:24 am #

    Hi James. This is interesting. I think you would be keen to read my post on Gen Y: a complex phenomenon
    Let me know your thoughts!

  3. March 24, 2009 at 1:10 pm #

    So people only laugh at comics their own age, James?
    That would have left George Burns with quite a small audience, wouldn’t it?
    Can’t expect a non-Gen-Yer to create stuff of interest to Gen-Y?
    Hmm…. what about Gen-Y’s most popular TV programmes of X-Factor and Hollyoaks, produced by oldies Simon Cowell and Phil Redmond?
    …and Brad Pitt’s turned 40, how old is children’s favourite Steven Spielberg?
    What about Apple’s iPhone and iPod, produced by a greying Steve Jobs?
    There’s lots more examples of older people marketing to a younger audience, James. Should we blame our disconnection with age, I’m not so sure…

  4. March 24, 2009 at 5:29 pm #

    So that’s a good point actually. Of course old people can do things that interest Gen-Y. But surely its easier to connect when you have some Gen-Yers calling the shots?
    I agree with your sentiments on your post, and know that my own staff in your age group behave in just the way you describe.

  5. March 24, 2009 at 5:38 pm #

    Hi James
    Jokes nothwithstanding, you make a great point. As a veteran marketer at British Airways told me over 20 years ago, “never assume that you are like your customers or that your customers are like you”. Sage advice.
    Gen-Y, Gen-X, the Baby Boomers and so on all have a mixture of common needs and different ones. Your challenge, should you wish to accept it, is to identify which needs are common and to provide a foundation for similar products, services and experiences across all the groups, and which are different and to provide a foundation for customisation for individual groups, or even for individuals within a group.
    Perhaps you should extend your innovation process to involve some of the Gen-Yers in a structured lead-user innovation a la Eric von Hippel. Mi Adidas may be a good example you can draw valuable insights from in this case. Lead user innovation would give you valuable insights about what products Gen-Yers will likely be looking for in the near future.
    Or maybe if you are feeling more adventurous, you could involve a larger group of Gen-Yers in open innovation a la Hank Chesbrough, or even in crowdsourcing future products a la Jeff Howe. Threadless may be a good example in this case. This would be more risky than lead-user innovation but would extend your search for Gen-Y products over a larger part of the innovation fitness landscape.
    Either way, you should precede your innovation efforts by looking long and hard at the jobs Gen-Yers are trying to do for which they might ‘hire’ your products (real or future) and the outcomes they are looking for if they do. This would give you a robust foundation of customer needs to feed into a lead user, open or crowdsourcing innovation programme. There is nothing like a bit of constrained focus around important, unmet customer needs to get successful innovation moving.
    Once you know what products to offer Gen Yers and other groups, you are faced with an intractable product differentiation and delivery problem. The type we see everyday in the unholy mess that passes for mobile telecoms offers. Maybe by modularising the products into mass customisable components and providing a flexible, smart customisation interface a la Frank Piller, customers of all types can customise their own solutions. Garanti Bank’s Flexi credit card may be a good example in this case.
    I know this sounds much, much easier than it is in reality. However Gen-Yers are wise to banks and their marketers, and may not be amenable to traditional banking innovation. New products for Gen-Yers may well have to be co-created with them, rather than innovated for them. Maybe it is time to innovate bank innovation’s process model. Either way, it doesn’t have to be ‘mission impossible’.
    This comment will destruct in five seconds.
    Graham Hill
    Customer-driven Innovator

  6. March 24, 2009 at 8:08 pm #

    Maybe it’s not the content but the interaction method; I’m not Gen-Y myself, but maybe the only way to get Gen-Y to truly engage and react (and laugh) is to get them involved, give them a voice, and provide it in a way that can be embedded or shared. Gen Y uses a lot of the current tools to curate online content to create their own image in the same way all generations choose clothes, logos, status symbols, etc.
    If it can’t be shared, does it exist?

  7. March 25, 2009 at 6:46 pm #

    It would be really hypocritical of me given my often-declared stance as a social networking evangelist to not agree with your response, James!
    Maybe if you’d sent them a “what would you like to hear from me?” wall post on the uni’s Facebook page, you may have got a warmer welcome – and a more meaningful dialogue.
    …maybe an idea for next time, perhaps?

  8. March 26, 2009 at 11:39 am #

    I got a very warm welcome. And wonderful feedback.
    I was simply making the observation that Gen-Y is different – and one needs to recognise that if one wants optimum responses.

  9. March 30, 2009 at 4:20 am #

    Before we redefine things here, lets not write off humour. Now I know you are a funny chap James, and take every opportunity to defend you on that 🙂
    However I note your humour here contained buzzwords (idiot-repelling force fields, self service, 737) which are generational.

  10. Tom Kongats
    April 2, 2009 at 2:49 pm #

    James, I was one of the students present in your audience during the lecture you gave. The only funny thing you said was that one of the good things to have come out of the global economic crisis was that those in the sub-prime category of mortgage owners were now owning homes, having previously not been able to afford them. The abstract morality of that particular statement certainly had me in stitches.

  11. April 21, 2009 at 1:49 am #

    Here’s an article contained in the recent issue of Bank Director Magazine – “The Y generation takes a whole new approach to financial services.”

  12. April 22, 2009 at 6:39 pm #

    Gen Y is a segment the banking industry must understand without taming. To your point, Gen Y likes things on their terms. This is a cynical demo that has little trust in our industry and leadership. Winning their trust will be hard fought, and will only work if we communicate transparently with them, perhaps allowing them command of the conversation.

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