This piece is based off of a roundtable discussion at the CU 2.0 Brainstorm Event in July 2021. It is not intended to be comprehensive—rather, it will provide a cursory introduction to marketing to Millennials and Gen Z.
For some reason, most institutions have failed to unlock the secrets of marketing to Millennials and Gen Z. Credit unions especially have a hard time with younger groups—their average member age is 47.
Fintechs and, to a lesser extent, CUSOs, have fared better with younger demographics. Yet not all are completely in the clear. This recap should provide some insight—and some directive.
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1. Generations Are Not About Age
One common misconception is that generations don’t “level up” in any way. As Gen Z gets older, they won’t turn into what Millennials are today. And as Millennials age, they won’t become Gen Xers.
Generations are about formative culture, context, and period. Millennials will always be known for their quirks, like not driving manual cars or killing mediocre national chains. Gen Z will be known for TikTok dances and wearing the clothes that Millennials discarded in the year 2000.
If you want to market to these demographics, you have to understand them. You can’t think about what you were like at their age—that won’t work. They’re different. They grew up in a different time with different technology and different media.
2. Millennials Are Older Than You Think
And we’re not just saying that because Millennials are turning 40. They played outside. They grew up before cell phones were a thing, let alone smartphones. They’re raising families now. Many are the parents of teenagers.
It’s not just Millennials who are starting families. Older Gen Zers are in their mid-20s now.
Remember that you’re marketing to adults now—and adults have adult problems and require adult solutions.
3. Digital Isn’t Everything
Yes, younger Millennials grew up with smartphones and Gen Z are digital natives. But both groups still value human interaction sometimes.
In some cases, they even prefer it. According to Gartner, 34% of teenagers prefer going to a branch instead of doing everything online or mobile.
So yes, you must consider a digital-first approach. And yes, all generations are using online and mobile banking more and more. But nearly a third of people aren’t quite ready to go fully branchless yet—there’s still something that humans bring to the table that digital can’t.
Remember that Millennials and Gen Z aren’t unilaterally in favor of a tech-forward approach… they still like connection, and they value convenience.
4. Convenience Is Paramount
If you look at what younger generations are drawn to, it’s things like peer-to-peer (P2P) payments, cryptocurrency, and easy-to-use apps. They want what they want, and they don’t want to wait to get it.
To attract younger generations, focus on simplicity. Make your products as easy to understand as possible. Keep your website and/or app easy to navigate. Everything must be accessible… almost 24/7.
Regarding your digital (and in-person) experiences:
Don’t expect people to explore the app/website/product you’ve built… expect to guide people through it.
5. Practical. Authentic. Secure.
These are words the panel used to describe younger generations. Specifically, Millennials grew up through two major economic disasters. And both Millennials and Gen Z are dealing with stagnating wages, higher housing and education costs, climate change, and civil unrest.
Their parents, grandparents, and often bosses are falling for obvious email and phone scams.
Millennials and Gen Z don’t want toys… they want practical solution to real problems. They want authentic interactions and honesty (read: no bullshit, no aggressive sales pitches). They want security, financial, digital, and otherwise.
They know the world is dangerous and chaotic. They want you to make it less so.
Don’t show off your neat features—show off your practicality.
6. Target Parents
Many Millennials and most Gen Z folks don’t know what a credit union is or does. In addition to marketing directly to them, consider targeting a non-generational group:
A kid’s first banking experience is usually with their parents’ organization. If you can serve parents, you can virtually guarantee that you’ll onboard their kids soon enough.
7. Know the Platforms
Gen Z are digital natives, but their relationship to social media is still largely social. Millennials have a healthy distrust of advertising.
When you think about where to reach these generations, don’t just think “social media.” Think about which specific platforms they use—and on which platforms they’ll listen to you.
For example, explainer videos on YouTube are great for advertising. Instagram is okay, but don’t try to do too much. Steer clear of TikTok—nobody wants to interact with brand accounts on there.
8. Be Ready for Competition
The truth is that credit unions need Millennial and Gen Z members if they want to survive the next 20 years. And credit unions must be okay knowing that younger generations are less loyal about their financial institutions.
They’ll put their money in Acorns, Robinhood, Coinbase, a large national bank, Venmo, PayPal, and a credit union.
Credit unions will need to be okay with this, to some extent. Differentiate the credit union somehow, or as Kirk Kordeleski says: win at something.
And when you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. That is, if you lack a feature, product, or ability, find a fintech, CUSO, or other vendor and get it.
9. Understand Expectations
Younger generations grew up with already-sophisticated digital experiences. They expect credit card or loan applications to be fast and digital. They don’t want to go to the branch to open an account. If your site or app goes down, they’ll let you know.
But expectations go farther than that. Millennials and Gen Z expect more out of people, too. They skew liberal. They prioritize socially conscious, environmentally safe options. They will cut ties with organizations that merely pay lip service to or (actively work against) their values.
Some call it “cancel culture,” but they call it “accountability culture.”
When marketing to Millennials and Gen Z, be honest. If they feel that you don’t have their best interests at heart, you will lose them for life.
More About Marketing to Millennials and Gen Z
There’s so much to keep track of when marketing to these generations that we won’t try to cover it all. But the general themes are these:
- Have their best interests at heart—they can smell a self-serving sales pitch a mile away.
- Make things fast and convenient—they don’t want to waste time.
- Don’t condescend—they’re adults with families, not spoiled kids.
- They’re not a monolith—they may prefer digital, but many still value human connection.
But the bottom line is this: If you really want to know how to market to Millennials and Gen Z, ask them!
Run focus groups. Constantly. Things will change. And we’re not all the same.