Dear millennial: congrats! you’re a branding expert (well, sort of)

Dear millennial: congrats! you’re a branding expert (well, sort of)


What does it mean to be a millennial?

Well, if you’re an actual millennial, it mostly means that everybody is obsessed with attempting to define YOU, person the Google loosely classifies as reaching young adulthood around the year 2000 or thereabouts. It means having your generational personality thoroughly and exhaustingly picked over by the older generations – especially so that we can be “marketed to,” because, like, cat videos and stuff.

And if you’re not a millennial – well, congratufuckinlations. It essentially means that you’ve got a bullet point list of traits and data that “define” our generation. Just look at what Pew and all the other saggy old bitches over the age of 35 have said about us:

  • We’re confident, resourceful, upbeat, and open to change.
  • We’re spoiled, entitled, narcissistic, and SPECIAL. Points for showing up! Trophies for participation!
  • We’re more ethnically and racially diverse than older generations. Ethnically ambiguous is the new black!
  • We’re less religious – and more importantly, less overtly religious – than preceding generations.
  • We’re more educated – as evidenced by the 1,234,937 people I know attending what seems like an average of 2 or more grad schools.
  • We weren’t quite born on the Internet, but we grew up on and with it.
  • We’re self-expressive:
    • 3/4 of us have created a profile on a social networking site.
    • 1/5 of us have posted a video of ourselves online (here’s looking at you, Kim Kardashian West).
    • Nearly 4/10 of us have a tattoo.
    • Nearly 1/4 of us have a piercing in some place other than an earlobe.
    • …BUT this self-expression is not without limits; most of us have privacy settings on our profiles, and 70% of us “say our tattoos are hidden beneath clothing.”
  • We’re more unemployed than our age group has been for over 3 decades.
  • Despite job struggles, about 9/10 of us say that we either currently have enough money OR will eventually meet our “long-term financial goals” (I honestly don’t know what those are beyond being able to afford 5 burritos a day).

Being a millennial myself, I am loathe to write on the subject. I’m bored and annoyed and disgusted by the incessant vomit of industry editorial, most of which involves talking about how old white dudes are desperate to subliminally compel us to buy their crap under the guise of meaningful, engaging storytelling in ads. However, I’ve given it some more thought, and while I can’t help re-enacting a Liz Lemon masterpiece every time I hear the word millennial, I still like to think about what was, and is, different for us. And one thing that stands out to me about coming of age hand-in-hand with the Internet is that our generation grew up with an education on branding ourselves.

Case in point: when I was about 6 years old, I begged my dad for an America Online account. I thus unwittingly embarked on my very first personal branding experience, and it all started with selecting a screen name.

In those days, your screen name was never something as uninspired as your real name – it was an alias, a Peter Parker or a George Eliot or a McLovin, a way of injecting the essence of who you were into your digital persona.

These things don’t always go as elegantly as planned, however, and being a fledgling little self-marketer, I was not perfect at the whole branding thing. As an avid figure skater, 6-year-old Van wanted the screen name ISk8Gr8, but was deeply disappointed to discover that such a clever and informative screen name was already taken. And so, she mustered up a little more creative wordplay and selected the next best option: MeSk8Gr8.

I will say with satisfaction that most of my peers didn’t seem to do any better. Even at 6 years old, I scoffed at those poor souls resorting to cryptic initials and strings of random numbers because, really, who’s going to remember that, KJC831390? That type of creative direction may or may not have been better than that of my kid brother, who was unable to fit all the characters for HockeyIsCool into his screen name, and so opted instead for HokyIsCool.

Actually, I change my mind – HokyIsCool is so, so much better.

Anyway, after screen name creation came buddy icon selection (e.g. your “logo”) and filling out profile information, where further brand identity and positioning developed. Who knew there were so many fun ways to fill out mundane details like “location, sex, hobbies, and personal quote?” Something as basic as filling out a form became a powerful identity conception and self-discovery process. I mean, we were children being asked grown-up questions that we weren’t quite fully equipped to answer (occupation? marital status?!?).

I find this rather remarkable, because it means that every answer we devised was completely experimental – we’d put ourselves out there, gauge reception by both self and all, and then carefully refine and re-calibrate our answers over time. As we outgrew old information, we’d quickly rewrite our narratives to more accurately reflect these shifting adolescent identities. Because, you know, Simple Plan lyrics stop encapsulating your love life and you need to move on to Dashboard Confessional or Something Corporate. (I just vomited a little).

Beyond the profile page, our social actions became increasingly tracked and evaluated. People got a sense of you from what you liked, shared, commented, away messaged – or more commonly in the old days, forwarded in very urgent email chains that asked you to SCROLL DOWN AND MAKE A WISH BECAUSE YOUR CRUSH LOVES YOU AND YOU WILL DIE AT 12AM!!!. Being a part of online communities meant flooding ourselves with tons of data about ourselves and one another. We were forced to learn how to manage, systematize, and interpret this flow of information – and all nearly a decade before setting foot in a statistics class.

The social aspects of our Internet required us to “check in with ourselves” from an early age and ask who am I? who do I want to be? how do I want people to perceive me? Which, yes, are questions young people have always asked themselves – but for our generation, digital necessitated a new type of reputation management to govern online-to-offline interplay. You could no longer simply leave school each day, for instance, and press pause on social politics. You were acutely aware that others had immediate access to your information, and would be looking, reading, analyzing, and judging your digital footprint alongside you IRL.

Fast forward a few more years, and we’re managing our online reputations on far more platforms than AOL or AIM. We’re on so many social networks now that it’s actually part of your “brand concept” to abstain from any one, or even all, of them – whether you like it or not.


Marcus Fischer calls us CSMOs – chief self-marketing officers. Now, I’m not trying to say that every person our age is concerned with “promoting” themselves or is a bonafide marketing expert per se, but I think the point is that we, as a generation, have a real knack for this – more so than previous generations did at our age. Branding has been a part of our digital sensibility because we’ve grown up doing it.

I also think we’re the Goldilocks generation for bridging the gap between past and future, as tech begins to converge on our everyday lives. That’s because we possess the context and perspective of a pre-digital world alongside innate digital instinct. The newer generation has only ever known a world of smartphones and Facebook and owning their own tablets, whereas I remember playing with dolls and doing “crafts” and wearing a miner’s flashlight on my head so I could stay up late to read in bed. I distinctly recall the transition from cassette tape to Sony CD Walkman to my first first-gen MP3 player, which held about 15-20 songs at a time. I am at once, willing to share myself with the world, and yet able to reflect on the scariness of corporate/government creeps knowing everything about me.

This frame of reference is important, I think, because it means we can be more self-aware and self-conscious while we make thing bigger, better, faster. We can tell stories that put new and wonderful things into a historical and experiential context. Because at the end of the day, what good is making a thing bigger, better, and faster if you can’t show people how amazing it is?

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