There’s a new buzzword in town. Forget millennials: Katie Palmer investigates why trendsetting brands should get to know Generation K – and discovers that age isn’t everything.

‘Millennial’ is a phrase thrown about by marketers with a frequency and abandon reminiscent of Trump’s penchant for ‘China’ (and if you’ve seen the memes, you’ll know that’s a lot). Like POTUS’ C-word, any mention of millennials is a sure-fire to make certain brands sit up and listen; but whether or not the speaker fully understands the subject at hand is another matter.

For one thing, depending on the definition you choose to believe, anyone between the ages of 13 and 41 – born between 1976 and 2004 – could be considered a millennial. Within that bracket, researchers have identified further sub-groups: Generation X, who most agree are born between the early ‘60s and early ‘80s; Generation Y, born roughly between the early ‘80s to mid-‘90s; and Generation Z, those fresh out of the crib since 1995.

It’s partly on account of the latter moniker sounding more than a little apocalyptic (cheers Brad Pitt) that academic and author Noreen Hertz came up with a more optimistic label for these consumers: thus, Generation K was born. ‘K’ stands for Katniss Everdeen, the long-suffering, sombre-faced heroine of the hit novel and movie franchise, The Hunger Games. According to Hertz, “Like Katniss, [Generation K] feel the world they inhabit is one of perpetual struggle – dystopian, unequal and harsh.”

The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen

Despite having one foot still in the millennial camp, even the eldest of Generation K are a breed apart from the optimistic, entitled and overly confident dreamers that represent the ‘typical’ millennial cohort. Our would-be Katnisses are characterised foremost by profound anxiety and mistrust; they worry about financial security and inevitable debt, terrorism, inequality, the capacity of the government and traditional institutions to do the right thing – you name it.

Yet in the wake of ‘post-truth’ becoming Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 International Word of the Year, clearly Generation K isn’t alone in feeling more than a little disillusioned by the state of the world right now. So, with different demographics increasingly borrowing from one another’s character profiles, where does that leave marketers? Does ‘millennial’ have any meaning? Moreover, is it even relevant to continue defining consumers according to their D.O.B.?

Way back at the LE 2014 Leadership Lab, consumer psychologist Adam Ferrier concluding that ‘psychographics’ – the study and classification of people according to their attitudes and aspirations – are the future; in the 2015 book, Trend-Driven Innovation, authors Henry Mason, David Mattin, Maxwell Luthy and Delia Dumitrescu refer to this concept as “hyper-demographic targeting”. They do admit that demographics “can still play a meaningful role in setting focus”, but argue that we’re living in an age of “post-demographic consumerism” – which is to say that “the world is now too complex, ideas too available, people too networked, and society too fluid for expectations to remain the preserve of any single demographic for long.”

But don’t empty your Amazon basket of The Hunger Games trilogy just yet. According to Mason and co., even in a post-demographic marketplace young people will remain the most common early adopters, setting the pace for innovations to be accepted by and reshape the expectations of other demographics. “One way to keep up? Shift your focus to traditional demographic groups you’d never considered before, both as a source of inspiration and as target customers”, they urge.

In theory, by understanding Generation K high-end hospitality brands can predict the future behaviour of their supposed ‘usual’ high-net-worth target market; but think again before you write off under-21s as customers in their own right. A recent VICE report on ‘The 14-Year-Olds Spending Thousands On Streetwear’ suggests that assuming young people are on pocket-money budgets may be short-sighted, and explores how social media and the micro-economy – sites like Instagram and Grailed, a high-end eBay – are proliferating the trend for teens tapping into luxury.

Teenagers are spending thousands on streetwear; photo courtesy of High Snobiety

Indeed, according to Adam Mack, chief strategy officer, EMEA at PR firm Weber Shandwick, Generation K has a spending power of €150 billion per year in Europe, The Middle East and Africa; while author of How Cool Brands Stay Hot: Branding to Generations Y and Z, Joeri Van den Bergh, paints a similar picture over the pond: “Numbering more than two billion globally and with a spending power of more than $44 billion in the USA alone, they’re the biggest, richest, most independent generation so far.”

To understand why the youngest millennials think and act the way they do, you need only consider the context in which they’ve grown up. For one thing, this generation doesn’t remember a time before technology; but they are also shaped by the global economic turndown and the rising threat of terrorism. Perhaps due to their increased awareness of global issues resulting from hyperconnectivity, Hertz reports that teens today volunteer, campaign and donate far more than previous generations. They care deeply about the environment and climate change, and 70 per cent cite inequality as a concern.

Hence the rise of brand activism, as marketers attempt to tap into the increasing cognisance of consumers. Truly visionary, benevolent brands who use their product as a platform to create change can go some way to provide the meaning and purpose that Gen K so badly craves; but overly keen hospitality brands take note: you need only talk to Pepsi to discover the terrible consequences of underestimating the intelligence of your customer.

The Pepsi ad that missed the brand activism mark

Speaking of mass corporations: according to Hertz, Generation K doesn’t trust them, or establishment institutions, as far as they can fling them, slating both as “exploitative”, “selfish” and “greedy”. Perhaps the hospitality industry is already on to this: “The big hotel chains are in the business of pretending they aren’t big chains”, observes Pauline Frommer, editorial director for travel guide company Frommer’s. “They want you to think they are boutiques. This dizzying array of brand names is a good way for them to hide.”

However, “For a generation that is all too attuned to spin, Photoshopping and sponsored content, authenticity is particularly prized”, explains Hertz. While Frommer suggests that “The vast majority of the public is not going to keep track” of which brands belong to who, our young Katnisses are cut from a different cloth. Savvy organisations, large and small, will prioritise transparency and trust-building, rather than trying to trick their customers.

The same goes for the hotel experience. It’s all too easy to follow a tested formula for ‘authenticity’ – cue exposed brickwork/beams/pipes designed to say ‘we have nothing to hide’, faux-friendly service and questionable cultural programming that leaves real-life locals squirming in their up-cycled mid-century chairs. But to succeed under the knowing gaze of Gen K it’s advisable to put some real thought into what ‘authentic’ means for a particular building, area or community.

Despite being constantly connected and valuing their technology as a core part of their identity, Hertz claims Generation K is intrinsically lonely and 80 per cent would rather hang out with friends face-to-face – “Physical interaction comes at a premium in this digital world”, she points out. Immediately, it’s not hard to imagine how hotels could accommodate both needs with, say, own-technology integration in guest rooms, juxtaposed with technology-free zones that encourage real, human interaction downstairs.

Starbucks’ ‘secret menu’

Those zones might come in handy, too, for all the co-creation our young millennials tend towards. “Producing something themselves has value for this generation”, says Hertz. “It resonates with their desire to be self-sufficient, and to have physical experiences in a digital world – as well as their desire to have agency and impact.” High-end hoteliers should make like Starbucks (now that’s a sentence you won’t often hear), who she claims have cornered the market with their ‘secret menu’ that allows customers to create any non-alcoholic concoction they can imagine (and has the handy side-benefit of being extremely Instagrammable).

Which brings us to another differentiating characteristic of Gen K: Hertz paints a picture of a hardworking, sober bunch who drink less, take fewer drugs and are more career-focused than the psychedelics-loving children of the 60s and 70s, the pill-popping ravers of the 80s and 90s, or the house-heads of the early noughties. Hoteliers still clinging to Schrager’s Studio 54-influenced model that gave rise to the contemporary travel scene should diversify their offering if they want to avoid ostracising an increasingly influential crowd of teetotallers.

As Serge Dive, Founder of Beyond Luxury Media, observes, “Hotels should be the first to integrate emerging trends into their offering – in an age where people are more aware of caring for their health, why are minibars still full of alcohol and chocolate? Offer green juices and body-hacking food supplements instead. And don’t think you can put some machines in a room and call it a ‘fitness centre’ – today’s consumer demands fun, immersive classes that make them feel part of a fitness community.”

Right about now, hoteliers will either be feeling utterly terrified, or as excited as the shock victor of an unprecedented election. Either way, as Hertz puts it, “If you want to plan for the success of your business over the next two decades, you need to deeply understand this generation – and understand how profoundly different they are to previous ones.” Armed with insights on Generation K and the understanding that these values, attitudes and behaviour have far-reaching ramifications for cross-demographic consumer behaviour, brands can not only adapt to appeal to an entirely new, sophisticated and moneyed customer base; they can also develop their offering to become a leader, rather than follower of trends. Failing that, at least they’ll have a brand new buzzword to sling about the boardroom.

Katie Palmer is Editorial Manager for Beyond Luxury Media Ltd.