Marketers need to stop treating millennials like self-absorbed, tattooed whiners

Keenan Beasley left a position as VP of marketing at L’Oreal to co-found BLKBOX, a marketing intelligence firm based in NYC.
Sophie Bearman | CNBC
Keenan Beasley left a position as VP of marketing at L’Oreal to co-found BLKBOX, a marketing intelligence firm based in NYC.

I'm a millennial, running a creative agency meant to help brands connect with millennials. The irony isn't lost on me, but neither is my frustration with how our generation is portrayed in media.

You'd think after nearly half a decade of research and analysis, we would feel more understood. Instead, we're continually hit with stereotypical anecdotes (cue hoverboards, whiny-ass employees, open workspaces, etc.) and terrible advertisements meant to tap into the millennial mindset, but actually only piss us off.

If marketers want to make any progress at all, it's time to murder the myth. Step inside our world, and suddenly narcissistic, perma-adolescents come into focus as 80 million complex individuals, with only a few things held in common—things that can unlock real growth potential in your business.

Marketing Myth #1: Millennials are narcissistic.

Fact: We are hyper aware of our image.

To our generation, image is everything. You can call it shallow, but the reality is, the mirror in our society got huge with the advent of social media. In previous generations, it felt great to walk through high school with a great hair day. In our generation, the reaction isn't just who's in your biology class; it's who lives in Bangladesh and happened to click on #beardgang (social media hashtag for men with beards).

Of course with that heightened image-consciousness comes a lot of accusations from older generations. We're called narcissists and materialists. Look at my Instagram, and it would be easy to call me those things. But what I publish on social media is only a part of myself. It's something that I can (and do) control carefully. Millennials have grown up in an era where the internet forgets nothing. Why call us narcissists for caring about what it remembers?

Instead, marketers have an opportunity to be an ally in the image game. Try giving millennials something noteworthy to share. That means it has to be about them—their desires, interests and lives—not just about your product. A few of my favorite examples are the Under Armour "Rule Yourself" and the Adidas "Future" campaigns. So, yes, that requires more content, more perspectives and more creativity. But no one ever said marketing was easy.

Myth #2: Millennials are delaying adulthood.

Fact: We define adulthood differently.

It's no secret that millennials are changing the norms of society. We're getting married later (or not at all)—which has sent the marriage rate to the lowest level in history. We're moving back in with our parents to save money or pay off debt. We're renting, not buying real estate, which confounds traditional economists. With those facts alone, analysts have decided that the entire generation is delaying adulthood.

But what definition of adulthood are you using?

The decisions we make are based on values—albeit different values from the generation that came before us. Sure, I may choose to spend my money traveling rather than saving for furniture, but considering we live in the most diverse nation on the planet, I'd say I'm better equipped for the future than I would have been with that cherry dining set. Albert Einstein said "the only knowledge is experience." He might have been the first millennial. We value experiences more than possessions, memories over memorabilia. We want to touch, taste, feel — and yes, Snapchat — along the way.

Marketers who know this, know the value of creating moments. Rather than focusing on a product worthy of our dollars, try to create or highlight an experience that is worthy of our aspirations. That might mean planning real-time events, or simply focusing in your messaging on the life-benefits of the product you sell, rather than the features of the item itself. Focus on the inspirational utility in what you sell. Not just how the item functions, but the life it opens up.

Myth #3: Tattoos are a passing trend.

Fact: We are more than what meets the eye.

When I was serving as the VP of L'Oreal USA in 2014, people were shocked to learn that I had tattoos. Their perceptions of the kind of person that would have tattoos (rebellious, spontaneous, dangerous) didn't line up with the qualities they'd come to expect from me (strategic, corporate, ambitious). But that's the rub. Your perceptions of another person limits what you think they are, not what they truly are.

To my generation, tattoos aren't a mode of rebellion—they're a mode of expression. And apparently we have a lot to say, seeing as millennials have nearly twice as many tattoos as Baby Boomers. Our differences include how we look, how we dress, the music we listen to, the books and blogs we read. Individuality is what binds our generation together.

Marketers need to lean into this—now. Your gut is wrong in advertising casting. It's long past time to embrace difference. The unlikely actor or actress is probably the one you should choose. Taking risks on individuals will always pay off because our generation responds to people who are willing to buck the system in the name of being true to self.

In the end, too much marketing "analysis" has led to sweeping generalizations about millennials that only perpetuate a myth. But the myth has no real power over who we are and what we're capable to accomplish. 80 million individuals. We're a generation of entrepreneurs and hustlers and gamers and inventors. We're a generation of digital and social revolutionaries, and counter-culturalists who are desperate to be understood. We are flawed and virtuous, insecure and ambitious, complex and far more powerful than anyone else would like to admit. In other words, we're human.

Marketers who act with that in mind are miles ahead of the competition.

Commentary by Keenan Beasley, co-founder, managing director, BLKBOX, a millennial advertising and marketing agency. The West Point graduate is also an adviser to a number of start-up companies and a regular lecturer at the USC Marshall School of Business. Follow him on Twitter @kbeasley97.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.