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Debunking the hipster myth

March 16 2015

Kacha Azema

I’ve recently noticed a rising trend around a precarious stereotype: millennials = hipsters.

For example, in a meeting I attended about a city’s brand, an otherwise savvy client continually used the words “hipsters” and “young people” interchangeably. A few days later, I heard the CMO of a national brand lump his entire millennial audience into just one word: hipsters.

And an e-newsletter I received from a reputable stock photo resource noted with joy that users’ search for the term “hipster” had risen 431 percent last year. The link that was intended to support this claim simply led to photos of shiny, happy under-30-somethings of all styles.

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I don’t know what it is in our mocha-frappe-whatevers that has marketers believing millennials and hipsters are synonymous. They’re not.

We need to watch where we walk or we’re going to trip over ourselves and make millennials avoid our brands altogether.

So let’s figure this out. First off, what’s a hipster? Good luck defining it for yourself because none of the “experts” can agree. I spent a solid hour Googling this question and the sum total of that research generated only one consistent theme: hipsters are counterculturalists.

Okay, let’s try a different angle: who self-identifies as a hipster? Uhhh, nobody. That’s the irony of it. No social group actually calls themselves hipsters. It’s a term coined by writers in the 1940s to describe the aimless, disaffected young people of their time. The same term was used by writers in the late 90s trying to find a name for the counterculturalist young people becoming more and more visible on the streets of Brooklyn. (Sooooo…Phoebe, from Friends?)

Any visual could have popped into your mind, but which one is the right one? Google Images thinks that hipsters are 20-something Caucasians in flannel shirts and skinny jeans. The men sport beards and ironic mustaches, the women have bangs. Both are liberally tattooed. And they all ride fixie bikes and wear heavy, black-framed eyeglasses they bought from the same vintage store.

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Curious. The clearest representation of hipsters is a stereotype! But this look does not capture the nuance and complexity of millennials—an entire generation of 79 million young adults in America.

It’s true that some millennials look like the people in my Google Images search. But many more look like the young professionals you interact with at ad agencies and dentist’s offices. Almost 20 million of them are young parents in suburbia.1 23 percent of millennials are enrolled in grad and undergrad programs across the country.2 Most millennials live outside big cities.3 And Walmart finds that 40 percent of their grocery business is with millennials.4

When marketers stereotype their millennial audience as “hipsters,” they immediately alienate the vast majority of the group they’re trying to attract. You can’t treat 79 million people in varying life stages, with varying interests as one clichéd person. Millennials won’t give you the time of day if you try to “sell” to them as a stereotype. They want partnership, not pandering. They want your brand to show that you truly get them. The only course of action is to get to know these amazing young people.

Give them the respect of your true interest and understanding. They’ll respond in kind.

At Skidmore we’ve assembled a team dedicated to research, insights, and strategies for engaging all the facets of this remarkable generation. We understand their diversity and we’re committed to being their advocates. If your brand is ready to engage with millennials, let’s chat. We’ll show you the way.