The Mindset List is Taking Marketers Inside the Minds of Future Generations

Zach Brooke
Marketing News
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Key Takeaways
What? The Mindset List is a collection of facts that attempts to give context to the worldview college freshmen have grown up with. 

So what? Marketers have come to value the annual editions of the Mindset List for its insights on gradual attitudes and preferences between generations.

Now what? Be aware of how cultural references "harden" over time, and be ready to adapt to changing consumer experience.

November 15, 2016

Each year, brand executives from all over the globe pore over a simple collection of facts compiled by a trio of researchers at a small Midwestern liberal arts college. Their work, known as the Mindset List, has been incorporated into sales presentations and customer relations policies.
 

It’s a map for marketers, which can capture the precise moment the recent past becomes the distant past, and suggest a path toward the future.

Roughly two decades ago, Cadillac bowed to changing market preferences and unveiled a full-size luxury SUV called the Escalade, while a French-born Iranian-American working in California launched a digital swap meet website called eBay and HBO debuted a new sitcom that unabashedly explored the sex lives of four single women living in New York. It was also around this time that the college class of 2020 was born.

The current crop of freshmen have grown up in a world where the aforementioned products, once hailed as revolutionary, are now considered part of the establishment, or even passé. Underclassmen might note the existence of these items in passing—relics of the period of mass folly when their parents were considered cool—but they are certainly not wowed by them. Five years from now, incoming freshmen might not even be aware they existed. 

Such is the raison d’être behind The Beloit College Mindset List, a 19-year look at the frame of mind possessed by America’s youth the moment they came of college age. The list is the brainchild of Ron Nief, director of public affairs emeritus at Beloit College, and Tom McBride, a retired professor of English. Two years ago they added sociology professor Charles Westerberg. The list is a compilation of historical events and chronological bookends occurring around the time college freshmen were born. First released in 1998, the list has been updated every year since and has captured the attention of professionals from all lines of work, marketers included. And though it purports to be an authoritative roadmap of modern youth identity, its intended target has always been adults.

 

Mindset List Creators: Tom McBride, Charles Westerberg  and Ron Nief

“The list was not initially designed to be targeted at the students it was talking about. It was for the professors, and that continues to be true,” Westerberg says.

The genesis of the Mindset List came about with the rise of the world wide web. In those early days, Nief and McBride happened upon several chain e-mails disparaging Generation X over their ignorance of obsolete technology and long-ago cultural touch points.

“We were seeing these lists constantly, and Tom and I started sharing them and laughing about them, and then we realized that this is all wrong, that this is not what they don’t know. It’s what they have never experienced,” Nief says.

The generational put-downs being circulated on the early web created a eureka moment for Nief and McBride. What if they compiled a list of events and cultural changes occurring right before the birth of incoming freshman in order to pinpoint the “Big Bang” of their worldview? By keeping track of where students entered America’s cultural time line, schools could prevent the so-called “hardening of the references” that were prone to tenured graybeards of academia. 

McBride had witnessed the generational erosion of collective recall unfold in his classrooms firsthand. “I first came to Beloit and taught Shakespeare during the Watergate scandal. The Watergate scandal had a certain Shakespearean grandeur to it. I thought it was just great, it was a great time to teach Shakespeare, but 20 … 25 years later I couldn’t use those references without explaining them, and even if I did explain them, they just didn’t have the resonance,” he says. 

“The past is a foreign country,” adds Nief.

Enter Brandman

The first Mindset List debuted in 1998, chronicling disarming factoids about the life experiences of incoming underclassmen slated to graduate in 2002. The first three entries were:

  1. The people starting college this fall across the nation were born in 1980.
  2. They have no meaningful recollection of the era of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, and did not know he had ever been shot.
  3. They were prepubescent when the Persian Gulf War was waged.

For a nation still steeped in the cultural legacy of the 1980s and early ‘90s, which could vividly remember the mass media event accompanying its first incursion into Iraq, the list struck a chord. Here was evidence of a creeping irrelevance enveloping the freshness of the collective past, standing in sharp relief when contrasted against the hordes of freshmen matriculating through institutions of higher learning

And it wasn’t only politics that comprised the list. Since its inception, the list has included items about consumer trends, prominent brands and technological changes. Without necessarily meaning to, the Mindset List identified marketing as a major driver of culture over the past two decades. 

“It very much indicates that brands have a tremendous hold on culture. If you look for examples of the leading American brands in 1964 or 1970, you would say, General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, General Foods, General Electric, maybe IBM. What is it now? Amazon. Microsoft. Google. Walmart. Facebook,” says McBride. “You can trace what’s happening in our culture by looking at leading brands now, as opposed to leading brands then.”

Almost immediately, the media took note of what Nief and McBride were doing. Soon, they were being flown to New York for sit-down interviews on the “Today Show.” Marketers were a mere half-step behind.

Nief can recall the first time an adman contacted him, shortly after an initial round of press interviews. It was a marketer with MTV, and he wanted to use the Mindset List as part of his presentation to Ford. 

“It was the first serious phone call that [told me], ‘Something is clicking here, something has made an impact,’ ” Nief says. “He explained that they had been trying to sell MTV to Ford for quite some time, and … that they had to get across that Ford had to advertise in a different way to this MTV generation.”

Today, the Mindset List is still capturing young people’s attitudes toward automobiles, noting that, while the Escalade, a status symbol SUV, has been around throughout the entirety of their lifespans, freshmen just aren’t that into it, or any other type of car. 

“This is a big marketing issue. [Millennials] are not an ownership generation. They’re not interested in owning things,” says McBride. “They’re interested in having experiences and using things. They’re into sharing things. One of the things that studies are showing is that millennials will save to go on a trip. Once upon a time you saved to buy a used Pontiac or a used Oldsmobile. They’re not saving for that,” he says, noting that many millennials live in urban areas where a car isn’t necessary. 

Another request came from Neiman Marcus. Former CEO and chairman of the board, Stanley Marcus, then in his 90s, reached out to Nief and McBride personally. 

“He indicated that he saw great value in the list for the training program for new sales personnel in his stores. He wanted permission to distribute the list to all his employees to remind them that if they wanted to reach a new generation of consumers, they needed to be cognizant of change,” Nief says. 

Since then, they’ve learned it’s not only MTV and Neiman Marcus that care about young adults. The trio has kept an active calendar of speaking engagements, delivering presentations about the Mindset List to audiences that range from the NCAA to NASA to hedge fund managers.

Rise of the Millennials

The freshmen Nief and McBride first reported on in 1998 fell into the tail end of Generation X and are now approaching 40. Since then, the Mindset List charted wave after wave of the subsequent generation: millennials.   

The quest to understand millennials has become a cause célèbre for marketers for close to a decade, and a quick look at the numbers reveals why. “There are about 70 million millennials right now, and if each one of them over their lifetimes spends a million dollars commercially, that’s $70 trillion. That’s a lot of money,” McBride says.

It’s not just the size of the millennial generation that has marketers scrambling. The changing values and notions of success are shaking up traditional marketing models. “If you go back to the generation that, before millennials, was the most troublesome and generationally solid, that would have been the boomers,” says McBride, who is a boomer himself. “How did I interact with commercial life? I sat on the couch and waited for a TV commercial to hit me. … In terms of marketing, we were dogs. They came to us said, ‘Here, Fido. Bone!’ But these millennials, they’re cats. They come to you on the internet.”

“When they’re ready,” adds Nief. 

While millennials are pickier about responding to brands, or at least the products they are attached to, the generation is far more engrossed in branding relationships than any who have come before.

“Millennials live in a world of brands. Instagram, BuzzFeed, Facebook, Twitter,” says McBride. “I don’t think young people lived on General Motors. I don’t think young people lived on Sears. They bought things from General Motors, they bought things from Sears, but General Motors and Sears were, relative to today, ancillary to their daily lifestyles. This is not true of the big high-tech companies and websites. … It’s the difference between buying a product and living on a product.”

The immersion is creating both heightened expectations and apathy from millennial consumers. “Many people understand that millennials really like authenticity. They don’t like phonies. But trying to figure out what is authentic is very hard,” he says. 

Things Fall Apart

As tempting as it is to paint all upcoming generations—millennials, especially—in large blocs with broad brush strokes, that doesn’t mesh with what demographers are seeing. In some ways, the bonds of generational status and worldview transcend the most historically significant dividers, such as language, ethnicity and class. Once in a while, this looming uniformity will pop up in the Mindset List. In 2010, the list noted that few freshmen knew how to write in cursive, which elicited media requests from around the globe

“One afternoon I did back-to-back interviews with Cape Town and Hong Kong,” Nief says. “They thought the disappearance of the ability to write in cursive was a local development there, and they were surprised to find out this is true in Beloit, Wisconsin, as well as in China and South Africa.”

But in many ways, millennials aren’t only different from preceding generations; they are estranged from one another, too. This year’s list notes that for every year the class of 2020 has been alive, more than a million Hispanics have been added to the U.S. population. The same navel-gazing that’s going on at the national level about America’s evolving cultural heritage and shared points of identity is playing out every year in Beloit as the list is assembled. 

“There’s an extent to which the Mindset List, in the name of trying to have a wide outreach, might be a little too general and a little too ethnically vanilla, if you will. That’s certainly one limitation,” says McBride.

An indirect acknowledgment of the distance between the list and many readers’ realities shows up in the form of Mindset List variations. In the past, the authors have helped put together specific Mindset Lists for African-Americans, Mumbaikars, New Zealanders and Jamaicans. These culturally curated versions, reminiscent of city- or college campus-based editions of Monopoly, suggest the greatest touch points in many populations exist outside the predominant culture.

“If you’re going to market to this particular demographic cohort, you might have to learn stuff that is very unique to them, and make references that are quite unique to them. There are probably a lot of parallel cultures around this country. For all of the internet connections we have, we are, in many ways, in these different cultural and demographic channels,” McBride says. “This is a nation that now lacks th at kind of central cultural authority. Everything is up for grabs in terms of multiculturalism, diversity, identity politics and so forth and so on. …  I don’t think we should be surprised that e pluribus unum doesn’t work the way it used to.”

Another radical departure in common cultural focal points comes from the loss of shared experience of media or entertainment. Nief, McBride and Westerberg have identified this year’s freshmen as the first class of students to grow up without appointment infotainment—the need to be in front of a screen at a specific time in order to watch a specific program. As they write in their guide for the class of 2020 list, “Thus millennials may be the first generation that does not have to show up on time.”

Haters Gonna Hate

So much stock has been placed in the list over the years (and its seemingly random collection of vaguely relevant minutiae) that it’s generated its share of pushback from detractors. Satirical news site The Onion has created mock versions of the Mindset List for years, which the team wears, without irony, as a badge of honor.

A more scathing critique of the list emerged via WordPress, on the website beloitmindlessness.com. The central argument of the authors, two anonymous writers claiming to be college professors, is summed up under a tab called Why the Beloit Mindset List Must Be Destroyed. “In fact, the List is a poorly written compendium of trivia, stereotypes and lazy generalizations, insulting to both students and their professors, and based on nothing more than the uninformed speculation of its authors. It inspires lazy, inaccurate journalism and is an embarrassment to academia,” the authors write.

Attempts to contact the authors of the site for this story were met with requests for anonymity, which were not granted.

Nief, McBride and Westerberg respond to this line of thinking by saying the list was never intended to be anything beyond a conversation starter. The significance of societal change and the impact of lost touch points was something they were pointing out, not divining grand meaning from.

“Everyone is trying to figure out or orient themselves around the list, and given the breadth of speaking engagements and interest groups, anyone who is conscious of these generational shifts has a take on the lists, whether for good or for ill. But that’s the evolution: understanding this starting point and how it’s morphed over time,” says Mindset List newcomer Westerberg. “People are going to react to it differently, and one of the things that I enjoy watching is when someone says, ‘I really like this item,’ and someone says, ‘Why? That one seems stupid to me.’ Then what we hope happens is happening because they’ve taken the bait.”

How will the tectonic cultural shifts and accelerating fragmentation of American culture affect brands’ ability to target and connect with the next generation of consumers? By their own admission, the authors of the Mindset List don’t know. They’re just asking questions. It’s up to marketers to answer them. At least with the Mindset List, they will have a map.


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Author Bio:

https://auth.ama.org/publishingimages/zack_bio.jpg
Zach Brooke
Zach Brooke is a staff writer for the American Marketing Association. He can be reached at zbrooke@ama.org or on Twitter at @Zach_Brooke.
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