Meet the Mini Millennials: Generation Alpha
Heather Dretsch answers questions about Gen Alpha, brand loyalties and the future of marketing.
What do Scandinavian-style wooden toys, organic baby clothes and clean-ingredient kids snacks have in common? Millennials. Millennials and their kids, that is. If brands have learned anything about millennials, it’s this: they want only the very best for their children. Now, playrooms, nurseries and pantries across America are donned with children’s products with transparent ingredients lists and muted color palettes – all catered to millennials’ own tastes.
Meet the mini millennials: Generation Alpha, the generation of children born between 2011 and 2025. Like a mirror of their parents (matching mother-daughter outfits, anyone?), this generation is on track to become the largest generation in history. And according to Mark McCrindle, the Australian researcher who coined the name, Alphas will become the generation with the greatest spending power in history, too. The key to brands’ future success, then, lies in their loyalty. And the way to gain that? Through their parents.
To learn more about Gen Alpha, their connection to millennials and what marketing means for brands hoping to win their favor, we sat down with Poole assistant professor of marketing Heather Dretsch.
What do we know already about Gen Alpha?
HD: Because they’re still children, there’s only so much we can know at this point about Gen Alpha. But what we do know is that they’re inextricably linked to their millennial parents, which is why they’re often referred to as “mini millennials” or other similar monikers. As health-conscious caretakers, millennial parents seek out a lot of information about the products they buy and expose their kids to. From toys and food to clothing and personal care products, they love to be in the know about the best brands for their children, and they choose only the safest, cleanest, highest-quality ones. And because they’re calling the shots about which products enter the home, they’re also controlling which brands Gen Alpha is exposed to from a young age. In that sense, Gen Alpha will develop very similar preferences as their millennial gatekeepers – because it’s all they know.
As health-conscious caretakers, millennial parents seek out a lot of information about the products they buy and expose their kids to.
Gen Alpha is also very accustomed to being doted on by their parents. Millennial parents like to indulge and seek out the best they can afford, because they want to feel like they’re being rewarded for what they have earned in their lives. And they want to bestow these things upon their children, too. In fact, millennials often offer their Gen Alphas mini versions of what the grown-ups have. Think about all the luxury play kitchens and ride-on cars that are mini versions of what the parents have.
Gen Alpha picks up on that. They’re used to being lavished with the best brands and the best products. And we’re already seeing how this is affecting them. These children are more aware of knockoff brands and competitors, and they tend to prefer the higher-quality brands, market leaders and first movers within a product category.
We also know that this generation is extremely connected. They’re in front of screens more, and earlier, than any other generation – even Gen Z-ers who are incredibly tech-savvy in their own right. They’re fluent in digital learning and the gamification of learning. They’re pacified by devices. And they’re expected to entertain themselves. So media consumption and unique consumer habits like watching Youtube are part of their everyday lives. That impacts their attention spans and instills a need for instant gratification.
What’s interesting to think about is the intersection of these realities. Though Gen Alpha is deeply influenced by millennials and their brand loyalties, this generation also has its own unique goals and values. So the brands that Gen Alpha is exposed to via their millennial parents can appeal to them for slightly different reasons. Think about a brand like Amazon, for example. In the lives of busy, multitasking millennials balancing work and families, Amazon is appealing because it touches on one of their biggest values: convenience. But for Gen Alpha, brands like Amazon are appealing because they provide that sense of instant gratification.
What differentiates Gen Alpha from Gen Z?
HD: The brands Gen Alpha are exposed to are very different from the ones Gen Z grew up with – which has a huge impact on which brands Gen Alpha will prefer. Academic research shows that children can begin recognizing the brands in their lives, relating to them and even preferring them over other brands as early as age three. Because the brands they see and possess are embedded in their experiences, they form connections with them. They’re aware of how they function in their lives and help them achieve certain goals. And so the brands children are exposed to can almost instantly become part of their self-concept. Their millennial parents’ control over that exposure, then, is incredibly significant. Though Gen Alpha shares a lot of characteristics with Gen Z – like media consumption and the desire for instant gratification – their preferences will likely align much more with millennials than with Gen Z.
It’s not until later in their lives that you begin to see more advanced awareness of how certain brand characteristics interact with an individual’s self-concept, and you start seeing self-expression and identity signaling through brands. This kind of behavior is more indicative of Gen Z. Gen Alpha, however, just knows what they see, what they play with and what they consume.
Gen Alpha’s connection with millennials is a key differentiating factor here.
And again, Gen Alpha’s connection with millennials is a key differentiating factor here. One thing that’s really interesting is how millennials have gravitated toward more nostalgic brands. Many millennials want their kids to have the same experiences that they did as children, so they’re emphasizing play with Legos, Hot Wheels, Barbies, Fisher-Price toys and other brands with retro vibes and packaging. Brands that they remember playing with. This nostalgia effect has had a huge impact in the toy category and consumer goods category, and there’s almost a skipping over of Gen Z with these brands.
How has the pandemic played into this?
HD: In many ways, the pandemic amplified the trends we were already seeing. Virtual schooling and lockdowns forced Gen Alpha to spend even more time on screens – and it also reinforced that strong connection between Gen Alpha and their parents. Not only has this generation spent much more time at home than they otherwise would have, but they also have had much deeper, more enriching experiences with their parents because of it. Many Gen Alphas began learning new and old-fashioned habits and hobbies alongside their parents during the pandemic – like cooking and baking, for example. I think this is because parents, recognizing that the pandemic hit at such a formative time in their children’s lives, strived to make the most of their time together. That’s a pretty stark contrast to Gen Z. As teenagers, the pandemic looks and feels very different for them. They’re living their own lives and having their own experiences, even in this strange season of life.
Not only has this generation spent much more time at home than they otherwise would have, but they also have had much deeper, more enriching experiences with their parents because of it.
What can we predict about Gen Alpha’s brand loyalties?
HD: There is a lot of research out there that suggests that younger generations are less loyal to brands, but I’m not sure that I agree with this when it comes to Gen Alpha. My own research suggests that brand loyalties are closely tied to the idea of brand connections. And to the extent that millennials are passing along their beloved brands to Gen Alpha, and Gen Alpha starts making brand connections to them, I would expect that Gen Alpha would be more loyal to these same brands.
This is another factor that distinguishes them from Gen Z. Gen Z is known for switching, because they love the idea of change – and they’re always looking for the best thing. They read reviews and hunt for new information to make decisions. Millennial parents are doing that too, of course – but they’re doing that in a much different way. They’re looking for information that helps them be better caretakers of their children. So sure, they may be willing to try new products and buy from new brands – like ones they see advertised on Instagram that appeal to them – but they’re doing that because they’re so careful about what they put in front of Gen Alpha, not because they’re just looking for the next best thing. In that way, I think millennials are helping Gen Alpha become more brand-loyal in their behavior.
What can brands do now to begin appealing to this generation?
HD: The idea of marketing to Gen Alpha can be quite controversial, as Gen Alphas, like all generations as children, are easily influenced by what they see on the screen. They’re like little sponges and they don’t, like adult consumers, have persuasion knowledge – that awareness and sensitivity they’re being marketed to. They naturally trust the brands they see. So from my perspective, it is just as important – if not more important – to appeal to millennial parents. They’re the ones, after all, who give the thumbs up or thumbs down.
That said, one marketing strategy I recommend is developing simple slogans that resonate with Gen Alphas and their parents. Lego’s brand slogan “Only the best is good enough” does this so well, as they do expect the best, highest-quality products. And Barbie’s “You can be anything” appeals to this smart, confident self-concept Gen Alpha has.
Overall, strive to understand Gen Alpha’s lifestyles, values and self-concepts. They’re curious. They’re savvy. They’re confident. And it’s not just that they view themselves this way – it’s that their parents have made them feel that way. Be playful, be whimsical and appeal to that.