A couple of weeks ago, I scrolled past an article on my Facebook feed that caught my attention. The headline contained a phrase, ‘Millennial Pink,’ and was accompanied by an image of something vaguely and inoffensively pink, perhaps a dollop of cake frosting or some other tasty food item. I use my Facebook feed for actual news, so at the time, I didn’t bother to investigate further; I was in the middle of some serious stuff, probably a Sean Spicer briefing. The phrase ‘Millennial Pink,’ however, sort of hooked me. Millennial Pink. What does that even mean?
I’ve always been intrigued by how trends emerge from a singular idea into something that captures our collective imaginations. Now that we’re in an era where technology is pervasive (and even that is a conservative statement), the rise of such trends is getting easier to spot. Internet memes, for example, can be traced back to a single message board or user. Variations of such memes can also be traced back, allowing us to construct a timeline of its birth and evolution, sort of like having a more precise, annotated history of the Big Bang.
Earlier today, approximately a month since I had first seen Millennial Pink out in the wild, I saw it again. “Even Kim Kardashian Isn’t Immune to Millennial Pink” appeared on NYMag’s The Cut on April 20th and was cycled through my Facebook feed this morning. There are so many things to unpack.
First, the title suggests that Millennial Pink is indeed everywhere (how dare you don’t know that yet), and has even breached the .01% (Kim and Friends), so it must be a thing. But, Millennial Pink has really only been a thing for about 4 weeks (or has it?) according to Google Trends. Secondly, the title also suggests, rightly, that whatever this Millennial Pink thing is, it happened fast. Lightning fast. To put it in scientific terms, it spread like a virus. The word immunity is being thrown around and well, think of all the connotations. Thirdly, it also suggests that perhaps trends shouldn’t work the way Millennial Pink has; trends flow from the famous person, or trendsetter, to the general public, not the other way around.
Where did this Millennial Pink thing start and is this a trend or simply the work of some creative content marketers? Who flipped the switch?
So, What IS Millennial Pink?
If you haven’t figured it out by now, Millennial Pink is a shade of… pink. Probably the least interesting aspect of the Millennial Pink thing is the color itself. Isn’t it great how things are simultaneously about the thing itself and yet not about the thing? In the April 20th NYMag article, the definition of Millennial Pink is addressed head on. Kathleen Hou links to a piece published quite some time before, in August 2016, to help explain the shade of color used in Kylie Jenner’s (and Kim Kardashian’s, by proxy) new line of liquid lipsticks.
In Is There Some Reason Millennial Women Love This Color?, Véronique Hyland explains that this particular shade of Millennial Pink varies “from salmon mousse to gravlax” and didn’t exactly originate in one place, but was sort of emerging within the fashion world as early as March 2016. A tweet by Darcie Wilder of MTV helped package and confirm the trend, allowing other Twitter users to chime in with their own observations of the phenomenon.
Véronique even goes as far as to say that Millennial Pink is symbolic of our efforts to embrace the girliness in a world where we “still have to hold something back.” We can’t fully be a Hillary Clinton/Sheryl Sandberg character or a woman who just wants to live out her Barbie dream house life – the color isn’t “not-pink pink,” but almost. There’s a divide.
As you can see, this goes deep. At some point, this becomes not about silly trends or fashion cycles; this goes down to our inner psyche.
Aside from whatever your views are about the definition of the color or where the trend originates exactly, what does this say about our fascination with all things pink, rainbow, sparkly, and everything in between in, let’s say, the foodie world? Do we have to write another post about Starbucks’ Unicorn Frappe, the origins of Rainbow Cake on Pinterest, or ridiculous Insider Food findings? Side note to my side note, does it have anything to do with infantilization of the modern adult woman? I digress!
So, Who Started This?
Let’s get back to the question at hand: where did this Millennial Pink thing come from? We already mentioned that there were rumblings of Millennial Pink (as a design trend) as early as March 2016, but as the Google Trends graph shows, the term itself didn’t really explode until late March 2017.
What caused that burst of activity?
Back to the data. If you pull up Google Trends, you’ll notice that the “jumping off point” – also known as the last point before the index doesn’t hit zero again – is around March 20, 2017. Another peak is hit on April 17, 2017.
Google Trends relies on two core metrics for its indexing: a sampling of real-time searches from the last 7 days and a non-real-time search history going as far back as 2004. It explicitly excludes anything that has extremely low search volume (as well as special characters or duplicate searches). We can conclude two things about Millennial Pink just by understanding how Google compiles Trends data: 1) Millennial Pink is most definitely an established term as evidenced by its ability to be indexed. The graph data shows that, while there may have been some chance instances of its existence in searches as early as 2016, the real spike in search volume occurred very recently and 2) it’s likely that something is signaling Google users to perform this specific search. We can see two clear spikes on a term that, alone, might as well be gibberish. It’s rare, at this point in history, that one performs a completely unique search for a completely unique idea.
Again, back to the question of what caused the spike. Remember that it’s likely something is signaling users to search for this term. For more answers, we return to Google.
Google News is a great resource for finding origins of ideas. Things become things when the media finally gets hold of them. A quick search for Millennial Pink yields over 30 pages of search results, mostly from established media outlets, but also some blogs. If we try to correlate the date of the first spike (about March 20th) with the results on Google News, we find this:
A quick note here: I mentioned that there are over 30 pages of search results on Google News for Millennial Pink. You’ll find that all of the mentions of this term prior to the March 16th Allure Magazine mention do contain the phrase Millennial Pink, however, these are not ‘primary’ mentions. These are pages that have been published in the past that now contain ‘Millennial Pink’ because a content marketing engine has placed a newer article (such as the Kylie Jenner news bit) dynamically within an older page. The original “print date” is the date you see on the Google search result. Google will also highlight the phrase in the search result as it appears in the body text, so no highlight probably means that the text is located elsewhere on the page. If you think that’s confusing, welcome to my world as a digital marketer. Carrying on…
Allure Magazine and its wide readership may have been responsible for our collective awakening around Millennial Pink. As the article rippled and perpetuated across social media, it could have caused other fashion and culture-conscious young readers to ask “WTF is it with Millennial Pink? Google Search”.
On March 18th, prior to the spike of the term on Google Trends, Refinery29 posted an article with the title “The Spring Color Trends That Are About To Be EVERYWHERE” with a mention of Millennial Pink or “Pale Dogwood.”
The next time Millennial Pink makes a significant appearance both on Google Trends and Google News is on – you guessed it – March 20th. And what do we find published on March 19th (hey, give the social media crowd some time to catch up!)? This piece:
The sheer readership of New York Magazine is enough to kick off trends – so why not kick off a formal term for a color we’ve been seeing a lot of the past 12 months? This is the point where the Millennial Pink trend becomes a thing. This is where it turns a corner. There are two ways in which the NYMag article helps Millennial Pink ‘grow up.’ First, the headline, made for a social media and click-conscious audience, implies that Millennial Pink has definitely been a thing and also refuses to die as normal trends do. Secondly, the headline has a bit of a sensationalist vibe as if Millennial Pink has caused some controversy. These are prime reasons why the article would gain some attention and not just skirt by, flying under the radar on our Facebook or Twitter feeds. In fact, I think this is the first time I saw any mention of Millennial Pink.
What sort of conclusions can we draw about the origins of Millennial Pink? First, it helps that a well-known authority on fashion and trends pushed out a term, with a relatively controversial headline, for the world to weigh in on. A huge part of why Millennial Pink took off in the last few weeks was due to the large following of NYMag, the number of mentions of the color in its content, as well as the types of people that follow and comment on issues that NYMag cares about. The audience happens to be influencers, such as other journalists. After the article was released, countless other magazines decided to publish their own pieces on the subject, including The Guardian, Jezebel, Refinery29 (again), and The A.V. Club (which has a great cultural history of the color itself), among many others. Secondly, it only takes a handful of the same idea for someone to package and label it as a thing. It’s the snowball effect.
One final thought on how authority might help to perpetuate ideas: As early as March 31st, not too long after the initial wave of search interest, a piece appeared on Quartz: “Millennial pink is exposing our culture’s worst anxieties about “girly stuff.” The piece has its own merits, drawing out some new ideas on where the trend originated and even crediting Pantone for their 2016 Color of the Year, Rose Quartz, but it conveyed a different idea on the history of Millennial Pink itself, calling the trend ‘extensively chronicled’ and linking to two NYMag articles that were mentioned previously in this post. But, had Millennial Pink been extensively chronicled yet? There is something to say about how labeling something as extensively chronicled, in a relatively authoritarian manner and with authoritarian sources, can automatically make the observation true. Just because something has been claimed as a certain thing, doesn’t necessarily make it so. This is not a criticism of the piece, but rather something for your brain to chew on. We’re venturing far into the territory of collective consciousness and perception, which is completely outside the scope of our Millennial Pink conversation.
Why is this Important?
Something that underscores the importance of a phenomenon like Millennial Pink is not what it is, exactly, but what it means. The idea that a range of color, in such a short time, has come from humble beginnings in the fashion world (and arguably the tech world – hello Rose Gold iPhones) to a commentary on what it means to be a girl in this day and age, is incredible.
The connotations that the word millennial carry with it are also quite heavy; like the whole concept of Millennial Pink itself, the meanings are hard to unpack. Are we thinking too deeply about this wave of salmon-y design? Or, is this trend evidence of generational strife? Perhaps Millennial Pink will be to the Millennial generation what avocado green was to the ’70s. With such a young trend, and yes, at a year old, it is relatively young, should we take a step back and simply watch it unfold?