Finding the Common Threads Is Key for Generational Marketing

January 7, 2020

By Matthew Schwartz

Sylverarts Vectors/Shutterstock.com

OK Boomer.” The meme, which went viral late last year, signifies millennials’ and gen Zers’ growing frustration with older people (read: baby boomers) for failing to tackle climate change and for their general resistance to more progressive policies. Boomers just shake their heads, and respond with the perennial, “kids these days.” Cue the generation gap soundtrack.

We’ve seen this picture before. Since time immemorial, younger generations have rolled their eyes at what they deem the utterly uncool (and apathetic) behavior of their elders. For most teenagers it’s a rite of passage to be mortally embarrassed by their parents. If they must go somewhere together, for instance, teens will walk a few feet ahead of their folks, lest anyone think they’re related. But when those same teenagers become parents themselves, they get the same business from their kids — and begin to admit how difficult it is to change the world. Lather, rinse, and repeat.

But as ANA magazine’s editorial series on generational marketing indicates, there are more similarities among the various generations than meet the eye.

The series features five separate articles on the most effective ways for marketers to engage baby boomers, gen Xers, millennials, gen Zers, and the Alpha generation and breaks down the characteristics that make each group tick.

 

Ever-Thinning Niches

For years, the sweet spot for advertisers has been the 18- to 34 year-old demo and, to a large degree, that still holds true. During the analog age, brands could lump everyone in that age group together and paint a fairly broad brush creative-wise. However, in a digital age, the sweet spot has fragmented and now includes both millennials and gen Zers — and their specific tastes and enthusiasms.

But appealing to different generations is not a zero-sum game. In order for brands to bolster their appeal to all age groups they need to craft comprehensive yet flexible marketing strategies that acknowledge the differences among the various generations. However, brands also need to leverage their similarities, in terms of how they consume information, through which media channels they prefer to communicate, and how they relate to brands and organizations.

Regardless of where they reside in the generational compendium, consumers want brands to be candid in their communications. With each successive generation more advertising savvy than the last, most people take a dim view of ads that tout blue-sky thinking and appreciate companies that take more of a warts-and-all approach to messaging.

For example, millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996), who for the last several years have been sucking up a lot of marketing oxygen, crave “authenticity” from brands. But how much difference is there between being authentic and playing it straight, which is what baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) crave from marketers?

What’s more, both millennials and gen Zers (those born between the mid- to late-1990s and the mid-2000s), increasingly expect companies to take a stand on sensitive issues, such as marriage equality and the environment, whereas previous generations put no such demands on brand managers.

In addition to cultivating what myriad generations have in common, it also behooves marketers to shatter demographic stereotypes. Take gen Xers, sandwiched between baby boomers and millennials. Marketers could be for forgiven for thinking that gen Xers, many of them in their 50s, are yoked to analog channels and pay no mind to social media platforms.

But, in fact, gen Xers use social media more than any other age group, according to the Oracle study “One Size Doesn’t Fit All.” To appeal to gen Xers, marketers have to strike a delicate balance between traditional and digital media channels, depending on the marketing objectives. And gen Xers do not populate a lost generation, as the media have characterized the age group. Hardly, as more and more of them now occupy the C-suite and take on decision-making roles.

 

Emotion Conquers All

Similarly, in order to win the hearts of gen Zers and Alphas, marketers must leave traditional media behind and innovate with their new media channels. That’s because there’s a growing onus for marketers to make their advertising as “Instagramable” as possible, such as @TargetTag, a digital magazine created by Target for Instagram that encourages visitors to create and share content.

For effective generational marketing — and to build a big tent in which all people feel vested — brand managers need to find the various threads that tie the generations together. Otherwise, most marketers will twist themselves into pretzels trying to be all things to all age groups, and waste precious dollars in the process.

The threads are not hard to find. Gen Zers, for example, may develop a closer bond with their boomer grandparents because the former has become a quasi IT department for the latter, constantly helping “digital immigrants” figure out how their smartphones work.

Emotion, of course, is the connective tissue that runs through generational marketing efforts, closely followed by humor (that transcends one’s age). Regardless of in which generation they’re a member, people want companies to make their lives easier. But they also want them to speak to their challenges and their aspirations — without being Pollyannaish.

As they look for unique ways to appeal to multiple generations and cut through the proverbial clutter, marketers shouldn’t focus on “age” per se, but a mindset.

Progressive Insurance, which uses humor to get its message out, seems to get this. The company’s ongoing series of “Parentmorphosis” ads feature a variety of people who, unbeknownst to them, are turning into their parents.

It’s not hard to imagine parents sharing the video with their offspring and vice versa, or some grown-ups talking about the campaign and insisting they don’t possess any of their parents’ mannerisms while mom and dad, sitting nearby, just shake their heads.


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