How You Market to Different Generations
In 1923, Hungarian sociologist Karl Mannheim published an essay called “The Problem of Generations.” Mannheim’s theory was that contemporaries who go through (and, in some cases, survive) major historical events together can develop similar ways of looking at the world and similar ways of coping with it — ways that can make them seem markedly different from their forebears.
As controversial as Mannheim’s opinions may have been at the time, the notion is now widespread that there are “generations” (sociologists call them “cohorts”) and gaps between them. Marketers have depended for years on (ever-evolving) character sketches or archetypes of these generations to try to understand how to effectively market to them.
Thanks in part to enormous recent changes in consumer technology and the relative inscrutability of the young people who are most comfortable with these changes, some pundits are beginning to question the effectiveness of the generational marketing approach.
Generation Gaps Are Real
It would be silly, perhaps, to claim that there aren’t certain essential (if not necessarily perpetual) disparities between and among the generations.
In a late 2013 Forrester Research survey, cited by Stijn Hendrikse at the Mighty Call website, variously aged participants were asked how they prefer to communicate with a company’s service representatives. Not surprisingly, young people (aka Generation Y, aka millennials, and the tenuously named Generation Z) are far more comfortable with online communication than are older people (baby boomers). Older people tend to want to speak with a live human via phone.
And a 2015 Pew Research survey revealed that 60 percent of baby boomers get political news from TV, while the same percentage of millennials get their political news from Facebook.
From a marketer’s standpoint, millennials are “the largest and arguably the most frustrating generation in U.S. history,” Metropolitan State University of Denver marketing professor Darrin Duber-Smith said in a phone interview.
The conventional wisdom about millennials is that they don’t respond to many traditional marketing methods, can spot insincerity or deception a mile away, desire a relationship of unprecedented substance with brands and yet can be fickle when their needs aren’t met.
A lot of bandwidth has been consumed on attempts to describe millennials as pithily as some marketers believe they have described baby boomers.
Generational Categories That Are Too Broad and Too Narrow
The practice of marketing to consumers by age bracket, and by general understanding of that age bracket, is appealing because it is a ready, inexpensive and instantly graspable point from which to launch.
Google the phrase “generational marketing” and one will find site after site where the traits of various generations are explained in the manner of a play’s dramatis personae.
According to one site, people born before the late 1920s are “strongly interested in personal morality and near-absolute standards of right and wrong,” whereas baby boomers are “self-righteous & self-centered.” According to another, Generation X is “often characterized by high levels of skepticism, ‘what’s in it for me’ attitudes and a reputation for some of the worst music to ever gain popularity.” A third claims that baby boomers “have a distrust of government because of the social revolutions they lived through.”
There probably isn’t a person in the world who hasn’t read a character sketch of the generation he or she supposedly occupies and thought, Well, that doesn’t describe me at all. And therein lies one of the problems with an overreliance on generational marketing.
A Google search of the years associated with generational labels, wrote Leslie Cargill for The Clyde Fitch Report, “provides a mixed-up range of dates and definitions designed to pigeon-hole and oversimplify.”
After he attended a conference during which millennials were described as “confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat and open to change,” Richmond, Virginia marketing professional Joel Mier wrote the following on his LinkedIn page: “Super. So next time you encounter someone born between 1981 and 2000 you know what to expect, right? Now don’t get confused if you encounter what looks like a 45-year-old or 65-year-old [who’s] confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat and open to change … they must be a millennial and look more ‘mature’ than their actual age.
“I hope you’re thinking the same thing that I have for years: That’s absurd.”
The problem with basing anything on a generation’s “shared history,” wrote Dave Moore, vice president of strategic insights for the Hartman Group of Bellevue, Washington, is that “after the age of, say, 10 there’s precious little shared history to bind an entire generation, however defined, together.
“Some people are born into wealth and others into poverty,” he wrote. “Some people are part of a racial minority and others not. Some people live their entire lives in one small town, and others move from city to city. Some are more conservative or liberal than others, while for others politics just isn’t their thing.”
Increases in literal and figurative mobility, coupled with the explosion of digital resources, mean that everyone is enjoying a wider range of experiences than people did decades ago, Moore wrote. Generational marketing “can’t hope to speak to these varied experiences with a single voice.”
According to Kim Walker of the Silver Group, which focuses on consumers 50 and over, age is a poor proxy for behavior. “We believe the major, if only real, difference between younger people and old is their physiology,” she wrote.
When Generational Categories Overlap — Cross-Device Behavior
One of the stories about the generations is that young people are technology embracers while older people are technology avoiders. There may be some truth to this, but that truth is changing, perhaps inevitably. Take “cross-device behavior” for example.
“Cross-device behavior is often seen as being associated with millennials,” Liane Dietrich wrote for the Marketing Land website. “This young, tech-savvy demographic group of digital natives is known for using multiple platforms to connect with brands, research, and shop for products.”
But recent research from ComScore indicates that “people of all different age demographics are becoming increasingly multiplatform,” Dietrich wrote. U.S. consumers of all ages used an average of 3.3 devices last year, according to ComScore. The fastest growing group? People over 55.
In research compiled for the Tennessean newspaper by David Bohan of Bohan Advertisers, the author seeks to explode the stereotypes of generational marketing.
Among the surprising stats he cites: that millennials (that group that is still supposed to be living with their parents) will overtake Gen X as the largest group of homebuyers in 2015, according to real estate website Zillow.
In a 2001 academic paper cited by Mier called “Cohort segmentation: An exploration of its validity,” respondents could only be matched up with their corresponding “generation” 45 percent of the time based on a statement of their values. And that was 14 years ago.
Duber-Smith said he doesn’t see generational marketing or age-target marketing going away any time soon, however.
Profiling by Age Is Still Valuable
While there may be something to the contention that the definitions of generations have become overstereotyped, age-target marketing remains invaluable, he said.
“It’s not really meant to be taken that literally,” Duber-Smith said. Age-target marketing should serve as a guide to where marketers want to go, not a destination. Marketers don’t look at just one factor, he added. Demographic, psychographic (the study of personality, values and lifestyles) and geographic factors must all be considered.
But it is undeniable that the model for separating generational boundaries based on presumably shared history is “becoming more blurry,” Duber-Smith said. “You can blame the Internet for that. We’re all tapped into the same culture. We’re all looking at it, globally. We’re becoming more homogenized.”
Still, he said, millennials — who are about to enter middle age and who he started teaching a dozen or more years ago — really are stereotypically the same now as when he first encountered them.
Generational marketing should be a tool but never a crutch, according to Jacob Leise, a communications specialist at eMoney Advisor: “Speak to any person of any generation for any length of time and you’ll quickly find they are much more than the sum of the shared experiences of their peers because, no matter their age, people are unique. As you get to know prospects better and hopefully begin to transition them into clients, you can abandon your initial generational assumptions about them in favor of more personal details.”
Until you get to know a person or group of people more intimately, assuming things about them based on their generation “can help bridge the gap between total strangers and trusted clients,” Leise added.