Blog posts

Generational marketing, why is it so popular and what are its limits?

Published on 17/11/2021

Don’t tell us that you don’t know which generation you are part of. We know you do. Generational analysis, trends and behaviours take a significant place within social conversations, whether you want it or not.

In the small world of agencies, people’s age is one of the most obvious criteria we can refer to to understand “who we are talking to”. However, let me reassure you: we are not going to explain once again that Gen Z is more inclined to defend environmental or social causes than other generations. Yet we wanted to take this opportunity to step back and try to understand why generations mean so much today and are that useful, despite the fact that over using this type of analysis can also generalise cliches and stereotypes.

According to the Pew Research Center, the age of individuals is “one of the most common predictors of differences in attitudes and behaviors”, as it gives immediate clues about people and the place they occupy in their life cycle: are they children? young adults or in their late 60’s? Most importantly, it denotes the membership of individuals towards a specific social cohort of people: a “generation”.

The term typically refers to groups of people born over a 15-20 year span. It highlights a whole range of factors “including demographics, attitudes, historical events, popular culture, and prevailing consensus” within research groups and institutes. Generations are a framework – used to analyse educational, environmental, political & social movements across time. As a matter of fact, everyone knows the Baby Boomer generation and why they are called like that. In short, social research needs boundaries. Generations give rich perspectives, and “grasping what drives generational differences strengthens our understanding of how public attitudes are being shaped”. (The Whys and Hows of Generation Research).

How generational segmentation can be used in marketing strategies? To which extent are generational target groups driving results?

To sell a product or service is not magic, it requires a deep knowledge of the targeted audience. How do they tick? What are their motivations behind a purchase decision? Taking generational age range and differences into consideration significantly helps positioning a brand, defining its value proposition and communicating as effectively as possible. Yet, today we can clearly question whether targets behave, like and act as one unique group of people. And in the wise words of Samuel L Jackson our unanimous answer is “Hell no.” The generational approach is clearly the genesis of marketing research but not the final destination. It’s a first filter in the sinuous road towards thorough tribe analysis.

When we receive a brief from a client saying “we want to target Millennials”, it is not enough to build a strategy. We need to dig into the breach to know more and most often we revert with some more questions. “What do you mean by Millennials? Why do you think Millennials are your target?”, etc.

In the words of Jane Hovey, in a recent article in the Drum, it’s important to not overgeneralise generational marketing: “As there are two significant caveats in play.

Generational marketing should be done with other marketing aspects in mind, (…) to avoid clichés and stereotypes about age groups.” If a campaign doesn’t correctly represent the target, if the target audience does not feel recognized by the brand, the campaign might generate backlash & generational conflicts. In the end, it leads to consumer disengagement, loss of influence & power towards audiences. Further than that, it can even reinforce stereotypes. So how do we overcome this difficulty then?

Through the digitalisation and social media rise, the number of potential touchpoints have evolved significantly in the past twenty years. Traditional marketing funnels (from awareness to conversion) tend to become outdated. Multiple touchpoints now play a role in the making of buying decisions. This leads us to our second filter: the attitudes.

It links behavioral discrepancies & consumption habits. When digging into tribe analysis, we observe that the way people behave in their daily life can lead to behavioral segmentation – whatever the age range.

As an example, within the ‘people-using-social-media-on-a-daily-basis’ group, we can identify several sub-groups. Those who are on TikTok but never publish content, those who do; those who use emojis, those who don’t; those who stay informed through social media, and those who prefer online media as their main source of information.

This type of segmentation corresponds to the so-called ‘Generation C’, C standing for connectivity. The Gen C would be a psychographic group – defined by their behaviour, values, attitudes and digital lifestyle in daily life.

The digital world blurs the lines for us marketers.

Generational marketing can help us make first steps on the road to tribe analysis. Behavioral segmentation adds another layer to target audience thinking, creating new routes and possibilities. From one group based on age, there are more sub-groups based on behavior and attitudes. To avoid losing one’s sense of direction in messy segmentations, we can only advise you to use target groups as cardinal points instead of final destinations. And data, in all of this, will definitely help you keep your feet firmly on the ground. That’s if the digital future still lets us analyse it…