Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation

by Ben Perreira

Organic is good.

Greed is good. (Or is it now bad?)

Football players are meatheads. 

Chemistry majors are nerdy.

Placing things in nice boxes makes them easier to understand, but it doesn’t make them true. Although that should be obvious, article after article keeps surfacing to try to explain people based on the year they were born.

I’m talking about you, Boomer, Gen-Xer, Millennial or Gen-Zer (Do you guys do anything except Snapchat? Get off my lawn.).

For some time the narrative around Millennials is that we – I’m smack dab in the middle having been born in 1985 – are lazy and entitled. A couple weeks ago a few of my fellow Millennials shared this article to combat that narrative; the true entitled generation, they said, is our parents, the Boomers. Boom! (Apparently that is a thing we Millennials say when we think we have made a powerful point.)

But what if instead of entitled Millennials are actually opportunistic and optimistic? And what if Boomers are actually just diligent workers who tried to provide their kids with more opportunities than they had?

Better yet, if we’re trying to understand how people work in groups in order to sell them things (this blog has a marketing focus, after all), let’s allow ourselves to look deeper than their date of birth. Generational targets are too broad to give a brand a marketplace advantage.

Causation and Correlation

Look back at articles describing each generation around the same age and you’ll find more similarities than differences. Look at how one author described Gen-Z last week:

First, Gen Zers are the least likely to believe there is such a thing as the “American Dream.” They look for products and messaging that reflect a reality rather than a perfect life — an important distinction for struggling retailers like Abercrombie &Fitch who still market their products by projecting a flawless, carefree, perfect world. Gen Zers simply don’t respond to these traditional notions of beauty or a projected image of perfection like past generations have. They respond to independence and entrepreneurialism, self-direction and a spirit of ingenuity.

Compare that to how another described Gen-X in 2001:

When it comes to really speaking to today’s twentysomethings as a group, the most important thing for a marketer or advertiser to understand is the level of frustration that comes from wanting so much more than they have or can easily attain. Whether or not Generation X becomes the first cohort in America to do less well than their parents, they expect it to be so. And this expectation affects everything from the way these people go about shopping to the way they perform on the job. Living for today is an unquestioned way of life when long-term goals appear to be out of reach. This is the story of Generation X.

A “generation” between them and their values are strikingly similar. Here. correlations are much more important than causation. It shouldn’t surprise us that we’re slightly rebellious with fluid attitudes in our early 20’s any more than it should surprise us to learn that we become more conservative and set in our ways as we get jobs, get married and have children.

Sure, people (even clients) are more likely believe a narrative that says, “26 year olds buy razors from Harry’s because they grew up in an in-demand era where getting more for less is a requirement of the post-Great Recession reality.”

But that doesn’t make it true. And it doesn’t matter if it’s true.

What matters is that people with certain needs buy things in certain ways. Our job is to figure out ways to stimulate those purchases through emotional communications.

Specific Targeting

Our target should reflect a group of people who have something in common with how they think about the world and our client’s business. This enables us to take these cultural beliefs and reflect them back to our client’s benefit.

Beyond just age, gender or socioeconomic status, understanding how people consume is critical. The more we know about what they do, the more we can surmise what motivates them – what they need emotionally; not just what they’ve experienced by having been born in a given year.

For example. if we’re trying to sell people on a brand of toothpaste, we need to know how they think about their teeth. What does it mean to take care of your teeth? To have clean teeth? How do you know when they’re clean? Is it smoothness, foaminess, effervescence, mintiness? Does it matter if they look clean (it does in the US; not so much in my Nana’s home country of England)?

Feelings around teeth (like those around all notions of beauty and health) will evolve over time, but not in generational stair-steps a few of us have determined to be roughly 1960 (Gen-X), 1980 (Millennial) and 2000 (Gen-Z). These opinions are much more likely to be shaped by larger cultural shifts, like changing workplace dynamics that caused more frequent gender-mixing, or the desire and then ability (or was it vice versa?) to post photos of oneself at every possible opportunity.

So it’s ok – no, necessary – friends, colleagues, and scholars, to reach beyond generational segments. We do not have to make stereotypical work that contributes to the garbage lining the sides of ESPN.com or on breaks between Ellen singing and Ellen dancing. We can join together in arms, create targets that only work for our clients’ brands, give those people the shot of emotion they crave, and stand out from competition. It’s possible. Let’s do it.

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