Why are we so obsessed with generational marketing? What we learned

Last Thursday, we opened the doors to our Shoreditch office and held our first panel discussion of the year: “Why are we so obsessed with generational marketing?”

Our diverse panel consisted of; Amy Longland, COO of My Life My Say, a non-partisan youth-lead organisation that aims to engage young people in politics; Timothy Armoo, CEO of Fanbytes, an agency that puts brands in touch with Snapchat influencers; Chris Le’Cand Harwood, head of Time Inc’s social agency with over fifteen years experience in marketing; and Stephanie Yeboah AKA Nerd About Town, a beauty, fashion and lifestyle blogger.

Weren’t able to attend? Don’t worry, we’ve compiled the most important points from the evening.

Are generational labels necessary?

We wasted no time delving straight into the crux of the discussion: did each member of our panel think generational labels were necessary? All agreed that an understanding of each demographic is necessary. Different age groups are likely to want and need certain things, for example, homeowners insurance is more likely to be needed by those who have earned enough to own a house, whereas something such as a club music event might appeal to someone without family obligations. There is also the idea of generational cohort theory to back this up, which suggests that although some changes are specific to generations, a lot of these changes can be ascribed to age instead.

But, there are also key distinctions between generational labels that describe basic wants, needs and leanings, and perpetuate generational stereotypes that are inherently damaging. Whilst older generations might be more inclined to pick up a paper and younger generations may be more comfortable with sourcing content online, these aren’t mutually exclusive. According to Timothy Armoo, the best way to use generational labels are as an ‘added extra’ — they should never be the main source of your strategy, nor your product.

This idea was backed up by Chris Le’Cand Harwood, who iterated that brands who are using generational stereotypes to sell to a potentially new market need to remember who they are and what their product is before they start focusing on how it might relate to their audience. It’s especially important for brands not to get caught up in the process of seeking new markets, or they might they lose themselves all together.

Are younger generations more politically active?

The next question we were excited to pose to our panel was on social responsibility and political awareness. Millennials and gen Z are thought to be the most politically engaged and socially aware generation, and this is affecting the way we advertise — or so we believe. Younger people are, on whole, more engaged politically, or at least that’s how it looks. We saw that in Brexit, in the most recent UK general election and we’re seeing it now in the US when it comes to gun regulation. But how does this affect marketing and advertising?

Amy Longland said that from her experience, young people are becoming more engaged, but there still a gap which is exacerbated by the elite nature of politics, and therefore it’s important to change the way we interact with it. Through her work engaging young people in the political sphere, she recognises that young people are more likely to be involved in politics through methods and spaces that suit them, by engaging in discussion in a Starbucks or using YouTube and social platforms to speak to them their language. But, it’s important not to be patronizing or mindlessly use slang words you might think young people like — it’s only going to make you seem fake.

One of the ways young people are seen to be more engaged is through technology. Stephanie Yeboah AKA Nerd About Town said that because people all over the world have access to technology and use social media platforms, it’s harder to turn a blind eye to what is going on around the world. Injustices trend on Twitter and revolutions are now live streamed on Facebook. Similarly, brands and companies now have their image projected onto many different places and so have to be aware of what type of message they are sending. It becomes harder to hide your stance on issues and even more important to make the ‘right’ one, or you may be held to account.

Timothy also pointed out that if boomers or gen X had had the same access to technology as millennials and gen Z have now, this shift would probably have been brought about a lot sooner. Young people tend to be more politically active and likely to protest in any era, perhaps the growth of technology has just allowed it to become more of a cultural shift. As Tim said, “we [the youth] have the added benefit of being young in a time where these new things exist.”

Should brands change their strategies to target and win over younger audiences?

It depends on what the brand is selling and how they go about it. Stephanie gave the example of how brands can do it well, such as Crocs, who approached her to be part of their new campaign which planned to use influencers to target a younger audience, rebranding themselves as a product not so exclusively aimed at older people and chefs. Although she chose not to be a part of the campaign — it didn’t match her personal brand — she recognised that the campaign was done well. Why? Because the specific product authentically addressed younger generations without losing the image of the brand as a whole. The question brands need to ask themselves before targeting new markets is if the product appeals.

Brands need to remember both what they’re selling and who they are as a brand. According to Amy, there is no point sticking an avocado on something thinking that it will automatically gain them more customers. Amy also made the point that the people you are targeting need to be central to your messaging, rather than the envisioned stereotypes around them.

It’s also important for brands not to forget about their current clientele, and quite often this means putting boomer-centric advertising on the shelf in order to win over millennials. But this can bite brands in the foot, not only losing them a loyal customer base, but one that according to all reports, still hold the majority of wealth and according to AARP they control about 70% of the wealth.

There is a common misconception that boomers aren’t online, which is what leads brands to focus on millennials in their digital marketing approach. As a matter of fact, boomers use the internet to shop just as much as millennials and spend more per transaction.

Agencies are the ones who benefit from these stereotypes

Marketers and advertisers are the main parties who benefit from generation labels, Timothy added. “…and that’s coming from a marketers perspective.”

By putting people into boxes, advertisers, marketers and agencies have the ability to position themselves as ‘experts’ and therefore charge a premium for brands to access this insight. And this isn’t a new idea either: agencies, marketing, and brands have a long history of profiling audiences and putting them in boxes, as one of Curated’s Directors, Monica Karpinski, noted.

“US advertising following World War II has gained iconic status through its colourful-kitsch imagery but paints a rigid and complete picture of the same sort of housewife and her responsibility in proliferating domestic bliss. I suppose before the advent of today’s technology, brands and marketers had fewer ways to understand the people they were trying to reach, so were at a greater danger of falling into stereotypes.”

It’s also important to note that this isn’t the only role of agencies, as Chris, in his many years of experience noted: agencies bring additional value in saving brands time. They put power and resources into researching these trends so that they are able to offer their clients a niche and strategic understanding of their audience.

Are generational stereotypes ultimately damaging?

Stereotypes, like labels, are on the whole ultimately damaging, according to our panel. Timothy says that one of the most important things for brands to remember is that their audience are humans first. For example, if we all recognise that intrusive ads are annoying regardless of age, gender or interests, we have a much better launching point when creating a marketing or advertising campaign. It’s also one of the reasons influencer marketing has become so popular — it’s less disruptive than the rest of our methods of using digital.

It’s important to understand human behaviour and psychology when creating a strategy, but according to Brendan Patterson, Curated’s Account Director, who was listening from the crowd, it’s important we don’t forget about age as a key factor when deciphering a character profile.

“Whether we like it or not, there are some things that are determined by age and I think we have to accept that. Different need states and purchasing power are just two critical human elements that are influenced by age. The opportunity for brand owners, product manufacturers and holistic markets alike is not to draw broad conclusions based on age group in isolation. Rather, it is an entry point to building an authentic portrait of your target audience.”

Overall, the general consensus was that generational stereotypes which perpetuate the idea of the ‘model millennial’ or ‘classic baby boomer’ are doing us much more harm than good.
So where do we go from here? Well the media, and to an extent, some brands, play their part in exhausting these stereotypes, which then prompts us as generations to live up to them. And whilst some factors may be true — boomers as a generation are more likely to own a house and millennials may or may not enjoy an avocado on toasted bread —we need to look elsewhere if we want to make an impact with our marketing strategies.

Annoyed you missed it? Don’t worry we’ve got plenty more events on the way!

This write-up is part of an editorial series on generational marketing. You can also read about the emergence of Gen Z, the difference between baby boomers and Millennials, and how companies are ignoring the forgotten generation.

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