How do you handle marketing to various age groups—or does it not matter?

Hungarian sociologist Karl Mannheim published an essay in 1923 called “The Problem of Generations.” In this essay, Mannheim discusses the theory that contemporaries who go through major historical events together (such as WWII or September 11th) tend to develop a similar perspective of the world and similar ways of coping with it. These differences can make them seem very different from the generations ahead of them. Hence the importance of generational marketing.

Mannheim’s opinions were controversial at the time, but they brought about the notion that there are generations (known as cohorts to sociologists) with different characteristics and gaps between them. Marketing firms have depended on character sketches or archetypes of these generations and their characteristics for years in order to understand the best strategies to effectively market to them.

As time goes on, research is indicating that people of different age demographics start to become more multi-platform. Due to many of the recent changes in consumer technology and the relative inscrutability of the younger generation who most easily adapt to these changes, many pundits are starting to question how effective the generational marketing approach really is.

Generational Gaps are a Reality

It would be ridiculous to claim that there aren’t certain essential differences between and even among the different generations of cohorts.

Forrester Research conducted a survey in 2013 (find it cited in an article by Stijn Hendrikse for the Mighty Call website) where participants of various age groups were asked what their preferred means of communication was with a company’s customer service representatives. It didn’t come as a surprise that younger people (Generation Y, aka “Millennials,” and Generation Z) vastly preferred online communication to the older generation (Baby Boomers). Older generations preferred speaking with a live representative over the phone. In 2015, a Pew Research survey determined that 60 percent of Baby Boomers get their political news from watching TV, while inversely, the same percentage of Millennials turn to Facebook to get their political news.

Graphic comparing statistics about Millennials and Baby Boomers

From a marketing standpoint, Millennials are arguably the most difficult generation to market to in U.S history. Conventional wisdom regarding Millennials is that they can spot deception and insincerity a mile away; they don’t respond to many of the traditional marketing methods used today. They desire an unprecedented relationship of substance with their brands and search for those that meet their needs.

Generational Categories are Too Broad or Too Narrow

Marketing firms have been marketing to consumers according to an age bracket a general understanding of what this age bracket might be. This approach is appealing because it’s already been established, it’s inexpensive and is very easy to grasp. If you Google the phrase “generational marketing,” you will find a plethora of articles attempting to explain the personal traits of different generations, almost as if they were characters in a play.

Marketing Teacher states that people born from 1901-1926 are “strongly interested in personal morality and near-absolute standards of right and wrong,” but views Baby Boomers as “self-righteous and self-centered.” It also takes a pretty offensive stance on Millennials, claiming they expect the world to treat them like they’re special and prefer hand holding and lots of accolades in their work environment.

According to another article on Social Marketing, Generation X is “often characterized by high levels of skepticism, with ‘what’s in it for me’ attitudes and a reputation for some of the worst music to ever gain popularity”—another jab based on the writer’s subjective views on this generation. With all the inaccuracies, differences among individuals and often offensive (and untrue) opinions planted by writers, it isn’t a mystery that most people who read these character sketches think, “Wait, this doesn’t describe me at all.”

There lies one of the biggest problems marketing firms run into when they have an over-reliance on generational marketing.

Cross-Device Behavior: When Generational Categories Overlap

One of the major assumptions about the current generational archetypes is that young people embrace technology while older people try to avoid it altogether. While there is some truth to this, time is changing the validity of this statement, perhaps inevitably. This can be seen with “cross-device behavior.”

“Cross-device behavior is often seen as being associated with Millennials,” wrote Liane Deitrich in an article for Marketing Land. “This young, tech-savvy demographic group of digital natives is known for using multiple platform to connect with brands, research, and shop for products.”

Research compiled by ComScore shows that “people of all different age demographics are becoming increasingly multi-platform,” according to Dietrich. “US consumers of all ages used an average of 3.3 devices last year. What’s more, the research finds that the demographic of people over age 55 is currently the fastest-growing segment of multi-platform users, increasing to 68 percent in 2014 from 57 percent in 2013.”

Conclusions on Generational Marketing

Generational marketing can be a helpful tool when gearing advertising toward a specific group but be careful not to use it as a crutch. According to Jacob Leise, an eMoney Advisor communications specialist, “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.”

While you don’t want to pigeon-hole your prospective clients, using things known about their generation “can help bridge the gap between total strangers and trusted clients.”

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