Is Generational Marketing Getting Old?

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Three generations No longer distinct marketing categories / via
Three generations No longer distinct marketing categories / via
Three generations
No longer distinct marketing categories / via

The practice of targeting consumers according to age bracket has seen better days.

Buzzwords – Millennial, Silents, Gen X, Boomer, Gen Z, Boomlet – serve to simplify and cluster, but do these labels wrongly assume? Whatever phase in life, it’s time to grow up.

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Generational marketing is a thing of the past.

According to virtual marketing encyclopedia, Brandeo:

Generational Marketing is based on the premise that marketers must understand the underlying drives associated with different generations and how those generations interact with each other to be able to effectively market to them.

 

Generational marketing proponents believe that the generation in which people are born significantly influences who they are, what they believe, what their values are, life skills, and ultimately, what they buy. Members of a generation share the experiences of their formative years, including cultural, economic, global, political, and technological influences.

 

Why it’s time to let it go.

The argument that shared experience or era-generated pride unites us is valid, yet the relevance of connecting people based on when we are born is simply outdated.

For starters, a Google search of the years associated with generational labels provides a mixed-up range of dates and definitions designed to pigeon-hole and oversimplify.

Shared cultural and historical events can and do shape us. “I was there” is a powerful connector. But the premise that people of a certain age think alike or act alike because of shared experiences is a rush to judgement. In today’s world of instant communications and shared everything, age matters less. Sure, kids will be kids and parents aren’t always cool, but in terms of the way information shapes how we think, it’s more about mindset.

No limits.

Twelve year olds are building apps and 85 year olds are running marathons. Who’s to say what’s age appropriate? We’re accomplishing — and experiencing — more over a longer span of years. Life is good — or can be — all along the way.

It’s easy to label and make assumptions, but it’s hurting us. Best-case outcome is the attempt to speak the same language or relate to one another. The motivation to sell more is a poor excuse for profiling. Reality comes round to bite us in the butt, as date of birth inaccurately measures things that matter.

Adding insult to injury.

Over the years we’ve come to identify folks in all sorts of ways: profession, gender, neighborhood, paycheck, skin color, religion, age. Life is too short to list them all.

While we are influenced by upbringing, peer opinion, where we live and the almighty media, I’m ashamed to say that marketers are some of the worst offenders. Understanding consumers and markets goes more-than-skin-deep. Rationales abound, but oversimplification is not good for business or for people. Generational marketing’s one-size-fits-all approach lacks maturity. Wrought with wrinkles, it’s time for a marketing facelift.

A matter of mind.

The truth is we are more alike than we care to admit. We all know people in their 80s who think like they’re 30 and 20-somethings who have old souls.

In grouping by date of birth based on presumed shared experience (history and culture being the argument), silos are built.

The converse argument would look at what I call the tapestry effect — the interwoven threads of experience shared across generations, across ethnicity, societies and cultures. To think in terms of commonalities rather than differences, now there’s a concept.

Think music, art, sport for starters. These, among others, are de-siloers.

Listen up, people.

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We could test the hypothesis with any number of behaviors, tendencies, influences assumed to match with a particular age demographic. Lifestyle? Clothing? Physical activity? Cultural interests?

Let’s pick an easy one. How about music?

A person born in 1992 listens to the same music that those raised in the ’50s and ’60s used to “spin” on their record players. Beatles. Dylan. Rolling Stones. Van Morrison. Hardly your one-hit wonders, and more than chart-busters. These are generation busters.

A wedding band plays nothing but oldies: a gaggle of “millennials” mixes it up with a sea of “boomers” on the dance floor, not one of them missing a beat, and each one knows every word of “Runaround Sue.”

A thought-provoking piece by Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., “Why do young people listen to really old rock music?,” lists five factors which might influence music listening habits and preferences:

  • involved parenting
  • ’60s are culturally enshrined
  • talent level of ’60s and ’70s musicians
  • baby boomers control the media world
  • greater selectivity in what gets airplay

Beast of Burden lives on.

Coming full circle.

Marclay vinyl
An installation by artist Christian Marclay, who used vinyl before vinyl was cool again. / via

If music is the age-defyer, how it’s received must be an age revealer. It’s a digital world, and Spotify and iTunes make sampling easy. But, hey, not everyone can remember their Apple ID. No worries, as they say. Here’s the disconnect: Vinyl is back.

According to The Wall Street Journal’s “Biggest Music Comeback of 2014,” over 7.9 million vinyl records were sold last year, up 49% from 2013.

Younger people . . . are buying records in greater numbers, attracted to the perceived superior sound quality of vinyl and the ritual of putting needle to groove.

And the tables keep turning.

There’s talk of another revival taking place, perhaps more of a “carrying on” than a resurrection. Meeting recently with some folks who came of age in the ’60s, these forever-young people were not simply observers in that time. They were there in the coffeehouses of Greenwich Village and Cambridge. They listened to the music and heard the message. At the risk of labelling, these were the rabble-rousers, truth-tellers, freedom fighters, troubadours and marchers.

It was heartening to hear that folk music is far from dying. And that rabble-rousers remain. In fact a new breed of young musicians have claimed this music for their own and, according to those who were there in the ’60s, are doing so with knowledge and reverence to its roots. This revival of The Revival (Folk Revival that is) links generations.

The celebration began in June (through November 29) at the Museum of the City of New York with a major exhibition “Folk City: New York and the Folk Music Revival.”

Barbara Hoffman writes in the New York Post:

. . .  the real gem here is the music itself. Pick up a headphone at one listening station and you’ll hear four versions of “The House of the Rising Sun” culminating in the raw 1964 hit by the Animals.

 

One of the highlights is hearing Guthrie himself singing “This Land Is Your Land,” a naked plea for the right of all people to share America’s bounty. He sings it in a plain, shockingly unvarnished tenor, but with the urgency of a man who had something important to say.

 

Hoffman describes the exhibition as “traveling back.”  I’m not sure we ever left.

In New York, Boston, Cambridge and elsewhere, a smorgasbord of events and celebrations will commemorate a time a few decades back when young people gathered in coffee houses to lend an ear and give voice to meaningful stuff like equality and race and poverty and politics.

Sound familiar?

The more things change, the more they stay the same, as my grandmother used to say.

Music as a messenger, then and now.

Bigger stuff than a silly little marketing strategy? Maybe not.

Generational marketing, or any labeling based on age, race or gender, is a thing of the past. Marketers would add value (and I’d venture to say sell more) to look less at silos and more at the threads — like music, art and sport — that connect us. If good marketing means affecting behaviors, great marketing can affect the way we think.

All to-gether now (all together now!), let’s sing it:  R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

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Leslie Cargill
Leslie Cargill is a “smarketer” and communicator, privileged to work with leading brands like Boston Ballet, United Way, the Museum of Science and the Boston Red Sox. From baseball to ballet, she advances experience-based programs in the arts, tourism, education, entertainment, healthcare, fitness and sports. While the goal is to retain and grow an existing base of business, the trick is in developing new or "non-traditional" audiences. She was Director of Marketing and Communications with Boston Ballet before returning to her consulting practice where she serves as advisor, project manager and interim CMO for her clients. She believes in a good mix of marketing basics, a campaign approach, and both program and institutional strategies in branding, positioning, messaging and communicating. A dyed-in-the wool New Englander, she splits her time between Boston and her family home on the coast of Maine. She can be reached at leslie@cargillboston.com. Or call Leslie at 617.913.9000.