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5 ways to captivate every generation

5 ways to captivate every generation Jim Nichols

Most of us are familiar with the different profiles of Millennials, Gen Xers, and Boomers. It can be fun to interpret people's behaviors in the context of what we know about generational research. But are we making proper use of these generational insights in our marketing?

Whether your brand focuses primarily on customers that fall into a single generation or across groups, the insights that have been unearthed on these groups should be better reflected in our efforts. The ways in which we process information as individual marketers may be rather different from those of huge swaths of our target audiences.

This piece is an attempt to spawn thinking about whether our own marketing efforts have the communication "legs" necessary to achieve their full potential. Are we reflecting what we know in what we do? As a first step, I'd like to explore five aspects of our communications and outline the ways that we can ensure that our brands get maximum advantage.

The five ways are:

  • Showing respect

  • Ensuring credibility

  • Delivering constancy

  • Rethinking focus

  • Providing entertainment

Showing respect

No generation tolerates disrespect well, but I think it's safe to say that Millennials and Gen Xers are more demanding when it comes to respect and the ways in which they interact with brands. If you're a fan of "Mad Men," you'll know what I mean when I speak of the "punter mentality" -- the sense that consumers deserve to be done in by emotional sells and aggressive claims. As the saying goes, "They believe what we tell them to."

I think there is no better example of this mentality than Tab's 1970s "Mindsticker" campaign:

I'm not suggesting for a moment that Boomer women wanted to worry about losing their husbands because of choosing the wrong beverage. But that sort of message was part of our formative marketing reality.

Millennials and Gen Xers who grew up in a wired environment are more demanding with regard to the ways in which brands reach and speak with them. For example, think about their reaction to the Motrin ad that poked fun at baby sling wearers.

The insult was hardly on the same scale as Mindsticker, but the firestorm of reaction was enormous, and driven wholly by Millennial and Gen X bloggers.

One demonstrates respect by reflecting realistic lifestyles, multiculturalism, and the sense that what matters is what the user thinks, not what the brand thinks. You reflect respect by...you know...showing it. Perhaps there is no better example than this Google ad:

What makes it noteworthy is the not-so-subtle shift to user as hero, with brand as enabler. The company could very easily have done some sort of "ole skool" "Google to the rescue" campaign. Instead, it reflected the sensibilities of younger demos while also creating a message that could resonate across age.

Ensuring credibility

The "Greatest Generation" -- the one that went to war against Germany and Japan -- is known for its respect of authority and belief in the words of institutions, and this includes brands. Boomers, a bit less so. So, many of the defining experiences of the Boomer generation are of trust violated.

All this cultivated some skepticism among 45-65 year olds. For Gen X and Millennials, those feelings of mistrust are even greater. Belief in the veracity of advertising is at its lowest ebb among these groups.

For brands to gain the trust of the younger group, relatable personal experiences of "people like me" are extremely valuable. Of course, testimonials have been a staple of the ad biz for decades -- but the advent of social has made access to "unbiased" reviews more ubiquitous.

Brands can appeal especially to Millennials and Gen Xers, but also to Boomers, by defining powerful social media evangelism initiatives that magnify access to positive messages. Platforms like Zuberance and ExpoTV, which encourage people to create and post brand related messages, are two examples of how we can give voice to our fans without perpetrating the sort of heavy handed control that would undermine the credibility of the positive messages. These and other platforms do not prevent people from making negative statements but rather ensure that among the available comments and videos related to your brand, your fans get their say.

Of course, it would be difficult to deliver a powerful marketing program solely through community messages. But recognizing the inherent skepticism prevalent among younger groups can help us craft better brand-created messages as well. We need to cut back on hyperbole, and instead deliver positive but wholly accurate brand messages. Exaggerated claims are quickly exposed in our world of two way communications, as consumer disappointment gets a far broader audience than it did before the internet. By contrast, delivering what you promise, social responsibility, and respect for the needs of users go a long way.

Delivering consistency

The always-on nature of modern media has conditioned all of us, especially Millennials, to expect access to messages on demand. Think about how your attitude toward TV changed when you got access to Youtube, Netflix, or Hulu.

The fact is, the younger you are, the less likely you are to be satisfied to wait for appointment media. Concepts like NBC's 1990 marketing effort "Must See Thursday" (Primetime) simply don't have the same pull anymore.

This has implications on how you deliver your video messages. It means that online viewing is an increasingly important channel for consumers and that if you choose TV spots to the exclusion of other media you may find that huge swaths of the population are under delivered.

It also points to the need for social community participation, because younger consumers expect to be able to access brand communications on their time and in "their" places. When we set goals to have our web presences visited weekly or monthly, we miss the sea change that on-demand media have wrought. 

All consumers -- but especially Millennials -- come to us on their time and their terms. We can increase that likelihood with more frequent communications, more relevant messages, and getting ourselves closer to where they choose to spend time online. Naturally, the ubiquity of social media has made brand presences in these environments more relevant to all generations. Boomers and Gen Xers are all over social media, and the preferences of Millennials have spread to these more mature groups.

Rethinking focus

Millennials are far more oriented to multitasking and simultaneous communications.  Boomers are more one-task-at-a-time oriented. You probably see this in your daily interactions with people of other generations. 
Photo: Ryan Ritchie

I, for example, am constantly amazed by the ability of the Millennials around me to keep track of multiple activities at once and juggle a variety of simultaneous communications streams. By contrast, if you asked them what they notice about me, they'd tell you about the ability to spend hours or days focusing on the intricacies of a single task, and perhaps the ability to remember a great deal of detail.

In a work environment, having a mix of these skills is a great thing. The (at times) forgotten implication for marketers is that we need to alter the single path nature of communications. When you visit a website, for example, there is generally a dominant communication on the first page. From there the goal is often to move people through the navigation from left to right or top to bottom, in a prescribed path. To appeal to younger consumers, we need to make more kinds of information available on pages, encourage people to find their own paths, and provide multiple means of interaction.

Nike offers a page clearly more optimized to Millennials than to someone of my generation.

The brand message is strong, but it's ultimately provided through user participation and the constantly moving graphics. This offers users the opportunity to consume multiple messages simultaneously and to follow up on those they find interesting. For me, such a site is a bit of a nightmare – off-putting to say the least. But then, I am not a good prospect for the brand.

Contrast that approach with Cialis, a product targeted to those over 35:

A site like this tells you the dominant message and then gives you an eminently linear path to follow.

For your brand, it is more likely that you need to appeal to multiple generations, so finding an appropriate balance is the most important task. But using these two extreme examples can help define the entire range of possible designs, from which you can narrow to the approach and balance that works best for you.

This may also have implications for banners and other small ad spaces. Conventional wisdom tends to argue for simplicity and message brevity in such spaces. However, I think that direction may be becoming outdated. Perhaps the availability of more ways to interact with ad units will ultimately overwhelm the standard banner approach. Banner clickers tend to be older, so that argues for simplicity. But our desire to sell to younger generations may require a wholesale rethink of what an "ad" actually is.

Providing entertainment

Inherent in the fragmentation of media that has defined the lives of younger consumers is the idea that at any moment we all have millions of potential alternatives to the media and marketing experience that we are currently seeing. As a Boomer I was "trained" to wait through pods of commercials, and to follow a linear communications path. As a result, my expectations with regard to how interesting brand communications need to be are lower than someone 20 years my junior.

Shorter and more scannable copy, more interesting stories, briefer marketing messages --all are part of a shift in control from brand dominated to consumer dominated. Millennials expect our messages to be more relevant to them, more engaging, and more immersive.

These are all examples of higher expectations. Where expectations may actually be lower among Millennials is with regard to production values. Over and over the younger consumer has demonstrated a preference for ideas and truthful credibility over budget busting production values. It doesn't mean the end to multimillion dollar video production extravaganzas, but rather that what counts even more are message, story, and engagement.

Ford's successful campaign for the Focus featuring "Doug the Puppet" offers a great example of how entertainment value helped heighten the appeal of a considered purchase.

For the last couple Super Bowls, Doritos has proven that by asking consumers to make ads for the company. The best entries have decent production values but really shine when it comes to their storytelling.


This is by no means an exhaustive list to consider when examining your efforts with regard to generational insights. However, the need to do so becomes quickly apparent when we take the time to look at our own messaging in the context of the eyes and brains of our prospects.

One important final thought is the need to balance youth culture with mature wallets. Any brand's long term survival depends upon attracting the next generation needs to ensure that its messages are delivered in a manner that is relevant to younger people. But today's demographic realities point even more strongly to the value of attracting Boomers and keeping them sold on your products.


Older generations have had more money than their younger counterparts for a long time. But signs point to this being even more true in the years ahead. Persistently high Millennial unemployment and underemployment may make it harder for today's youngest adults to match or exceed the success of their older counterparts. In such an environment, and in a world where life spans are growing, it makes sense to ensure that as we refine our marketing efforts toward youth we also remember the needs of their well-heeled elders.
Jim Nichols
is vice president of branding at ROI DNA.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Vector silhouette people," "Collection of people silhouettes," and "One sharpened pencil" images via Shutterstock.

Jim Nichols is VP of Marketing for Apsalar. Jim has 20+ years experience in over 80 different categories, including developing successful positioning and go-to-market plans for more than 40 adtech and martech companies. He joins Apsalar after...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Ford Kanzler

2012, April 13

Fine article! Always enjoy learning around the intersection of psychology and marketing.
'Suggest other audience variables worth considering are enthicity and SRI's VALs typology -http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VALS - which gets into an audience member's motivation and resources. Definitely a complex matrix of things to consider when we attempt to communicate more effectively.