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Why generational marketing is ridiculous

Why generational marketing is ridiculous Drew Hubbard

As marketers, we're often tasked with communicating with groups of people that we don't personally identify with -- people of different genders, different races, different ages, and different belief systems. And that's OK -- we're often pretty darn good at connecting with consumers unlike ourselves. Why? Because we have scores of data, loads of white papers, and a bunch of preconceived notions that tell us exactly what those people want. So that's what we give them.

Why generational marketing is ridiculous

One of marketing's favorite distinctions is that of generations. The Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, Generation Z -- you name it. Some generations go by several names, but the thrust is this: Marketers can and do lump people into groups based on where they fall on the generation spectrum, and they craft their messaging around it.

Well, stop it.

This marketing mindset and approach just isn't relevant anymore. And quite frankly, the very notion of generations isn't relevant anymore.

First off, the goal of defining generations has typically been to identify groups of people with shared experiences. That might have had some merit a few decades back when media was so limited and controlled that people truly did seem to share only the experiences that made headlines -- wars, presidential elections, national tragedies, etc. But today -- and arguably for some time now -- we have media, news, and culture coming out of our ears. Everything is a shared experience. Every bit of news and celebrity nip slip. So how exactly do you decide which events "define" a new generation? Sure, go ahead and point to September 11. Take the easy way out. But where do you draw the line? In recent years, people of all ages have shared every experience from the death of Michael Jackson to Lindsay Lohan's DUI(s).

But the absurdity doesn't stop there. Let's take a look at other reasons why you might want to stop casually referencing "The Boomers," "The Millennials," and the like in your marketing strategy meetings.

No one can agree on them

The exact years that constitute a given generation have historically been fuzzy. And it just keeps getting worse. So if no one can even define generations anymore, how the hell can you target them as a lump group?

Take, for example, this Wikipedia note regarding Millennials (aka, Generation Y): "There are no precise dates for when Generation Y starts and ends. Commentators use beginning birth dates from the early 1980s to the early 2000s." A 20-year gap depending on who you talk to? For crying out loud. Generations themselves are only supposed to represent about a 20-year window, so we're now saying our margin of error is 100 percent? And it's not just the poor Millennials who are wandering around undefined. There's a pretty wide range of dates thrown around for most generations. Sure, you could pick a single source and stick to it. But how is anyone else with whom you communicate going to know whether your sources of choice are in alignment?

Furthermore, even if we could agree on some dates, we're still talking gross oversimplifications. Take, for example, this snippet from Nielsen, which attempts to provide guidance to marketers on how to approach each generation: "Millennials: Consider upgrading piped-in music in stores to current hits to attract contemporary shoppers. Coffee stations with battery chargers and in-store WiFi let them kick back and review internet or mobile coupons and shopping lists."

In this case, at least the author set some year parameters on Millennials (in this case, born 1977-1994 -- which is actually older than a lot of other sources set the generation). But all the same: Current hits? Coffee stations? Battery chargers and in-store WiFi? It's like my grammy wrote that sentence. Last time I checked, outlets and access to the internet are things that all people like (except for my grandmother).
Not a single useful marketing insight can be gleaned when no one can agree on a definition for a generation. And even if they could, it's still just a silly and lazy way to try to get a handle on impossibly large groups of people.

Age does not equal life stage

OK. So we can't agree on where a generation starts and ends. But really, generational marketing is just about targeting people by life stage, right? And generations are rough approximations, right?


If that was once true, it certainly isn't now. Age groups simply don't equate to life stage anymore. A pretty clear example of this is the entrance into parenthood -- one of the biggest life changes a person ever experiences, and certainly one that demands some seriously intense marketing.

Except, oh wait, people aren't having kids anymore -- at least, not as many of them. The birth rate in the U.S. is the lowest it has ever been. So if you're going after Generation X because it represents (according to Nielsen) "busy young families," you're barking up a seriously misled tree.

Furthermore, nature be damned, lots of people are waiting longer and longer to have children. Why? Because we can -- and because it's nice to save some money before you have a child. What am I saying here? People who are raising babies don't fall into one generation or another. Not like they used to. A 65-year-old might be right behind a 16-year-old in the checkout line at Babies "R" Us.

Sadly, the same uncertainty is true for retirement. Not so much in that people of all generations retire these days. But rather, that not everyone in the expected generation is retiring when conventions say they should.

According to the The Pew Charitable Trusts, early Boomers (as they define Boomers, which we know is problematic to begin with) are on track for retirement, whereas late Boomers aren't sitting so pretty. So even individuals within a given generation vary widely in their experience with certain life milestones. 

What you think about a generation is probably wrong anyway

OK, so even if you take issue with the aforementioned reasons that generational targeting is total BS, here's the thing: What you think to be true about a given generation when it comes to marketing is probably completely incorrect anyway. Take Boomers, for example. If you're thinking this group is characterized by frugality, brand loyalty, and a notable lack of tech savviness, you're wrong. And if you think Gen X is just a bunch of white, middle-class, credit-card wielders, you might also find yourself surprised. In short, the people marketers think they're targeting when they focus on a given generation just might not exist -- at least not in the numbers they think.


OK, so here's the good thing: We don't need to target by a false distinction like generation any more. So just scrap that sort of thinking and speaking altogether when you're setting strategy. We have the tools and the talent to do so much better than that. You want to find new moms who recently vacationed to Hawaii and like the color teal? There's a technology partner out there that can help you on that one. Target by factors that truly define a person's engagement and purchasing behavior, not by generation.

Drew Hubbard is a social media strategist and owner of LA Foodie.

On Twitter? Follow Hubbard at @LAFoodie. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Drew is mainly a dad, but he's also a social media and content marketing guy. Originally from Kansas City and a graduate of The University of Missouri, Drew will gladly discuss the vast, natural beauty of the Show Me State. Drew and his wife,...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Marc A

2013, October 16

So how would you propose talking about a 25 year old vs. a 55 year old -- in a marketing meeting?

Would you say -- "yeah, those 25 year olds really like their smart phones"? Or just use the term "Millennials" instead.

Also you're confusing a biological generation with a cultural generation when you write:

"Furthermore, nature be damned, lots of people are waiting longer and longer to have children. Why? Because we can -- and because it's nice to save some money before you have a child. What am I saying here? People who are raising babies don't fall into one generation or another. Not like they used to. A 65-year-old might be right behind a 16-year-old in the checkout line at Babies "R" Us".

Commenter: Scott wilder

2013, October 10

Curious about what you recommend instead? How should Marketers target people?

Commenter: Tony Thornby

2013, October 10

As an internet marketer keen on social networking, I frequently get told, by people ten to twenty years younger than me that they're too old to get to grips with such things - I smile. Equally, so many small SEM owners assign their company's social network presence to the youngest employee in the mistaken belief that effective personal use is a good capability indicator for effective business use.

How refreshing to read an article that decries ageism. But online marketing in social networks inevitably tempts people into using age criteria because it is one of the available demographic segments.