GENERALISING about generations

The dangers of generalising about generations

Organisations trying to market their products can label me as materialistic, competitive, and individualistic; they can think I’m into status-based brands, fast cars and luxury items. Many of the people I work with can as equally be labelled by these same organisations as globalist, questioning about what they’re buying and orientated towards themselves; more interested in treating themselves to experiences, festivals and travel. Meanwhile my kids are deemed as ‘communaholic’, ‘dialoguers’, realistic and cautious; who are into things that are unique to them, don’t define them in a particular way, and are ethical.

Knowing your XYZ

Yes, we can all be neatly described and defined by our generations – Baby Boomers, if we were born in the 1940s and 50s; Generation X if we were born sometime in the 1960s and 1970s; Y (more often known as Millennials) – from the 1980s and 90s; and the new hot topic, Generation Z, born anytime from the late 90s through to the end of the noughties. We can even be defined by the technologies each generation engages with – no screens, one screen, two screens, multi-screens.
This apparently affects our attention span we have for both life and the brands being sold to us. It seems nowadays even our pet goldfish can hold a thought longer than we can.

Each generation has been given lifestyle attributes too, along with aspirations and desires. These may well have been influenced by the themes of their times – war, politics, economic growth, economic crisis, cultural and societal change, technological developments, the climate and environment.

The risk of pigeon-holing generations

One thing this approach suggests is that we all seem to be pigeon-holed less by who we are, and more by when and where we came from. This doesn’t mean that all these economic, cultural and societal things aren’t connected, because they are, but we run the risk of having an over-simplified view of the world, that can have significant impact on how products, services and brands are marketed.

When you hear and read about ‘the Millennial’ does this or that; or there’s a new cohort in town such as Generation Z, to whom we must turn our marketing attention because there are more of them, they have more money than the last lot, want different things in different ways to anyone else, it feels as if corporate and indeed career disaster we will visited upon us if we don’t address the latest generational phenomenon. The worry about all this is from whatever generation we are told we are from, our thinking might be at best become a little overly generalised; and at worst, possibly a bit lazy.

Regardless of generation, don’t forget we’re all different

For a start, each generation of us represents a pretty significant market that I would have thought are far too large to be missed out on. In global terms, Baby Boomers represent some 17% of the entire global population; Generation X 20%; Millennial generation, 24%; and Generation Z, 25% of all of us. So, when it comes to selling stuff, it’s probably best not to ignore anybody.

There’s always talk of one lot having a greater spending power than the last lot, or wanting different things in different ways so our marketing must reflect this. It doesn’t take much analysis however to establish that no matter what generational group we’re told we’re part of, some of us have more or less money than others, like to spend it in different ways and just as importantly desire (or not) different things.

You are what you buy

Clive Humby, of dunnhumby fame, once said ‘you are what you buy’, and you can see why he would say that. When he analysed the purchasing behaviours of the entire Tesco supermarket Clubcard loyalty scheme shopper data base he identified that among those 16m shoppers he looked at (and bearing in mind they all came from one market, the UK, and were purchasing in one sector, grocery), that in order to market products relevant to how they behaved, there were over one million different permutations of promotional offers that could be sent out that best matched how these people preferred to shop. It didn’t matter whether they were young, old, rich or poor, Generation this or that, they would and do respond because the products were and are relevant to them. You should see this kind of approach in action every time you engage with a store loyalty scheme, Amazon, eCommerce sites or if you are being re-targeted via social media, websites etc. following an on-line search.

It’s a stark reminder that much of marketing success is all about what people buy as much as what they say they are going to buy; and what criteria they take into account while considering a purchase.

Focus on who people are and what they do

You can deduce so much from shopping behavioural analyses to find out why people buy things as well. Purchasing patterns across products show peoples’ life stage and life style, and reveal their needs, shopping missions and whether some of their attitudes translate into actual purchasing decisions. No questions are asked, no surveys completed, no research panels recruited for, it’s all pure observation, there’s nothing getting in the way of what people actually do.

The upshot is, no matter which sector or market you operate within, too much generation generalisation and short-hand generational framing runs the risk that you might miss out on an awful lot of potential sales because you’ve pigeon-holed people by neat terms, rather than who they are and what they do.

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Posted by Lawrence Janes

My expertise has come from working with some of the world’s leading retailers and brand owners. These include the likes of Carrefour, Kroger, Tesco & Walgreens; Danone, Johnson & Johnson, Nestle, Pepsico, RB & Unilever.

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