Don’t Be Misled by Generational Characterizations

Millenials vs. Centennials
Millennials get too much credit. There, I said it. In just the past week alone I’ve personally read about or heard someone berating Millennials for eating Tidepods; praising them for their efforts to ignite change in our nation’s gun laws; and chastising them for being “snowflakes.”

When I hear gross characterizations like these, I sense a slight crush of my spirit, and I’m not even a Millennial. As a consumer insights expert, I know better than to characterize entire generations – any generation – into a collective whole. First, the bulk of the teens who partake in the inane act of biting into detergent pods are among the Centennial (or Gen Z) Generation. The same goes for the kids at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida who boarded buses for Tallahassee and Washington, DC to demand swift action from legislators to prevent more violent crimes committed against innocent lives. CENTENNIALS.

This chart from Kantar Futures accurately defines today’s generations.

DX Generations

Mind you, it’s not the inaccurate labeling of generations that gets me riled up. It’s the haphazard application of stereotypes to generations of all ages. Case in point: snowflakes. This slang term has become the new “it” insult to characterize Millennials as being overly offended by any contrarian point of view. Didn’t Boomers do this during the “Hippie Movement,” when they were collectively called “the counterculture?” Remember in 2011 when Gen Xers #Occupied Wall Street to beat their drums en masse in protest against the 1%? For that matter, isn’t whomever is slinging mud doing so because they’ve been offended themselves?

Guess what? Centennials will have their “moment” too, for these attitudes and actions are not unique to any particular generation. They are life-stage events we all go through at roughly the same time in life. When we’re in our teens and early 20’s, most of us are going through a physical and intellectual process of self-discovery that manifests itself in outward expression. It is our first attempt at making our mark in life and it takes an epic event to whip the masses into a frenzy.

When society typecasts entire generations a certain way, it results in a demonization of sorts that only serves to diminish the sum of society as a whole. When marketers fall into the trap of over-characterizing generations, it leads to sub-par sales performance.

To explain this, let me use an example we often encounter at DXM. Clients have been known to say they want to target Millennials simply because there are so many of them or because research shows they tend to behave a certain way that would indicate a propensity to purchase their product. What they fail to recognize, however, is that Gen Xers currently have the greatest earning potential per capita because most of them are at the peak of their careers. Boomers are retiring out of the marketplace and younger Millennials are saddled with student loan debt and low starting salaries. By positioning products to Gen Xers in ways they are receptive to, many marketers could grow their business at a far faster pace than by singling out Millennials.

The key word here is ways. Generations are made up of people, each with his or her unique personality, likes, dislikes, language, hairstyle, needs, wants, etc. Once you determine who is most likely to want or need your product, the most effective means of turning them into customers is to “speak their individual language.”

A common argument is that most marketers have limited budgets and therefore can spend on one target segment only. This is exactly the point I’m trying to dispel. It is because you have limited dollars that you must thoroughly analyze every potential individual to determine which people – not segments – have the greatest propensity to purchase and continue to purchase.

By next year, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that Millennials will overtake Baby Boomers as the nation’s largest living adult generation: 73 million vs. 72 million. Meanwhile, Gen Xers will remain at roughly 66 million with a slow, progressive slide in numbers while the number of Millennials will continue to climb until 2036. Because Millennials represent a larger body of people, they produce a lower CPM for marketers and therein lies the primary reason many marketers say it makes sense to target Millennials. They believe it will net the greatest ROI.

Let’s say you sell Hyundai cars. You’ve read reports that Millennials are finally buying cars at a faster pace than Boomers. That, coupled with their sheer size, intuitively tells you that targeting Millennials will net the greatest CPM and therefore makes the most sense.

You build an advertising campaign focused strictly on 24-to-34-year-old Millennials and, voila, you begin experiencing lift within that age group. Strangely though, overall sales remain flat. Why? Rather than taking a deep dive into consumer insights across all people of driving age, you based your marketing strategy on an over-characterization of Millennials and, in the process, alienated Gen Xers.

Millennials may be finally purchasing cars, but the older and more financially stable Gen Xers are sitting squarely in the driver’s seat. Do you know that 68% of Inc. 500 CEOs are Gen Xers? They also make up the largest share of employees currently in the workforce, are most engaged, and earn the most money. They are also fully entrenched in car ownership.

Merging and appending your data and analyzing it thoroughly would have revealed these insights to you about Gen Xers, leading to a better-informed marketing strategy that included both generational targets. Executing a digital campaign would provide you the cost efficiency you needed to create multiple ads with multiple messages targeting a diversity of personalities and needs. It would also eliminate waste by serving up ads only when each prospect displayed a real intent-to-purchase.

Although your CPM may not be quite as low, your conversion rates would skyrocket, netting you far more profit. I would also argue that this strategy could create far more lasting value through customer loyalty, but that’s another story for a different post.

The next time you get stars in your eyes because you think a certain generation is doing something profound, take a deep dive into the data to responsibly inform your marketing efforts.

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