What is generational marketing?

Generational marketing targets audiences based on attributes associated with their generation. Product development, marketing efforts and sales strategies all center around generational paradigms, such as the values, attitudes, habits, technology usage, and product and media consumption trends of those age groups.

Simple, right?

There’s a bit more to generational marketing, such as when it should be used in a marketing strategy, which demographics and age brackets are worth targeting and how to employ it in practice.

Let’s review.

But first, here’s how to avoid cliches and stereotypes

Creating generalizations about any group of people is dangerous, and more often than not, it backfires. It’s dangerous to assume that people of the same age are alike or even similar. Just consider the size of some of the largest generations in the U.S.:

That’s a lot of people per age group. Painting with too broad a brush, or benchmarking the identity of an entire demographic with portrayals in pop culture will get you into hot water time and time again.

Use data, and know what matters to your audience

So where is the line between stereotyping and practicing generational marketing effectively?

Think of it this way: Each generation is likely to be more receptive to certain:

  1. Formats of content.
  2. Distribution channels for that content.
  3. Attributes used to sell products (cost, value, personalization, sustainability – and so on).

For example, surveys and social media usage trends suggest that Gen Z prefers SnapChat and Instagram to Facebook, with only 9% of that age group citing the world’s largest social network as their preferred channel.

Meanwhile, a Nielsen poll of more than 30,000 millennials found that 73% of consumers in that age group are willing to spend more money on sustainable products.

If I’m a manufacturer with a large millennial and Gen Z customer base, I know that I need to be present on Instagram, and that I that I need to play up the sustainable aspects of my products.

But beyond that, targeted marketing is about knowing your audience, not attributing generational stereotypes to it and then building campaigns around those misguided assumptions.

In 2017, Pepsi had to apologize to its customers, to the media and to Kendall Jenner after horribly misrepresenting millennial values and co-opting an important cause. The lesson? Instead of taking persona-development shortcuts by making age-based assumptions about your prospects, take the time to understand them.

Collect quantitative information pertaining to their buying and shopping preferences. Who influences them? What channels do they prefer? What brand values are the most successful brands in your industry espousing? Construct marketing campaigns based on that data.

Simply put, generational targeting is rarely the entire basis of your marketing tactics. It’s just one aspect of your target audience that may or may not influence how you engage with them. You may discover that age has nothing to do with shopper preferences within your industry. If that’s the case, focus on the persona attributes that do matter, whatever those may be.

So what does the data tell us about marketing to different generations?

Again, combine this information with your experience and your understanding of your industry or vertical’s nuances.

With that in mind, let’s look at what the research says about generational commerce habits:

Baby Boomers: 23.5% of the U.S. population

Although Baby Boomers have been dethroned in the U.S. as the largest generation, they still have a substantial amount of spending power. In fact, Deloitte estimates that Baby Boomers will remain the wealthiest generation until 2030.

Example of marketing that targets Baby Boomers from T-Mobile.

Some high-level attributes of this generation include:

  • 67% own smartphones.
  • Most prefer to shop in-store, but they like having online options, and most use the internet daily.
  • Generally prioritize discounts and pricing above all else.
  • More likely to watch traditional TV than other generations as opposed to using streaming services.
  • Facebook is their social media platform of choice, and is primarily used for maintaining relationships and reconnecting.

Gen X: 20.3% of the U.S. population

Generation X – while often ignored – is the closest rival to Baby Boomers in terms of spending power. Some studies even argue that they have more spending power, and because of their age and the fact that many are raising children, are more likely to invest in a wider array of products than any other generation on this list.

Perhaps more than most generations, Gen X cares about being rewarded for its loyalty.

They’re also loyal. Despite all the talk about millennials and Gen Z, this is quite possibly the treasure trove of generations.

  • 85% own smartphones.
  • Most prefer to shop online, but like to have in-store options as well.
  • Has the highest rate of brand loyalty of the generations on this list.
  • More likely to watch traditional TV than millennials.
  • Facebook is their social media platform of choice.

Gen Y (millennials): 24.7% of the U.S. population

37% of millennials will pay extra money for products that support a cause they believe in.

Millennials were coming of age during 9/11, they’re digital natives, witnessed the shift to Y2K, entered the job force during economic collapse and are saddled with more student loan debt than any other generation ($1 trillion of $1.5 trillion in total student debt in the U.S.). Perhaps more than any other generation, they’ve had countless stereotypes hurled at them (lazy, entitled, uncommitted, shallow, limited attention span). I can promise you that buying into those tropes will not help you sell to them.

Millennials are catching up fast in terms of spending power, and have already surpassed Baby Boomers as the largest living generation.

  • 92% own smartphones.
  • On average, does about 60% of all shopping online.
  • Less loyal to brands than Gen X, and generally value a strong customer experience.
  • Consume more digital video and streaming services than either of the preceding generations.
  • Facebook is their social media platform of choice; are generally more receptive to social media influencers than other generations – they also tend to care more about what their peers say (on social media and through online reviews).
  • Are generally less receptive to interruptive advertising – with the glaring exception of radio (millennials listen to more of it than any other generation because of podcasts).

Gen Z: 21.5% of the U.S. population

As the youngest generation on this list, Gen Z lags in spending power, but possesses significant potential to lead the way within the next decade or so. For now, they are generally considered influencers more than decision-makers (or buyers).

This generation was raised with smartphones, and is by far the most tech-savvy. More so than any other generation, they see technology as an expectation, and even associate it with brand credibility (a Gen Z-er will know a subpar website when they see one, even if they have zero web-design experience). They also are more accustomed to personalization.

  • 98% own smartphones.
  • Are twice as likely to use an online-only store as any other generation; but they also value in-store experiences that use technology effectively.
  • 87% want omnichannel loyalty programs.
  • Consume digital video and streaming services on-par with millennials.
  • Snapchat and Instagram are their social media platform of choice, and they use social media more for content consumption and entertainment than communication.
  • Like millennials, they generally dislike disruptive advertising and are tech-savvy enough to work around it in many cases.

Generational trends

A few trends are fairly apparent here.

First, all of these generations are tech-savvy. Most baby boomers are on social media, use email and own smartphones. However, digital technology plays a much more central role among millennials and Gen Z, because these generations learned to be reliant on tech at earlier ages than Gen X and Baby Boomers.

Equally important, the need for personalized experiences tends to be more prominent in younger generations, mainly because that’s the expectation that has been set in their lifetime thanks to brands like Netflix and Amazon.

On the whole, brand loyalty is exceptionally important across the board, arguably – and ironically – with the exception of Baby Boomers, who are more likely to chase discounts than wind up being “set in their ways.”

So what does this tell us?

If we read between the lines, mostly we see that the need for personalized, data-driven and technology-oriented marketing is becoming more of a priority. It already is the priority for millennials, and will be the expectation for Gen Z.

We can also deduce that millennials and Gen Z are least likely to encounter interruptive advertising based on their TV and streaming habits, and most likely to ignore it (e.g., in the form of banner ads) when they do see it.

If you’re not taking a data-driven, personalized approach to non-interruptive marketing (content marketing), you’re already behind the curve.

Generational marketing in practice

Let’s start with email. The beauty of email is that it spans generations. Even Baby Boomers are more receptive to email marketing than direct mail.

Of all digital marketing channels, email marketing has the highest return on investment, partly because everyone uses it. Email addresses are still the anchor for most online accounts and services.

Marketing automation has also made it easier than ever to segment audiences based on a wide variety of factors, including location, job title, industry and age.

In other words, email grants access to key generations and lets you target each of those generations individually. Generational marketing doesn’t get much more precise than that.

Content consumption habits

Again, it’s worth taking some of this with a grain of salt, as different people have different preferences. But here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Baby Boomers: Will spend more than 20 hours every week binging content, which they often find through search of via Facebook.
  • Gen X: They’re busy raising kids and helping take care of older loved ones, so they crave content that is useful and to the point.
  • Millennials: Are particularly hungry for video content (37% binge YouTube videos on a daily basis).
  • Gen Z: Their favorite brand is YouTube, so that should clue you into their appreciation for video content.

The long and the short of it

Generational preferences exist in terms of what brand values matter, content consumption, social media usage, technology, etc. In B2B marketing, age groups can also help differentiate influencers from decision-makers. Gen X and Baby Boomers generally account for the latter, while millennials and Gen Z still largely account for the former (although that’s changing fast).

But at the end of the day, the best marketing informs, entertains and/or inspires, and this is true for all generations.

While generational segmentation can help you figure out the best way to engage with certain age groups – and even clue you into what products and services might appeal to them – it’s only one dimension of your target-audience personas.

Really, age is one of the least meaningful indicators of who a person is – people prefer to be identified by what they do and what they care about.

Use generational cues as a form of high-level guidance, and nothing more.

Dominick Sorrentino is a senior writer in Chicago. He's a wordsmith who endeavors to use language, story-telling and creativity to solve problems. He enjoys pizza, the musical styling of A Tribe Called Quest, traveling, a good conversation and, of course, putting pen to paper.