MORE THAN NEW LABEL, GEN X NEEDS RESEARCH

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"I am NOT a label, yet every day someone else tries to pin a new name on me."

23-year-old male

As my fellow "Xers" will surely agree, enough already! We have endured an endless parade of labels artfully created and enthusiastically promoted by their originators: Baby Busters, Slackers, Flyers, 13th Gen, Twentysomethings, Grungers, Cocoes, ad infinitum. Each week continues to bring forth new "designer labels," and yet these endless epithets do surprisingly little to characterize the roughly 46 million consumers born between 1965 and 1976. Ironically, my generation continues to be frequently misunderstood despite such extensive "group psychoanalysis."

The labels linked to today's young adults have sought to either quantify or qualitatively describe the market. Some simply focus on its size or relevant position, while the rest seek to capture the most distinguishing feature. The media's needs are best met by concentrating on the latter; and who can blame them? A news segment featuring body-piercing "Grungers" is a lot more interesting than violin-playing conservatives.

Labels that seek to simplify a particular market by trying to capture its dominant element can create a false sense of security. By concentrating on the titillating attitudes of the more offbeat young adults, the nightly news has unintentionally sparked (and substantiated) sweeping generalizations.

The "designer labels" popularly applied to young adults actually inhibit in-depth understanding. Psychographic labels are particularly perilous because they profess to provide clarity from a bird's eye perspective. This approach depends on a priori assumptions that may be incomplete or dated. Labels based on psychographic definitions are inherently flawed for two simple reasons:

The Snapshot Factor. As with any generation, consumer attitudes, language and lifestyle needs are constantly evolving. Hip terms such as "Slacker" will quickly become obsolete.

Market Diversity. Today's young adults represent the most heterogeneous generation in American history. To assume that 46 million peers are similar is to erroneously generalize that every Baby Boomer was at Woodstock.

Is this a proposal for an all-out label boycott? Of course not. Aside from an undeniable trendiness, labels do perform a legitimate function by efficiently conveying maximum information. They foster an economy of words by tapping an implicit understanding, when used responsibly.

Rather than reinventing the wheel, let's simply stick with the most broadly used term: "Generation X." While many people have attempted to link psychographic generalizations to it, the phrase conveniently functions as a blank sheet of paper. It literally says, "I don't know who today's young adults are." The very term "Generation X" represents a challenge to Corporate America to learn more about it and to harness the short-and long-term profit potential.

Since successful marketing communicates on a personal level, profile refinement is crucial-especially for a market as diverse and dynamic as Generation X.

We encourage most of our clients to resist the temptations of a broad-based Generation X campaign and focus instead on specific, viable market segments. Think about gender, race, education, lifestyle, product usage and other characteristics as they pertain to your specific business. Develop a detailed "portrait" of your most likely Generation X customer, for only through an intimate understanding of your target will you be able to identify (and meet) market needs. Strategies will be sounder and advertising will be significantly more impactful.

Mr. Morrison, an "Xer" himself, is president of the Collegiate Marketing Co., Chicago, a marketing research and consulting firm specializing in "Generation X."

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