What Generation Gap?

How Marketers Can Connect With an Increasingly Converging Target Demographic

By Published on .

Gregg Lipman
Gregg Lipman
Rebellion is as American as baseball and apple pie. Rebelling against your parents, even more so. But, standing in the middle of my local Best Buy recently, I saw something I hardly would have considered possible just 20 years ago: parents and children buying video games together. Discussing strategy, cheat codes and in one particular case, which games would be the most fun for their entire family.

Video games? Family video-game night? Video games used to be the exclusive dominion of teenagers. They ruled that world with an iron (yet wildly oversensitive) fist. Rated E for Everyone? Everyone?

So, is this entente, this seemingly cordial intersection of parent/child in the gaming world, a natural "technological convergence" phenomenon, a Trojan horse strategy? Or have brands looked the future right in the eyes and decided it will be run by Generation E, Generation Everyone? Will the idea of a "generation gap" eventually atrophy into obsolescence?

We see this not only in the video-game world, but also in other brands: moms and daughters with matching Ugg boots, Juicy Couture sweatsuits, Abercrombie hoodies and Coach handbags. Fathers and sons comparing fantasy football rankings on matching iPhones or killing precious productivity hours on YouTube. Teachers and students sipping from matching Starbucks latte cups or ordering the same items from Pinkberry. Moms and daughters rooting feverishly for their favorite "American Idol" contestants or shaking their heads in utter disgust at the shameless and hygienically dubious conduct of the latest batch of "The Real World" participants. Moms and their adults friends, with or without their daughters, attending Jonas Brothers concerts, or standing in line for midnight premiere showings of the brow-furrowing fest that is the "Twilight" franchise. Aunts and nieces perusing the same Kiehl's or MAC products. Uncles and nephews cracking open cans of Red Bull. Grandparents, parents and their children conversing freely on Facebook or Skype.

These companies have successfully created branding stories that resonate across a spectrum of ages because they have largely ignored age-based demographic "insights" as they were, and instead focused on harnessing societal (the blurring of the generation/cultural gap) and technological (the desire to be ever more connected) trends to their benefit. So, in this new reality, what are the implications for brands and their consumer messaging?

At first glance one would be inclined to simply proclaim, with a derisive shrug of the shoulder, natch: "How is this surprising? Of course, all brands try to appeal to as wide a swath of consumers as possible, genius." But "cross-generational" or "trans-generational" marketing/branding strategy is not nearly as easy to execute successfully as one might presume.

Market segmentation and demographic, gender, psychographic analyses are still to this day fundamental elements of practically every consumer product/service/technology company's marketing and communications philosophy: "Who is our target audience, and how can we tailor our message to capture their attention and disposable dollars?" Some brands have been able to answer that question with greater effectiveness than others.

The teenager/young-adult demographic, to refer to just one target audience, is traditionally wary of products that are specifically marketed to it. Indeed, the consumer product landscape is littered with companies that tried to position themselves and their products as cool/urban/edgy, only to ultimately be rejected by the target consumer base. See Palm's Zoomer, Zima, Zune, as well as Polaroid, Ecko, Pro-Keds or Pony (which was rejected pretty much immediately after relaunching).

Appealing to Generation E requires a massive shift away from the standard "What are they looking for in a product?" to "What does this brand say about me as a person?" And in order to answer such a profound question, one cannot hope to rely solely on traditional qualitative/quantitative marketing data any longer. Successful brands will have to:

Use social media to build communities around them, but still use "traditional" media such as TV, newspapers and magazines, as it can have tremendous impact on your brand's appeal. A simple photograph of a celebrity eating, drinking or wearing your product can often provide a significant boost to your brand. For example, Britney Spears and her undying and highly caloric love of Starbucks Frappucinos has absolutely led many a teen/tween to become fans as well (of the Frappucinos, if not Britney).

Consider the larger socio-cultural context in which products fit by hiring or consulting with people who have a social sciences or humanities academic background. They will have the ability to surface social and cultural questions that branders and marketers simply cannot foresee.

Focus marketing efforts on brand values and attributes, but be smart with advertising and photography. Don't visually skew your brand toward a specific target audience. In fact, on your website or collateral material, consider showing many age groups interacting with your product. Or, keep it simple and focus purely on (attractive) product shots, with no people in them (Pinkberry, Starbucks and Coach, for example, display only their products).

We don't think that the generation gap will ever totally disappear, and that's probably a good thing, but in this age of hard-core partisanship, perhaps we as marketers can soften the rhetoric between the generations and create stronger brands at the same time.

Gregg Lipman is managing partner at CBX, a strategic branding company with expertise in corporate, consumer and retail experiences. CBX clients include Johnson & Johnson, Del Monte, General Mills, Cadbury Schweppes, Kimberly Clark, Petro-Canada, Nestle, ADP and Petro China.
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