Marketing to Different Generations

Generational differences make for interesting hurdles regarding marketing strategy and tactics. This fact is being made clearer as Generation Z ages and joins the consumer class. With this cohort's increasing buying power comes even more glaring differences with Generation Y (Millennials) that were being overlooked. The fact that even the public is torn on whether or not these two generations are different forms the basis for today's article.

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One researcher found a nearly even split in opinion on this matter. When asked if marketing tactics would work equally well on both age groups, 56% of respondents said yes, while 44% said no. In research terms, that's as good as a 50/50 split. And if the public can't tell the difference, what's a marketer to do?

As part of your Market Segmentation in a customer-centric marketing approach, "Generation" is as much a driver for a buyer's purchasing decision as geography, income, and many other attributes that make up the buyer persona. You do have those defined for your marketing campaigns, right? You cannot personalize your messaging without a defined buyer persona or target customer demographics.

Generational Definitions

Before we get into it, let's be sure everybody is on the same page with who is included in each generation we're talking about. And since we're dealing with research and marketing, we'll go with the Pew Research Center's definition of each generation's age range:

  • Silent — 74-91

  • Baby Boomers — 55-73

  • Generation X — 39-54

  • Generation Y (Millennials) — 23-38

  • Generation Z — 22 & under (Gen Z has no bottom range set as of 2019)

Our focus today will be on Generations Y & Z because they represent the largest segment of the buying public and are the first to be digital natives. You'll find similar differences between just about every two generations you look at, with the public often seeing them as comparable, yet there being stark differences in reality.

With our two cohorts, the similarities most often noticed by those in other generations stem mostly from public appearance. The seemingly constant use of social media, lower marriage rates, and "frivolous” spending habits are but a handful of the things noted in the above-cited research as endemic to Millennials and Gen-Zers.

While these surface appearances may seem identical, fundamental differences will come into play when you start looking to market to these consumers, so it will pay off to consider these differences. We see three main areas where these attitudes and differences are most noticeable: technology, money, and morals.

Technology Has Played a Major Role for Both Demographics, Just in Different Ways

Millennials were the first of the so-called "digital native" generations, having never known a time without the internet and ubiquitous cell phones. What is often missed, however, is the difference between growing up with a dial-up internet connection at home and the ever-present 3-4-5G connection that Generation Z has had in their pocket from day one.

And yet, Gen-Z is also called "the loneliest generation" despite this constant state of digital connection. All of this is to say, technological savviness differs widely between these cohorts, perhaps even more drastically than the generations that came before, seeing as how Gen X and the Boomers used their inherent resilience to adapt and adopt to the technology as it appeared, learning how to use it to further their established goals. 

Regarding marketing differences, there are several things to keep in mind. While both groups are heavy users of social media, they don't use the same platforms, nor do they use it in the same way. Millennials focus more on long-form content like that found on Facebook, YouTube, and LinkedIn. On the other hand, Generation Z likes shorter, video-based content like that found on Snapchat, Instagram (Stories), and, increasingly, TikTok. That difference in content length comes down mostly to the difference in attention spans found by psychologists. Millennials start to lose interest after ~12 seconds, while for Gen-Z, it only takes 8 for them to click away.

“It's The Economy, Stupid." Means More Now Than Ever

The late '90s and early '00s Dot-com crash defined the financial reality for Gen-X and early Millennials. Meanwhile, the recession precipitated by the housing fiasco of '08 did much the same for late Millennials and Gen-Z. Entering adulthood mid-recession means Gen-X are more likely to be shy with their spending habits, despite appearances and jokes about avocado toast. The numbers show that these folks are more likely to save rather than spend, and when they do spend, they prefer experience over materialistic goods. 

Generation Z, in contrast, came of age just after the last downturn and is more willing to invest in experiences and purchases they see as enhancing their chosen lifestyles. This willingness to spend is a stark difference between the generations that is often misunderstood by the public, leading to much condescension and joke-making. 

Regarding marketing, are you starting to see why lumping everyone under age 40 into one bracket may not work so well anymore?

Morals, Values, and Meaning Mean More Than Ever, Too

From the financial discussion above, it's also a common misconception that these two cohorts are more materialistic and less moral than earlier generations. The facts simply don't back that up. Millennials and Gen-Z spend less and have stronger values than any previous generation studied. Z is also the first generation to put their values ahead of what they've been told, meaning that if a company's values and brand personality don't line up, they'll take their money elsewhere.

Along similar lines, Gen-Z puts a high value on person-to-person contact. They prefer to learn about a new product from a friend or at least a live person rather than read marketing jibberish or watch a bland, generic ad. So for marketing strategy, putting a human face and voice to your campaigns will provide the most ROI, not to mention giving voice to the preferences of this generation shows that you're paying attention and value their input and values.

Parting Facts, Figures, and Suggestions for Marketing Across Generational Lines

  • By 2030, 75% of the workforce will be Millennials
  • Gen-Z adults are more financially motivated when selecting a job, with 65% saying they look at salary before benefits and perks.

It may be easy to overlook Gen-Z, as many don't have purchase power yet. I don't think they'll resonate with your Millennial-focused campaigns, as they differ in some key areas like those listed above.

Some commonalities exist, so if you need to run one integrated campaign, it will pay to target the cusp cohort in the 18-34 range. Both groups love their social media, as mentioned above. If you're targeting this mid-ground, focus on YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook to hit most of both demographics. Despite the differences in content preferences and attention spans, they both thrive on instant gratification, so these three best blend all factors.

Using quick cuts mixed with more detailed content to cover the how and why of your product appeals to this cusp demo. Be sure to highlight how your product will solve pain points common to both generations by focusing on the technological, financial, or moral implications.

And finally, remember that while you may be using one campaign to spread your brand message to both groups simultaneously, differences will come to light as you interact and engage with people, so be sure to respond in kind. This one-on-one contact and generationally-specific content will give you and your product a coveted place in the hearts and minds of Millennials and Generation Z consumers.

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Jesse hails from Seattle, WA. When he's not creating great content or staring at his laptop screen waiting for inspiration, he's probably walking in the trees somewhere in the foothills of the nearby Cascade Mountains.

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