Talkin’ About My Generation? Using Cultural References in Marketing

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Talkin’ About My Generation? Using Cultural References in Marketing

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” I heard a marketing consultant say in a recent meeting.

I knew he was quoting the scene from The Wizard of Oz when Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal that the Wizard is just an ordinary man. But judging by the puzzled looks on their faces, the twenty-somethings in the meeting had no idea what he was talking about.

Situations like this don’t just make you feel your age. They painfully illustrate the fact that cultural points of reference are constantly shifting and big gaps can exist between generations.

If you’re marketing to a specific generation and using cultural references in your marketing campaign, your message will miss the mark if you don’t get it exactly right.

Here’s advice for using cultural references effectively in your smart marketing strategy.

Are You Talking to Me?

Every generation has shared moments or experiences that become generational touchstones. These touchstones not only capture a communal memory, but become emotional shortcuts for the way many people felt at a particular point in time.

Generational touchstones typically are related to particular events, phrases, or images that become iconic for everyone in that age group. Even advertising can be a touchstone.

Marketers targeting a specific generation often use cultural references to these touchstones in marketing campaigns to connect emotionally with the audience. When it works, it’s very impactful. But when it’s off base, it’s awful.

4 Tips to Get Cultural References Right

So what’s the right way to use cultural references in marketing? Here are four tips:

  1. Know your customer. Like all aspects of a smart marketing strategy, you have to start with the target audience. How old are the people who buy your products and services? What touchstones in their lives might have cultural references that relate to your product? Talk to them face-to-face to find out.
  2. Don’t force it. Are you sure your creative approach should use a cultural reference? A forced cultural reference is guaranteed to backfire. If it’s not a natural fit, find a different creative strategy.
  3. Get the little details right. If you do use a cultural reference to evoke a memory of a particular place and time in your marketing, the images, music, styles, and other details must be completely accurate. See any episode of Mad Men for a master class on how to do this well.
  4. Keep current, especially if your target audience is younger than you. The world of the college class of 2014 is vastly different from when you left for college. They’ve never written in cursive, for example, and with cell phones to tell them the time, there’s no need for a wrist watch. The annual Mindset report from Beloit College should be required reading for every smart marketer targeting a younger audience.
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