If you sell products or services to millennials – the 70 million Americans born between 1982 and 1999 – understanding the core values and experiences they share as a generation is crucial to success.
Chuck Underwood, who helped develop and popularize the field of generational study, recently offered fascinating insights on generational marketing in a presentation to the American Advertising Federation in Cleveland.
Here’s why viewing your marketing and advertising through a generational values lens — especially if your target market is millennials – is so important to a smart marketing strategy.
America’s Five Generations
Underwood is the host of the PBS television series America’s Generations with Chuck Underwood and the founder/principal of The Generational Imperative, Inc., an Ohio consulting firm that guides organizations in developing generational strategies for marketing and the workplace.
According to Underwood, longer life expectancies mean there is now room for five living generations in America:
- GI Generation: Born 1901-1926;
- Silent Generation: Born 1927-1945;
- Baby Boomers: Born 1946-1964;
- GenX: Born 1965-1981;
- Millennials: Born 1982-1999.
Most important for marketers, each generation has a set of shared core values that drive consumer decisions as individuals advance through the stages of life. Understanding a generation’s core values is the key to effective messaging and marketing.
How Values & Experiences Define Generations
“What we experience and are taught during our formative years will largely dictate our basic value system for life,” Underwood explains. “It is burned into us by the times we witness and the teachings from our parents and others. The age cohort that shares these same times and teachings will by and large share the same core values and thus become a generation.”
Initial core values are formed before age 10-12 by family and parents. Additional values are formed in the teen years by the times and by interactions with peers.
Who are Millennials?
The millennial generation is currently aged 18-35. Their formative years were the 1980s to the present.
Like all generations, millennials are influenced by the times in which they have lived. Their major life events have included:
- The 9/11 terrorist attacks (ages 2-19);
- Hurricane Katrina (ages 6-23);
- Mass shootings like Columbine and Virginia Tech;
- The advent of technology: They are the first full technology generation.
- Rampant executive greed, corruption, and ruthless treatment of, and little loyalty to, U.S. workers;
- And over-adult-supervision as they came of age.
As a result of these formative years’ times and teachings, Underwood says that millennials:
- Are optimistic about the long-term future;
- Are uncertain about the short-term future;
- Are uncertain about the country;
- Revere the wisdom and experience of their elders;
- Have close relationships with their parents, seeing parents as “weekend buddies” and “my best friends;” they feel much gratitude toward mom and dad.
Millennials have a sense of selflessness that leads them to engage in social actions that make a difference. “They have a strong core value of teamwork,” Underwood notes. “We sometimes call them ‘Generation Give.’” Because they want to be part of something larger than themselves, “millennials are active and engaged. They are joiners.”
How Millennials Impact the Marketplace
When a generation advances to a new life stage, it almost always dramatically changes that life stage compared to how it’s been lived previously. Baby boomers, for example, are significantly changing retirement.
Millennials already have reshaped early adulthood, Underwood observes. Compared to previous generations of young adults, they are:
- Postponing marriage;
- Postponing children;
- Sampling jobs (millennials have an average of seven different full-time employers by age 26);
- Having fun and traveling;
- Experiencing more financial insecurity due to college and credit card debt;
- Finding it more difficult to start careers due to economic issues and unemployment.
“For many millennials, early adulthood is now extended adolescence, in many cases significantly financed by their parents,” Underwood states. “This is a huge shift that has impacted many markets, such as automotive, real estate, furniture, and travel.”
How to Use Generational Strategies in Marketing
Marketers should consider each generation’s formative years and core values when crafting a marketing strategy or advertising campaign:
- Identify the generation to target;
- Identify their life stage (e.g., early adulthood, marriage, parenting, empty nest, retirement, etc.);
- Select one or more core values;
- Develop your product, message, and creative to resonate with these core values and life stage.
“Generational considerations should be a permanent filter in your brain when developing and reviewing creative,” Underwood suggests. “You need a ‘generational gearbox’ so you can shift gears swiftly and successfully for dealing with customers and individuals in different generations.”
Underwood acknowledges the difficulty of avoiding stereotyping when creating generation-specific messaging: “This can be a challenge; it’s a fine line to walk.”
I concur. As a marketing consultant, I’ve been critical of ad campaigns that target seniors with trite creative approaches that are more insulting than engaging. One example is the corny Walgreen’s nude beach ad, the subject of a recent Smart Marketing Strategy blog post.
The bottom line for marketers: Generational factors can determine the effectiveness of your investment in marketing. For a smart marketing strategy, know your target market’s core values.