Commentary

Generational Surfing

I was on the phone with Kara Buckner of Fallon this week, discussing how a major consumer-facing client of its is starting to redirect the bulk of its marketing efforts from Boomers to Gen Y. She and I (both X'ers) conspiratorially snickered at the realization that the generation that had boldly declared that it did not want to be anyone's target market had been suitably rewarded.

Generational marketing is a dynamic process and Kara's client is wise enough to know that pointing your marketing program at the then-dominant generation and leaving it on autopilot is a recipe for disaster. Generations shift and change as they transition through lifestyle phases. Generations grow via birth rates and immigration and shrink via mortality rates and emigration. Generational marketing requires you to accurately aim at a constantly moving target.

The marketing process will surely fly off course if you don't have instruments feeding you a steady flow of information on where you are, where you want to be and how well you're making progress. Moreover, the CFOs that I meet are looking for clear indication of the return on their marketing investment (ROMI) on any and all marketing initiatives. In short, numbers matter more now than ever before.

Unfortunately, mapping out the size of each generation isn't as straightforward as it should be. As you look up Generation Y on the web, some of the first words you'll read are: "There is no consensus over the exact birth dates that define Gen Y, also known by some as echo boomers and Millennials." Without a consistent set of dates to apply, calculating the size of Gen Y for your curious and numerate CFO is tricky. There are subtle variations by those that coined these competing terminologies that are, frustratingly, not aligned.

While the term "Gen Y" was coined within an Ad Age editorial, it has never been formally defined. The two definitions that have had formally definition are provided by Howe & Strauss of LifeCourse Associates and Elwood Carlson of the Population Reference Bureau. Unfortunately, you will not find the term "Gen Y" in either of their classifications as Howe & Strauss use the term "Millennials" and Carlson uses the term "New Boomers" when they describe this generation.

More unfortunate still is the fact that, seeing the lack of a clear definition, others take a liberal approach to generational definitions, picking and choosing between Howe & Strauss on one hand and Carlson on the other. For example, the Pew Reearch Center used the Howe & Strauss definition for Millennials (1980 to 2001) but then switched to Elwood's definitions for X'ers and Boomers. PBS used the Carlson definition of Boomers, defined X'ers as those between 1966 and 1980 and coined 'Generation Next' as those born between 1981 and 1988. Don't ask me where those born in 1965 fit into the PBS scheme.

Undaunted by this challenge and wanting to assist those who are seeking to put Gen Y at the center of their efforts, we've created the following generational scorecard using statistics provided by the Population Division of the U.S. Census Bureau that will help you build a better case for why this generation (whatever you decide to call it) should be the lead card in your marketing plans. We'll update this scorecard over time to reflect the changing composition of America's generational mapping as immigrants immigrate, emigrants emigrate and the natural process of birth and death adjusts the stats.

Definitions aside, the reality is that while we've been experiencing overall growth in the American population since our inception, there have been ebbs and flows in both birth and death rates that make some generations bigger than others. Equally, the course of history has provided shocks to the system, reinforcing the way that those who shared those moments in time see themselves versus the way that they see those that precede and follow them. Marketing plans that work well for one generation, fail miserably for the next based on their harmony with the shared identity of one generation and their discord with another.

Finally, it's clear that the tools that we use to market are changing faster than ever. Some marketing tools apply well to all generations (e.g. TV), while others seem to enjoy an outsized effectiveness with a specific generation (e.g. Mobile). Surfing between generational waves using a varied and ever-changing repertoire of marketing techniques is what makes (or breaks) a marketer.

4 comments about "Generational Surfing ".
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  1. Bruce Goldman from Bright Orange Advertisibng, March 11, 2011 at 1:21 p.m.

    You quote: "There is no consensus over the exact birth dates that define Gen Y, also known by some as echo boomers and Millennials."

    But this is by no means a unique problem. Demographers define the baby boom as starting in 1946 and ending anywhere from 1957 to 1964.

  2. Daniel Coates from Youth Pulse, Inc., March 11, 2011 at 1:24 p.m.

    Where's the scorecard you ask? So sorry that it didn't make the editorial cutoff (my fault). You can find it here: http://bit.ly/gensurf

  3. Daniel Coates from Youth Pulse, Inc., March 11, 2011 at 1:26 p.m.

    Hey Bruce,

    It may not be a unique problem, but as you can see from the scorecard, where you start and end a generation has a pronounced impact on its size!

    Marketers trying to find the biggest target on the generational map would find this problem a vexing one.

  4. Suzanne Sanders from S2 Advertising, March 11, 2011 at 8 p.m.

    "Common Census the counter -intuitive guide to generational marketing" is a great book to read about this very subject. It's written by Kenneth W. Gronbach. While some of the demographic info is dated because the book is six years old it will change the way you think about marketing and advertising to any demographic. I gave this book to several of my clients. They could not thank me enough after reading it. It is eye opening for anyone who is spending money in advertising and marketing. I always chuckle when someone tells me their demo is 25-54. I don't know any 25 year old who is even interested in doing anything a 54 year old is doing.

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