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Is it Time to End Generational Marketing?

February 1, 2024


We’re all familiar with generational labels like Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z. Harvard professor Louis Menand believes it’s time to end generational marketing because “the concept gets social history all wrong.”[1] He traces the origins of generational marketing to the early 1940s. He explains, “The discovery that you can make money marketing merchandise to teen-agers dates from the early nineteen-forties, which is also when the term ‘youth culture’ first appeared in print. There was a reason that those things happened when they did: high school. Back in 1910, most young people worked; only fourteen per cent of fourteen- to seventeen-year-olds were still in school. In 1940, though, that proportion was seventy-three per cent. A social space had opened up between dependency and adulthood, and a new demographic was born: ‘youth.'”


Digging deeper, Menand reports that the term “generation,” which biologically refers to successive waves of parents and offspring, gained new meaning at the beginning of the nineteenth century. He writes, “Around 1800, the term got transplanted from the family to society. The new idea was that people born within a given period, usually thirty years, belong to a single generation. There is no sound basis in biology or anything else for this claim, but it gave European scientists and intellectuals a way to make sense of something they were obsessed with, social and cultural change. What causes change? Can we predict it? Can we prevent it? Maybe the reason societies change is that people change, every thirty years.”


Generational Marketing


Admittedly, there are some product categories where it makes sense to conduct generational marketing. Companies logically target baby diaper ads to people in their twenties and thirties and adult diaper ads to people in their later years. Children are targeted with toy ads, while their parents are targeted with car advertisements. Nevertheless, journalist Samanth Subramanian reports that the whole idea of “generations” is beginning to die. He explains, “The idea that there is a Generation Z — or a Generation X, or a millennial, or a baby boomer — is beginning to die. This will no doubt come as profound relief to the many thinkers who, over the years, have pointed out the folly of shoehorning people across the world into a few broad age bands and insisting they’re alike in many, many ways.”[2] Every parent knows that, even within a single family, children can be very, very different. The point is, generational marketing has limited benefits for reaching a desired market segment.


One of the institutions eliminating generational references is the Pew Research Center. Subramanian cites a Pew press release, which notes, “The field has been flooded with content that’s often sold as research but is more like clickbait or marketing mythology.” He also cited sociologist Philip N. Cohen, who insists “these identifiers are meaningless.” Cohen asserts, “We don’t study and teach these categories because they simply aren’t real.” Subramanian concludes, “Pew isn’t the only institution dispensing with generational labels. But the change may take longer to filter through to the commercial world. Critics have pointed out that most generational labels are used not really to help people understand themselves or the world around them, but to sell them weighted blankets, flavored water, or electric cars.”


In many ways, generational marketing is the lazy path to targeted marketing. Cultural expert Jessica Kriegel notes, “Generational labels amount to divisive, reductive stereotypes. … Poor management and marketing decisions based on such stereotyping lead to misunderstandings … and all the usual negative ramifications that poor communications breed. … A generation — whether it be millennial or Gen Xer or baby boomer — is too broad of a category to be a truly effective marketing segment.”[3]


The Personalized Approach


Nevertheless, journalist Laila Azzahra insists, “The secret to succeeding in business lies in marketing. There are diverse marketing strategies that you can employ to thrive in a competitive market. However, using the best approach to the wrong audience won’t give the best results. The best way to market your business is to apply the right technique to the right group of people.”[4] Age certainly plays a role in deciding where to market. Younger people and older people often use different social media platforms, use different news sources, and frequent different stores. However, broad categories, like gender or age, are not the only, or best, ways to segment customers.


Kriegel explains, “Today, self-defining social networks and technological advances have made a huge amount of behavioral data available for ever-more targeted campaigns. We now have readily available, intimate details of consumers’ lives, including their hobbies, friends, job interests, and vacation plans. Companies can target consumers based on much more specific and accurate information, rather than on outdated and unsupported stereotypes.” Of course, in recent years, privacy concerns have increased consumer awareness about the types of information being collected and stored about their personal lives. And they find it a bit creepy. A better approach to personalization is to aggregate consumer information to help companies identify their ideal customer. This approach avoids being creepy while still providing companies with a better understanding of where to spend their ad dollar. Artificial intelligence (AI) solutions, like the Enterra Shopper Marketing and Consumer Insights Intelligence System™, can provide the kinds of insights companies need to get the most bang for their advertising buck.


Marketing specialist Michael Baer writes, “It’s obvious that knowing your target customer is a critical part of operating and growing any business. Defining your ideal prospect drives all aspects of sales and marketing, but also provides direction for the entire enterprise, from developing products and services, creating positioning, developing sales enablement programming, and building the organization, from people to tech stack to processes.”[5] He adds, “[For] too many companies, a target is viewed as ‘anyone willing to pay money.’ … I’ve literally seen food brands targeting anyone with a mouth. However, if your business is for everybody, then it’s likely to have a very generic offering that isn’t really the perfect fit for anybody.” Or, as his headline states, “Define your ideal Customer — or be magnetic to no one.”


Concluding Thoughts


Copywriter Brian Neese believes age-related (i.e., generational) marketing may be appropriate in some circumstances; however, he believes it should never be used alone. He explains, “Age is a straightforward way to gain insight into your audience. It’s a cornerstone of segmenting, or categorizing, customers into different groups. But some companies aren’t effective at targeting different audience age groups. When they make sweeping generalizations about age groups in their advertising, they get hit with a consumer backlash that can be damaging to their brand. … You can have marketing strategies for different generations, but there are two significant caveats to keep in mind: Generational marketing should be done in alignment with other marketing aspects, and you need to avoid clichés and stereotypes about age groups.”[6] Developing personas, which take age into account, are a much better way for companies to learn about their best customers and how to market to them. After all, shopping behavior, not age, is what matters most.


[1] Louis Menand, “It’s Time to Stop Talking About ‘Generations’,” The New Yorker, 11 October 2021.
[2] Samanth Subramanian, “Good riddance to the lost generations,” Quartz, 27 May 2023.
[3] Jessica Kriegel, “Why Marketing To Millennials And Other Generations Is Pointless,” Forbes, 25 November 2015.
[4] Laila Azzahra, “Why Market your Business to the Right Age Group?” Omega Underground, 26 July 2020.
[5] Michael Baer, “Define Your Ideal Customer — Or Be Magnetic To No One,” The Marketing Insider, 1 September 2022.
[6] Brian Neese, “Generational Marketing Myths from Boomers to Gen Z,” AdAge, 14 April 2020.

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