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Generations or life stages?

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Generations or lifecycles? – Why am I asking this as a question? I’ve had a bit of time to think about consumer behaviour. At the moment you can’t throw a stick without hitting ‘an’ expert in at least one of three generations:

  • Gen-Y or millennials
  • Gen-Z
  • Gen-A

There are older generations that also exist but are mentioned in passing:

  • Gen-X
  • Baby-boomers
  • Silent generation
  • Greatest generation
  • Lost generation

The principle behind this is that each generation would relate to the world in different ways. The implication is that each would require different marketing considerations radically different to anything that has come before.

This lens has a number of results:

  • It encourages marketers to segment markets in certain ways. This facilitates marketing assumptions that are unhelpful
  • It continues marketing focus on a set age group, rather than mining a portfolio for lifetime spend
  • It feeds into a wider marketing culture of ‘disruption’ that can be unhelpful

A history lesson in generations

Generational labels seems to have been started in journalistic essays. These essays tried to convey common experiences. For instance, the sense of loss and dislocation that many felt after fighting in World War 1.

The massive scale of the war meant that armed service touched more people. Over time they have been used to illustrative effect by governments, media and business.

Generations

This has meant that generations varied in length. I reviewed a raft of reports and media coverage and found that from Gen X onwards there has even been an variation in definition of what the generational length was.

Over time an industry of journalists and consulting firms has been built up. They point out the various flaws that are supposed to characterise each generation. They point out to company boards how their businesses will be disrupted if they don’t change the way they do business to meet the needs of a generation. This consulting mirrors the way consultants have preached a similar disruption message around different aspects of digital transformation and requires a regular cyclical refresh.

Is this a deliberate ruse? Probably not, but book publishers need books and consultants need to bill. Both of which are insatiable machines that require a ‘new, new thing’.

A final factor to consider in defining generations. Historically the definition of generations has been done with a global north, western-centric lens. If you look at markets like China the differentiation tends to be done in decades: post-90s generation, post-80s generation and so on.

Now, we’re in a time period where the bulk of young people are going to be born in the global south. There is likely to be emigration north for economic opportunity. There is likely to be a corresponding need due to population decline in developed nations. A trip to Tokyo or London already shows the impact of this. From nurses and care home workers to combini staff and baristas; many of the workers are young and foreign. A global north, western-centric lens makes even less sense.

Period trends and generation trends

One of the things that the generations stereotypes can blind marketers to is cross-generational trends within a period of time. One of the stereotypical characteristics that Gen X was labelled with was cynical. Researchers found that Gen X did exhibit higher levels of cynicism than previous groups of 18 – 29 year olds.

But Stanford University took the research one step further and looked the accuracy of this cynical label. What they found was that all generations at that time were exhibiting higher levels of cynicism. It was a period trend rather than a generational one. As a marketer, that might have a huge implication in the way you deliver messages beyond Gen X.

What are the causes of this increase in disaffection? “Media commentators may be right in emphasizing the malaise-inducing effects of ‘historical underdosing’,” the researchers said. The term refers to the belief that history has come to an end, with such institutions as the family and government becoming ever more corrupt and exhausted. It suggests that the great regenerative struggles of the past, such as civil rights and feminism, have already been fought, and all that is left is the winding down and decay of present institutions. “Generation X commentators have, however, glossed over the possibility that such disaffection can just as easily affect older folks as younger ones. If anything, older individuals are especially vulnerable to romanticizing the past and thus becoming disaffected and disengaged with the present,” Grusky said.

Oldsters Get The Gen X Feeling | Sci Gogo

David Grusky, one of the two Stanford sociologists who conducted the study highlighted some great actionable insights that marketers at the time could have used when targeting older market segments. Unfortunately, the Gen X = cynical impression stuck, marketers failed to ask the right questions and got the wrong heuristic.

Grusky’s work and the rise of social media adoption across all age groups does make me wonder about Gen Y’s reputation for narcissistic behaviour – when we could be living in a more narcissistic time.

Unhelpful stereotypes

Stereotypes are heuristics that help us make sense of the world. If we constantly had to analyse everything, we’d have been eaten by large predators whilst in a state of analysis paralysis. In a resting state our brain accounts for 60 per cent of our body’s glucose consumption. So anything that can drive energy efficient actionable insight would make evolutionary sense.

It is unlikely that the modern marketer will be eaten by a pack of ravenous wolves. Yet stereotypical heuristics will make their way into the decision making biases of marketers and their management teams.

Generational labels lend themselves to stereotypes and some of the biggest of them are questionable at best.

  • Boomers are selfish and don’t care about the planet. The publication of Silent Spring by biologist Rachel Carson, could be considered the point at which the modern environmental movement was born. Counterculture figure Stewart Brand lobbied for the release of the iconic ‘blue marble’ whole earth in space photo by NASA which galvanised the environment movement. His Whole Earth catalog series also went on to influence the ‘back to the land’ counterculture movement that sprang out of hippydom. It is no coincidence that groups like Greenpeace and Friends Of The Earth were founded around this time. The first Earth Day happened in San Francisco in 1970. As the counterculture movement went around the world in the early 1970s, so did green-orientated political parties. Without Boomers there wouldn’t have been an environmental movement. Extinction Rebellion (XR) stands on the shoulders of direction action groups like the Greenham Common women and Greenpeace. There is however, anecdotal evidence to suggest that public interest in environmental issues dips during an economic recession and this seems to have been the case after the 2008 financial crisis.
  • Gen X are slackers. They came into a world that had much less economic opportunities than their parents generation. The lack of balance in corporate culture was as unattractive to young Gen Xers as it was to Gen Y and Gen Z first jobbers. As outlined earlier, the move to deregulation and globalisation led to increased cynicism thoughout generations at the time when Gen X entered adulthood. Yet on the flipside, their entrepreneurship has been lauded over the years. Though often that entrepreneurship was forced upon them as industries globalised
  • Gen Y are tech savvy, demand work life balances and are narcissistic in nature. Pew Research indicates that Gen Y do indeed adopt smartphones and tablets, but despite the research article headline of Millennials stand out for their technology use, but older generations also embrace digital life – the difference with Gen X is just three percent in terms of smartphone usage and tablet usage is broadly comparable across generations
  • Gen Z are digital natives and are socially conscious. A classic example of how the truth is more complex and nuanced than this is a recent Kings College London research done into UK attitudes and behaviours towards COVID-19. In it is a group called resistors. They buy into the fake news around the virus, are more likely to violate the lockdown regulations and the majority are in the 16-24 year old category.

Massively parallel cultures

Cultural movements used to align in a serial manner to moments in time and space. There was a serial progression as one cultural movement was created in reaction to; and on the legacy of another.

The nature of media and connection changed with technology. Cheaper air fares mean’t that the world has become much more accessible. I am not saying that it is cheap to fly to Australia, Japan or Brazil – but it is cheaper than it was. In my parents life time in Ireland, families and friends used to hold a wake for members of the community emigrating to the United States or Australia.

The reason for the wake was that the distance was only likely to be bridged by the occasional letter and post-departure it was unlike that they would be seen again.

Media is no longer something that has a time slot like the morning paper, drive time radio or prime time TV; but a membrane that surrounds us. It is in our pocket with us everywhere. We are the media; we have a portable broadcast studio of sorts in our pocket and the means of transmission.

To give you an idea of how revolutionary this concept is, here’s a clip from Back To The Future which was released as a film in 1985. Note the sense of wonder that the 1950s era Doc Brown has when confronted with a 1980s vintage JVC camcorder.

Victor legendary video camera
The iconic JVC GRC-1 camcorder. It is branded Victor for the Japanese domestic market.

The Victor / JVC GRC-1 camcorder had been launched the previous year and was the first all in one VHS camera and recorder – so at the time of the film release this was still cutting edge stuff.

The ‘Mondo‘ series of documentaries shocked and thrilled audiences with practices from around the world that would have seemed fantastical. At least to the average member of the public in the Italy of the directors, or mainstream audiences in the US. As the introduction to the English dub of the film says:

Intro to Mondo Cane

By comparison e-commerce and websites allow us to sample culture and products from around the world. You have access to Korean dramas and beauty tips, vintage Hong Kong movies, Brazilian funk carioca music from the ghettos of Rio De Janeiro or Chinese rap. The web isn’t a perfect memory, content disappears or often never gets seen.

Content is often mediated through algorithms governing e-commerce, search and social platforms. But despite those impediments; culture evolves and morphs in a massively parallel way. Which makes a mockery of generational stereotypes.

Consumption is becoming an attenuated concept

Part of the focus on generations is due to a focus on grabbing early life time spend. Brands want to get consumers as young as possible. An oft-mentioned heuristic was that half a consumer’s spend was done before they reach 35. There are a few things wrong with this approach:

Marketing science research has shown that consumers are brand promiscuous. Light consumers are more important for brand sales than heavy consumers. So an exclusive brand building focus of going after young consumers like a game of capture the flag isn’t the most effective approach.

We also know that there are a number of factors attenuating consumption patterns and spend along the generations so a youth focus makes less sense:

  • Older people tend to have more assets and the ability to spend. This is due to property prices, historic performance of pension investments, life insurance policies and a lack of student loans
  • Earning power in real terms has been declining over time. Taking into account a parity in education and inflation; boomers earned more than gen x, who in turn did better than gen y. Gen x managed to keep ahead of boomers only by having both partners in a marriage go out to work, to compensate for the man’s reduced earning power
  • Younger people are having to spend a larger degree of their income on somewhere to live. Student loan repayments creates an additional drag on their income
  • People are delaying life stages like marriage later due to the financial burden and have been having less children in most of the world
  • People are acting younger for longer and this reflects in their consumption patterns. Part of this is down to ageism in the employment market and part of it is down to them continuing to do what they love. I know Dads of college age kids who still skate or do martial arts. I know pensioners who love to buy lip gloss. An exception to consumer attenuation is the luxury sector. Luxury consumers have become younger, but that is also because the centre of gravity in luxury has shifted from US consumers to east Asia. Scions of first generation entrepreneurs from China, Korea, Singapore and Malaysia are not afraid to embrace their affluence

Life stages rather than generations

Culture is very important in making brand messages resonant. Culture is also adrift of generational labels. It is ethereal and finds its way to people, now more than ever. Being massively parallel in nature has made culture more democratic.

Thinking about the brand challenge in a consumer life stage way allows us to build strategic rather than short term communications. It allows to think about meaningful brand propositions across price, place, promotion and product. And then manifest it in a way that resonates culturally over time.

In an industry when marketing effectiveness is failing and campaigns are taking an increasingly short terms approach. Peter Fields’ report The Crisis in Creative Effectiveness for the IPA highlights the dangerous position that marketing is in. It’s a big hill to climb, but a good first step would be to ditch ineffective stereotypes as part of an effort to improve the quality of long term thinking and ideas.

More information

From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism by Fred Turner

Generation X not so special: Malaise, cynicism on the rise for all age groups | Stanford News Service

Gallup Historical Trends | Environment

Living: Proceeding With Caution | TIME magazine

X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking by Jeff Gordinier

Creative effectiveness is collapsing, claims new IPA report | Contagious

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Five for Friday | 五日(星期五) | 금요일에 다섯 가지

Reading Time: 2 minutes

See the Unseen – Volkswagen’s Taureg advert focuses on one feature and creatively sells it. This doesn’t look like your typical car advert. It will be interesting to see if See the Unseen is a one-off or marks an industry departure of from the usual car ads. It has none of the cliches: an anonymous driver speeding over winding roads, or millennials heading for a cool night out in the city. If Unilever sold cars, this is what the ad would look like.

I hadn’t seen Coca Cola’s ‘Open’ ad before by Wieden & Kennedy. Its a very different execution that still goes back to core distinctive brand values.

I could write a good deal about it but Mediatel has done it better:

In many ways (and over many years, minus the odd deviation) this is classic Coke territory, with a direct lineage back to the 1970s blockbuster ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing’: Coke as unifier, as socialiser, as harmoniser, as the vehicle through which ordinary citizens come together.

Coca-Cola: positioning, not purpose // The Attentionators

TEVA Pharmaceuticals’ ‘Hairspray’ done by VCCP is an amazing patient advocacy spot. That uses emotion in such a great way. Often its hard to get a patient advocacy film that hasn’t had the creative become bland. This was the kind of brief and piece of work that I would have loved to have done.

Rent a Pred by Adidas – interesting how they’ve integrated WhatsApp into this campaign. Slightly dodgy title but really good execution promoting the latest version of Adidas’ premium football boot.

Tokyo 2020 unveils first ever animated pictograms used in Olympics’ history. This is a beautiful piece of work that hints at the ubiquity of digital signage and the heritage of Otl Aicher’s work for the 1972 Munich Olympics – which defined a so much of late 20th century signage afterwards. Masaaki Hiromura’s designs were animated by Kota Iguchi. The lightening of the icons helps the animation to work better.

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ICYMI | 万一你错过了| 당신이 그것을 놓친 경우에 대비해서

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Mark Ritson: Coronavirus won’t hurt Corona, it will actually boost salesdifferentiation, particularly at the symbolic level, was overstated. Any evidence that people perceived Brand A as vastly different from Brand B could be largely explained by its size and prior purchase experiences. Purchase caused brand image, not vice versa. Ergo building a brand image was waste of marketing effort. The big job of brand was to create salience, so a brand came to mind in buying situations.

Pandemic brands – Wunderman Thompson Intelligence – nice counter-cyclical brand building and CSR during the corona virus outbreak

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Nando’s-inspired sex slang used by girls as young as 10 | Technology | The Guardian – you’ve got to wonder about what other level of monitoring and censorship is going on. I find this monitoring of kids distasteful.

Second-hand clothes sales: fashion forward | Financial Times – vintage all over again

porsche to print giant fingerprints of customers onto hood of 911 sport cars | Designboom – not sure I think its smart to post a copy of a biometric data on the bonnet of your car. These are the kind of people rich enough to personal safes and secure rooms with finger print locks. I’ve got visions of hackers working out how to take advantage of this

IBM and Microsoft sign Vatican pledge for ethical AI | Financial Timesthe pledge, called the “Rome Call for AI Ethics”, will be presented on Friday morning to Pope Francis by Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft, and John Kelly, IBM’s executive vice-president, as well as Vatican officials and Qu Dongyu, the Chinese director-general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation – so it wasn’t a Vatican driven initiative after all but a public affairs exercise

Baidu/tech groups: traffic warning | Financial TimesBut higher traffic does not equate to higher income for search platforms. The contrast is with gaming, where more time playing means surging in-game purchases. For Baidu, which makes about three-quarters of total revenue from advertising, that is bad news. Even before the outbreak, a slowdown in China had trimmed the advertising budgets of clients. Marketing campaigns have now been cut further. Cancelled events and concerts contribute to the malaise. Baidu’s biggest clients, which include online gaming companies, real estate developers and plastic surgery clinics, have little incentive to advertise. A surge in new sign-ups for online games means fewer game ads are needed. Demand for homes has plunged and some cities have banned home sales altogether. Plastic surgery clinics, a lucrative source of core ad revenues, are taking a hit.

Twitter is testing new ways to fight misinformation — including a community-based points system – sounds curiously like Cory Doctorow’s concept of whuffie

How to deliver the personalization consumers want while respecting the privacy they expect | Think with Google – I am not convinced by the focus on mass personalisation. What about brand, culture etc?

Ogilvy brings on global executive creative directors for Instagram | Campaign Asia – God help us

Volvo Trucks – The Tower By Forsman & Bodenfors, Sweden – THEINSPIRATION.COM – interesting that they got the head of their business directly involved

Did America Forget How to Make the H-Bomb? – Mother Jones – and things are probably worse with processes reliant on electronic records

Chinese navy accused of using laser on US military aircraft | Financial Times – This reads like something from a William Gibson novel

Otl Aicher: The Olympic Designer Who Shaped Your Journey To The Toilet – FlashbakLike a paperclip, we don’t think of Aicher’s pictograms as designed objects per se, but rather as the objects themselves. The chairs we own are someone’s take on a chair. That’s not the case with the average, everyday paperclip. It is what it is, a paperclip. That’s it. Objects at this level of comprehension are simply there. They feel as though they have always been there, and did so from the moment they were presented to the masses. In every country, in every city, they are simply there. In the case of Aicher’s icons they’ve become shorthand that everyone can understand, a set of simple shapes that successfully tells us where to go when we need to use a bathroom. – pretty much sums it up

Google tops Facebook, Instagram in e-commerce activity, study finds | Mobile Marketer – context wins, but guessing that this may vary by category

LinkedIn | Balenciaga Summer 2020 collection video – Jay Owens – This is a genius bit of media buying for a collection themed around power and power dressing. The catwalk show saw private equity associates, architects & engineers stalk an EU-blue stage set like a parliamentary building. Advertising on LinkedIn now is just 👌– nails context

Featured Customer – Oscar the Grouch – Squarespace – I used to hate writing case studies for technology companies at the start of my career, but I do like this one that Squarespace did for Oscar the Grouch

How Japan’s family businesses use sons-in-law to bring in new blood | Financial TimesFor hundreds of years, owners of Japanese companies have been adopting their sons-in-law as a way to recruit talent — a practice known as mukoyoshi — giving rise to the saying “You can’t choose your sons, but you can choose your sons-in-law”. The histories of zaibatsu (conglomerate) families such as Sumitomo, Mitsui and Iwasaki (of the Mitsubishi group) are studded with adopted relatives and sons-in-law

The Sun posts £68m loss as it pays out £27m in legal costs over phone-hacking scandalHowever, revenue at News Group Newspapers for the 52 weeks ending 30 June 2019 were up, with total turnover growing to £420m in 2019 from £401.4m in 2018. Circulation of The Sun was down to 1.38 million last year from 1.51 million in 2018, and fell to 1.16 million from 1.28 million for The Sun on Sunday. – so despite revenue increasing losses were up. You also have to wonder how sustainable revenue increases can be with a declining audience

Smartphone startups take on Google, Apple and put privacy first | DW – I just can’t see these taking off. Interesting data on Google and consumer attitudes

How Adidas is using WhatsApp as a direct marketing channel – DigidayThe most recent example of the strategy was the “100% Unfair Predator” campaign. Earlier this month, Adidas opened up a hotline on WhatsApp for people in need of a footballer to cover for unreliable teammates on their team. Adidas-sponsored players were made available for games last week once fans had shared some basic information with the hotline such as the game they need the player for. The company’s marketers would notify fans on the morning of their game if their request was successful. The rented players turned up dressed in Adidas’ new Predator20 Mutator footwear. “We know our audience use it to share fixture info, team selection — and team-mates messaging to find last-minute replacements,” said Coveney. “WhatsApp was perfect for the more functional elements of the ‘Rent-a-Pred’ hotline as it allowed consumers to share private information one-to-one with us for review, before being allocated a Predator player near them.”

Unilever kicks off strategic review of personal-care brands | Campaign Live – this could get interesting