Generational marketing:

How customers shape the way we advertise.
6 min read

In order to market well, we need to understand our customers. The tricky part is that what our customers are looking for and how they want to be marketed to is a moving target. The relationship between customers and corporations is in constant evolution, and is moving at an increasingly rapid pace. While staying ahead of the curve means staying on top of consumer trends and looking ahead, we can also learn a lot by looking back at what’s led us to this point.

“Over the past one hundred and fifty years, customer expectations of brands have undergone a series of transitions. These transitions continually redefine the quality of relationship and dimensions of value delivery required for the success and sustainability of brands.” Soren Petersen

Customer expectations change over time, and brands that understand and embrace these changing expectations are better able to elevate customer experiences, create loyalty and retention, and move those customers from consideration to selection when it comes time to make a purchase.

Ye Olde Marketing

As long as products have been for sale, there’s been marketing in one form or another. As consumers grow used to existing marketing techniques and become more sophisticated buyers, brands need to cater to a more discerning audience and work harder to build and maintain relationships with their customers as competition increases. While this was once a much slower process that would unfold over decades and generations, we’re now seeing major shifts within a couple of years or less.

The kind of marketing we recognize today essentially began during the industrial revolution. From that period up until about 1930, consumers were primarily looking for quality and safety. The marketing challenge for all of these new and innovative products was building credibility with buyers rather than finding a competitive edge.

The main challenge for Ford, for example, was convincing people who grew up with a horse and buggy that the Model T would make travel easier and more efficient. But because it was such a big shift, only early adopters and innovators were ready to make that kind of purchase right away, while many saw it as a menace to society.

“The majority of today’s marketing rituals began in the 1920s, maybe the most influential decade for the advertising industry in the 20th century.” Terry O’Reilly

Then, until about the 1960s, an increase in the number of product choices forced brands to develop a unique selling proposition. They realized that increased competition meant that they needed to differentiate their product with features and benefits to stand out from others in their category. Think Betty Croker—“It’s not just moist, it’s SuperMoist®.”

Between the 1960s and the 1980s, consumers started demanding more from brands as their purchases became an important part of how they expressed themselves. This shift necessitated an increased focus on the customer, and marketing efforts designed around identifying their needs, wants, and buying behaviors.

“During the mid-to-late nineteen hundreds, Baby-Boomers demanded more from their brands and the act of purchasing also became a means of ‘self-expression.'” Soren Petersen

Generation X and the younger baby boomers went a step further by seeking a better experience with their purchases. Say hello to Starbucks. Not only did this model allow customers to express themselves and feel unique with personalized products, but it created an atmosphere unlike anything else at the time.

In addition to providing exemplary customer experiences that would set them apart, they also used their siren call (get it?) of aromatic coffee and deep armchairs to create a “third space” that people would naturally choose to spend their time (and money) when they aren’t at home or at work.

Game Changers

So let’s talk about millennials. This generation, born between 1977 and 1995, seek to make a difference and make the world a better place. More than half of all millennials want to reward responsible companies by purchasing from them, and quite a few are willing to pay a premium. When it comes to millennials, brand trust and commitment to social value are some of the biggest purchase influencers in the market today.

“Millennials (1977 – 1995) and Centennials (1996 and later) are living with hyper-change as the metronome of their lives […] Both generations are desperately seeking to make the world a better place, are driven to ‘make a difference’ and associate their identities with brands that seek the same.” Soren Petersen

Be careful though, because millennials still want to buy something that solves a problem or fills a need—they just want to know the world is benefiting too. And they don’t just want to know that the brand is making a difference, but want to be a part of that change as well. So talk about the issue, tell people how they can get involved, and build a relationship.

Making the world a better place is a very strong brand activation with millennials, but only if it feels authentic. Future generations such as the centennials or generation Z will also continue to keep organizations on their feet with their focus on measurable actions. You can’t just say it anymore, you have to do it and prove it.

“When internal stakeholders ask, ‘Why are we doing this?’ or when customers ask, ‘Why am I buying this?’ it substantially heightens the critical relationship between strategy and brand.” Soren Petersen 

More than one moving target

But here’s the thing—it’s not just millennials out there. There are still lots of other buyers who, while aware of different marketing tools and techniques, respond better to methods they’re more familiar with. Unfortunately, there are always going to be exceptions to the rule including early adopters, late adopters, and outliers. So when it comes to targeting your efforts to a specific demographic—both in terms of the tone of that marketing as well as the channels through which it’s delivered—it’s anything but straightforward.

“A 56-year old female, empty-nester divorcee’s needs and attitudes will more likely mirror that of a 31 year-old single woman than a 53 year-old married woman with two teenaged kids […] But this doesn’t mean that a 52 year-old woman is sourcing Popsugar for influence. Nor does it mean that she’s going to use, consume or wear products in the same way as her 31 year-old ‘peer.’ Target the age; but position and market to the attitude.” Sara Schor

With so much choice out there, customers of every generational group can dictate how, where, and when you can market to them, so marketers need to figure out these preferences and make sure they’re in the right place, at the right time, speaking to customers the way they want to be spoken to.

Luckily, email marketing continues to be a great channel for reaching a wide range of demographics, especially with the ability to target and segment specific audiences within those groups. It’s also a great way to build relationships, and is an ideal content marketing tool because of its ability to measure and tailor its messaging.

“Even compared to mighty social media, email’s reach outshines any other method of online communication. Out of everyone who can be classified as online, 95% have email accounts. Of that 95%, about 91% check their emails every day.” Adam Ritchie 

All email marketing platforms come with at least some personalization tools. Whether you’re adding the recipient’s name to the subject line or using dynamic data throughout the email, research shows that even the smallest amount of personalization will increase the chances of your email being read. Some research suggests that personalized subject lines alone can increase unique open rates by 26%.

While there are some great tools, like email marketing, that make it easier to reach your audiences, there’s certainly not an easy one-size-fits-all solution. It takes a great deal of research, experience, and strategy to keep up with the ever-changing marketing landscape. Luckily, marketing nerds like us can’t wait to get our hands on this stuff, so you know you have us in your corner.