Why are we still buying into generational stereotypes?

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Making assumptions about 'generations' is not a strategy.

As the office’s resident member of Generation Z, it’s been fascinating to see articles flooding my LinkedIn feed advising concerned business leaders on how to prepare for my generation to enter the workforce in droves. Particularly fascinating are those claiming to hold the secrets of to how to engage Gen Z – and most of them tend to assume that people born after 1995 form part of some disengaged, short-attention-spanned monolith.

The notion that people who were born during a specific era share similar tendencies and ways of thinking has been developed by various theorists but was popularised by Strauss & Howe in their 1991 book Generations. Their ‘Generational Cohort Theory’ argues that the values of individuals are affected by important historical events and social changes that occur during the formative years of their life. While it’s clear that, to some extent, age and generation can be a useful way to segment audiences and understand their behaviour, we as marketers need to ensure we’re not falling into the trap of perpetuating unfair or damaging generational stereotypes.

Puma tamed

It was hard not to notice Puma’s disastrous attempt at marketing to ‘the youth’ with their ‘House of Hustle’ event, complete with its burner phones and shoeboxes filled with fake £50 notes. These blatant references to drug dealing and criminal culture were quickly picked up on social and in the media. The excellent open letter to Puma by social worker Amber Gilbert-Coutts highlighted the fact that adolescent drug dealing is a cause of violence, deprivation and community adversity, and is clearly not something appropriate for a brand to glamorise in an attempt to attract young people.

Given that Gen Z are increasingly placing importance on transparency, accountability and brands aligning with their values when making purchase decisions, Puma would have done better to celebrate determined young people involved positive, legal enterprise – of which there are many – as opposed to upholding a damaging generational stereotype.

Beyond the stereotypes

So why are we still resorting to generational stereotypes in marketing? Quite frankly, it’s because it’s easy. But this tendency can sometimes do more harm than good. Targeting a generation is not a strategy. The focus should always rest on who you are as a brand and what your product is before building a picture of what you can offer a particular audience. Failing to do so is likely to compromise both brand identity and current audiences.

We live in an age that presents us with unrivalled opportunities to understand and target audiences. This is where social really comes in to its own, allowing us to build and target audiences based on behaviour, interests and life stage, and serve different content to different groups of people. We can also collaborate and partner with aspirational figures as an effective way of reaching new groups. And crucial to understanding your audience and avoiding stereotypes is involving them in your planning and creative thinking.

Ageism is rife in today’s society and generational divisions seem to be becoming increasingly entrenched. But there’s a lot that we can do to encourage a more collaborative culture that values difference, while still reminding us of the things we have in common.

Jess Sargent is an account executive at Media Bounty

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