The odds are stacked against marketers who bet on generational differences

Magically, every 10 to 15 years a new generational cohort (e.g., millennials, Generation X, Generation Z, baby boomers) emerges from the shadows to transform and revolutionize American culture and the US economy.

We might miss these giant transformative waves of radical behavioral changes if it were not for the book authors, pundits, marketing consultants, advertising gurus, and communications executives who heighten our awareness of and shape our minds to the significance of each new generational cohort.

Many senior executives believe that these cohorts should guide the design of new products, shape marketing planning, and influence the development of advertising campaigns. Once a cohort is identified and explained by the gurus, it’s easy for the rest of us to see evidence of its existence – and to see evidence of its characteristics and properties. All we have to do is observe a focus group made up of millennials to confirm all that we think we know about this group. It’s so obvious. Confirmation bias is a powerful thing.

There is only one little problem with this narrative. Cohorts do not really exist. Not in the way they are described and characterized. Cohorts do exist in a way, however. Yes, 20 million people (or whatever the number is) were born within the date range set for a given cohort, but beyond this age commonality, the balance of the stereotypical assertions are mostly untrue.

Apart from age differences, the differences within and among millennials, for example, are as great as the differences within and among the general population of U.S. adults.

The marketing gurus and the media have asserted that millennials (born 1982 to 2000, by one definition) are the first digital generation, coming of age with PCs and the internet, and are, therefore, “programmed” to be quite different from previous generations.

The Federal Reserve published an exhaustive study of millennials in late 2018. The agency concluded that millennials are very similar to their parents in attitudes and behaviors, only poorer. Almost one-third (31 percent) of millennials live at home with their parents. The living at home and the lower income are results of the Great Recession and the tremendous increases in the cost of a college education over the past 20 years, not some characteristic intrinsic to this generation.

Demographics or stereotypes?

Generational cohort groups can be thought of as a type of stereotyping. Our culture tends to frown on the sloppy thinking and biases involved in stereotyping, even though we are all guilty of and gullible to it. With stereotyping, we don’t need evidence, we don’t need facts, and we don’t have to think. We can just pour everyone with the same age label into one bucket and “know” that everyone in that bucket is nearly identical.

This type of shortcut thinking might simplify our cognitive burdens, but it does so at the expense of truth and reality. It’s easy to assume that humans within an age range share similar characteristics. And there is a little truth to this premise. People of similar ages do tend to have things in common related to their ages, but this has always been true throughout human history.

However, the generational differences are but a thin veneer atop an ocean of cultural similarities across all age groups. While there are laws to protect various groups from discrimination (a close companion of stereotyping) and rules to prevent law enforcement officers from stereotyping possible suspects, there are no laws or rules to prohibit marketing executives from stereotyping their target audiences with terms such as millennials and Gen Z.

Reading articles and books on these generational cohorts will not lead to an optimal marketing strategy or plan. Every brand has to do its own homework in the form of marketing research to identify its highest value target audiences, develop an in-depth understanding of the people who comprise them, and craft optimal marketing strategies to attract them.

Stereotypes and cookie cutters and cohorts do not lead to brilliant, original marketing and advertising campaigns. Falling victim to confirmation bias is no way to guide marketing.

So, raise your right hand and take the following oath: “I solemnly swear to avoid stereotyping my target audience. I promise to do my research to learn the facts about my target consumers. I promise to keep an open mind that searches for truth based on objective research evidence.”

Now that you are freed from confirmation bias, you’re ready to get and use a clear understanding of your target customers and then develop great marketing plans and brilliant advertising campaigns.

Jerry W. Thomas is founder and president of Decision Analyst Inc.

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