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Marketers must move beyond generational targeting – or risk alienating audiences

Virgin Media has managed to avoid the pitfall of generalizing generations

Marketers are still wedded to reductive understandings of generational identity. Jane Hovey of agency Vivaldi argues that to reach the right audiences, communications professionals need to move past generational generalizations.

The recent ad by Virgin Media, ‘Faster brings us closer,’ refreshingly celebrates intergenerational musical connection, spotlighting a father and daughter coming together over a mutual love of music. Unlike so many brands today, Virgin Media has avoided the pitfall of generalizing generations.

Much has been written about generational differences over the years. But while the terms baby boomer, millennial and gen Z can be helpful to describe a particular age group, they also help to fuel sweeping generalizations, creating stereotypes that can render a marketing campaign ineffective and at risk of alienating people.

The recent Tiffany’s campaign, ‘Not your mother’s Tiffany,’ was created in an attempt to refresh the brand for a younger audience; however in so doing they successfully angered existing customers who felt rejected by the brand, while outraging younger, more politically-correct audiences by creating a clear demographic division. Talking in the wrong voice, or patronizing or belittling an audience, can have damaging implications. Brands need to be wary in their approach.

One of the biggest frustrations when taking a client brief is when you’re told: “We want to target millennials.” Within that segmentation there are many points of difference ranging from where you live, your interests and your passions, to whether you’re a homeowner, parent, in full-time work or studying, and so on. There are far too many people within the millennial cohort for brands to build any form of meaningful relationship with.

Generalizing generations and targeting such a large audience is lazy thinking, with the result being a disengaged audience. So how can brands maintain relevance and engage with audiences more intimately?

Attitudinal groups are more effective than generational categories

Rather than bundling people into large generational groups, brands should be looking more closely at attitudinal groups, which are linked to people’s passions and interests. Across age groups there are silver threads that unite audiences, such as whether you are a fashionista or a foodie, what sports you play and follow, which artists you stream, and so on. These so-called fandoms can incorporate different age groups, connecting people by their passions and interests, and activity can be measured by the websites you click on, the games you play online, the merchandise you buy and the YouTube videos you watch.

Gardening brand Scott’s Miracle-Gro successfully tapped into this concept by uniting its audience through guerrilla gardening – a growing movement that cuts through generations. By launching Black Magic Potting Mix, Scott’s introduced a new premium compost for young, urban consumers growing plants and vegetables, disrupting an industry that had historically appealed to older generations. Working with micro-influencers, the campaign garnered hundreds of thousands of views and engagements, inspiring people to grow tomorrow’s city and – significantly – click to buy the product on Amazon.

To build a more intimate relationship with customers, brands need to listen, learn and think. It’s about digital ethnography, spotting trends and designing for what your audience will want in the future, not just the present.

Marketers need to get intimate with their audience

Deodorant brand Impulse cleverly co-created a range of new scents in collaboration with teenage girls. By engaging their target audience through the innovation process, Impulse developed a series of weird and wonderful perfumes, such as burnt marshmallow & leather jacket and whipped cream & microchip, that no amount of experienced branding experts would have been able to create.

By listening and empowering their audience, brands are bringing them into the innovation process, rather than just pushing content toward them. It’s about intimacy and co-creation and not just relying on data to design products and strategies, because you simply cannot understand what people are truly passionate about by merely watching the data points of what they are clicking on through advertising.

In order to truly engage consumers, brands need to understand what kind of relationship their audience wants to have because, in truth, not everyone wants intimate engagement with their favorite brand. What is a negative or positive brand experience has so many different dimensions depending on the audience, and this is where effective interface design and user experience innovation comes into play.

In short, brands need to stop generalizing generations and bundling segments together, and instead listen to what their passions are. It is this greater sense of belonging that adds real value to consumers, not the sweeping generalizations and the creation of stereotypes. Ultimately, brands need to make friends, not alienate people.

Jane Hovey is director of communications strategy at Vivaldi.

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