From baby boomers to Gen Z: generational marketing insights to win with every consumer generation

Published April 16, 2021

Reach every generation with the glue that binds: digital-first

It was already tough for businesses juggling multiple consumer generations before the pandemic, and now that buyer behavior is changing so radically, it can really feel like there are too many balls in the air. Your business needs to know how to market to all four consumer generations in the new normal—which is a lot easier said than done.

Generational marketing—defined as “[marketing] to a specific generation of people based on the preferences, attitudes and upbringings that distinguish them from other groups”—has long been a challenge for businesses, especially during events that profoundly change buyer behavior.

COVID has impacted every consumer generation: How they think, spend time and make purchases have all been upended. With the right knowledge, you can customize your marketing efforts to make sure you’re capturing the attention of baby boomers, millennials and Gen Z alike. 

Baby boomers like digital, but old habits still matter

The baby boomer generation can get a bad rap, but it all depends on who you talk to. They are a sentimental bunch who still like their newspapers and television advertising, but they can’t be counted out when it comes to digital adoption, either. 

“Boomers” are those born between 1946 and 1964, meaning they’ve lived during some pivotal moments in history that have helped shape their opinions and values. Data on the global boomer population is hard to pinpoint, but they numbered just north of 70 million in the U.S. as of 2019.

And although every baby boomer will be over 65 years old in 2030, many intend to continue working past the traditional retirement age. This means that their purchasing power—an annual spend of USD$548.1 billion as of 2019—won’t slow down significantly for another decade or so. For this reason, boomers are “often the focus of marketing campaigns and business plans.”

Generational marketing insights: baby boomers

Baby boomers grew up in an era of rabbit-ear televisions, radio and widespread print media. They relish the chance to consume media through these channels. Boomers are also proponents of technological innovation, though. They witnessed first-hand the introduction of the internet, fax machines, the evolution of the personal computer and the first bulky mobile phones of the 80s and 90s. 

The best bets for marketing to boomers are “online via computers specifically (not phones), television and traditional print.”

Keep these three strategies in mind to appeal to boomer consumers:

  • Have a presence on all channels that boomers use. This is the most important approach for generational marketing to baby boomers. Eighty percent of boomers prefer to watch conventional television over online streaming and radio still reaches 98 percent of them each month, so more traditional mediums cannot be forgotten alongside digital marketing efforts.
  • Keep things useful but simple. Avoid alienating baby boomers by keeping your marketing accessible (simple design, large fonts, etc.), being direct and helpful and not using slang that might make them feel dated.
  • Appeal to nostalgia. “Nostalgia connects people to authentic and treasured experiences”—this is a great way to remind baby boomers of the times that shaped their values. This can be done through musical or visual cues, historical or cultural references or even just teasing boomer stereotypes in a respectful way. Baby boomers are good sports.

Gen X helps bridge the technological divide

Wedged in the middle of the massive boomer and millennial generations, Gen X is relatively small. But that doesn’t mean their economic influence and buying potential should be ignored. They’re more digitally engaged than the preceding generation and they paved the way for the first true digital natives. 

Gen X tops the list in the housing, clothing, eating out, and entertainment spending categories and has a global annual buying power of USD $2.4 trillion. Their economic significance will continue to increase, too, especially as baby boomers begin spending less after retirement. 

Described as “independent and flexible,” this generation of critical thinkers helped shape global perceptions of technology and how it’s used today. 

Generational marketing insights: Gen X

Gen X has found a home on Facebook, where 95 percent of this generation is active. But they actually respond better to email marketing compared to social campaigns. They use Facebook mostly for research and recommendations from their network before making a final purchase in-store. 

Gen Xers tend to be suspicious of corporations and institutions, which stems from political and economic events throughout their lives (the Watergate scandal and large-scale lay-offs in the 80s, for example). This sentiment trickles down to their brand loyalty, so businesses need to work extra hard to earn their trust. The good news, though, is that they’re known as the most loyal generation once they put their faith in a brand.

Gen X will respond best to your marketing when you use these strategies:

  • Leverage positive reviews to earn loyalty. Building up a positive reputation on popular review sites like Yelp is the best signal to Gen X that your brand is worthy of their trust and business. 
  • Focus on Facebook transparency. Make sure all Facebook business pages are detailed and transparent, leaving no possibility for perceived hidden agendas and values. Your ad budget should lean toward Facebook to win with Gen X as well.
  • Make them feel acknowledged. It’s easy for Gen X to feel forgotten in the marketing mix due to their chronological position and smaller size when compared with other generations. Make sure your marketing messages are “tailored to their goals, likes and place in life” to resonate with this generation.

Millennials don’t want to feel targeted by inauthentic brands

Also referred to as “Gen Y,” millennials value authenticity and prefer organic engagement over pushy or targeted advertising. This consumer generation wants to feel like its values are understood and reciprocated by brands.

Millennials and baby boomers have a history of opposing viewpoints and misunderstandings. This has led to Gen Y being characterized as “narcissistic and prone to [jumping] from job to job”—an unfair stereotype considering the vastly different social and economic influences millennials have experienced compared to baby boomers. These experiences have shaped their attitudes on where they choose to spend their money.

“Plain and simple: Nearly every marketer today is making Generation Y a priority—or at least working to understand what drives and delights this instrumental group.”

This generation—with buying power estimated at USD $1.4 trillion in 2020—prides itself on being more open-minded to new ideas and lifestyles, and they have the drive to correct the wrongs they see in the world. This knowledge can help your business formulate a winning marketing strategy that resonates with millennials. 

Generational marketing insights: Millennials

Despite their enormous annual spending, millennials are yet to reach their full buying potential. This opens up a world of future promise for marketers who understand what makes Gen Y tick. As HubSpot put it, “Plain and simple: Nearly every marketer today is making Generation Y a priority—or at least working to understand what drives and delights this instrumental group.”

The majority of millennials embrace technology by owning multiple devices, while around 80 percent have a presence on several social media platforms. This gives marketers a lot of flexibility in the ways they reach Gen Y.

The key insight is that millennials love when their purchases go toward supporting a cause. They are 50 percent more likely to buy from a brand that openly contributes to social initiatives, so they want to see brands putting their money where their mouth is: “83 percent want companies to have the same values as they do, 76 percent want CEOs to speak out on issues they care about, and 62 percent favor products that show off their political and social beliefs in their messaging.”

Get millennials on your brand’s side with these marketing approaches:

  • Be authentic and follow through on commitments. Get on board with real contemporary issues and genuinely put your brand’s support behind them. Sustainable business practices, as well as diversity and inclusion, are all winning causes.
  • Outbound marketing won’t work with Gen Y. They crave engaging content and search for reasons to trust brands through reviews and reputation before buying. Targeted campaigns, email marketing and paid advertising won’t get you as far as mirroring millennials’ values will.
  • Don’t use gimmicks. Millennials are typically marketing-savvy, so don’t expect to pull the wool over their eyes with marketing trickery. Clarity and honesty are what will get this consumer generation on board with your brand.

Gen Z is social and loves short, entertaining video content

Gen Zers are online a lot. This generation of influencers and content creators wants to be able to consume a lot of content within the time they spend on social media.

Like millennials, authenticity and “cause marketing” resonate with Gen Z, and they also prefer not to be targeted by advertising (65 percent use ad blockers, and those who don’t skip ads ASAP). So, many of the same strategies used for Gen Y will also win favor among Gen Zers. The key distinction, then, is knowing where the youngest consumers spend most of their time and what type of content they want to see: social platforms that emphasize rapidly consumable media.

Generational marketing insights: Gen Z

Gen Z gravitates toward video content. YouTube and Instagram are popular, especially as hubs for influencers, but Gen Zers actually prefer viewing a wide variety of brief, punchy content over anything long-form.

“Short, ephemeral content on Snapchat and TikTok is the best method to engage Gen Z.”

Alongside portraying a positive, socially aware brand image and following through on promises, stepping up your social media game with “short, ephemeral content on Snapchat and TikTok is the best method to engage Gen Z.”

Get creative with social content to get the youngest consumer generation interested:

  • Be active on all social media. It’s crucial that your brand remains active on as many social platforms as possible to maximize exposure and reach with Gen Z. Keep content interactive by encouraging them to engage with your brand.
  • Keep it short and sweet. Make interacting with your brand fun but not tiresome. Short videos and high-quality photos that highlight your brand or products are big reasons why TikTok and Instagram have seen success with Gen Z.
  • Use different social marketing tactics. Don’t assume that having a social presence is enough. Find ways to get young people excited about your brand through events, contests and—most of all—influencer marketing. Gen Z shoppers are 41 percent more likely to buy from a brand that one of their favorite influencers has vouched for.

Digital is the glue that holds all generations together

Despite the differences in preference, size and behavior, the key commonality for generational marketing is digital adoption. This gives a clear indication of where businesses’ efforts should be focused. 

You still want to try and reach your target market everywhere they are, but not all businesses have the budget or know-how to market through every available channel. Checking the digital boxes—social media, email and paid advertising where possible—will ensure you’re getting exposure among all four consumer generations. Get out there!

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