By Christopher Hosford
Marketers love to talk about personas, those ideal customer archetypes as revealed by online activities and other markers. But perhaps the most overlooked attribute of personas may be purely demographic: age groups.
When academics and the media discuss age, it's often baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1960) and millennials (1981 to 1995) who garner most of the attention, with the youngest gen Z cohort (born between the mid-1990s to early 2000s) starting to suck up more and more of the marketing oxygen.
Gen X, those born roughly between 1965 and 1980, is considered the forgotten generation, but one that represents a major opportunity for marketers.
"From a marketing perspective, the boomers have always been in an audience mode, and very brand loyal," says Jon D. Miller, research director at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. "But gen Xers are not audience people; they are information and acquisition people.
"They're also among the first in which brand loyalty began to erode, but not by much," says Miller, author of the multiyear, gen X-intensive "Longitudinal Study of American Youth," which specifically studied the gen X cohort. "They still show a strong commitment to brand, more than any younger demographic."
Additional research reinforces the idea that gen Xers are distinct as customers and prospects. While they remember life before the internet, they also use social media more than any other age group, according to the Oracle study "One Size Doesn't Fit All." Yet, only 10 percent of gen Xers are swayed by internet influencers, compared with gen Z at 23 percent and millennials at 21 percent.
This is among the starkest marketing differences Oracle found when comparing the studied generations, which specifically compared boomers, gen X, millennials, and gen Z. Gen Xers are, simply put, a bit cynical about online recommendations.
On the online channel front, Edison Research's 2019 study, The Social Habit, found that LinkedIn's greatest usage is among those in the gen X sweet spot of ages 35 to 54. "All of these differences are critical pieces of information for marketers," Miller says.
The Decision-Making Generation
April Crichlow, VP of global customer and ecosystem marketing at SAP Ariba and SAP Fieldglass, says that understanding these differences is especially important because gen Xers are often key decision makers. Adding to the complexity is gen Xers' tendency to straddle the analog and digital worlds, with traditional TV and print messaging equally as appealing as digital forms, Crichlow says.
"While SAP has traditionally marketed ourselves to CIOs, focusing on technology features and functions, we're now taking into account other decision makers — the CMOs, CEOs, COOs, and chief human relations officers," she says. "Marketers have to be authentic and personal to the age group that is most likely to have these titles. Often it's gen Xers."
To more effectively reach these types of decision makers, SAP in 2018 recruited actor Clive Owen — who, at age 54, is at the intersection of boomers and gen Xers — to promote SAP's Experience Management marketing solutions. The marketing campaign features 60-second ads running on broadcast TV outlets as well online venues, covering digital and analog channels. "With Clive, you have a personality who is well known by gen Xers as well as boomers," Crichlow says. "You have to think not only about distinct generations but also the overlap between them."
An Independent Streak
Understanding the "why" of marketing to gen X is as important as knowing the "how", says Kate Turkcan, managing director of Midwest client services at technology research company Morning Consult.
"There are definitely distinguishing gen X characteristics caused by big cultural touchpoints and world news during their college years that formed their view of the world. We think of gen Xers as maybe a little cynical, more realistic than other generations," she says, echoing the Oracle study.
Messaging that mimics (or actually is) a conversation is most appreciated by this demographic, Turkcan says. And rather than adopt boomer attitudes as they age, gen Xers retain their foundational beliefs. Turkcan echoes Crichlow's comments that marketing messages to gen Xers should depict real-world situations often absent from more emotional appeals.
"With gen Xers, marketing messages should be all about problem solving," she says. "Be realistic and straightforward. It's about saying to them, 'I recognize who you are and I have a solution for it.'"
Because gen Xers are often key decision makers who encompass various marketing jobs, marketing automation company Act-On tries to appeal to "hybrids" who appreciate both offline and online experiences. For example, the company offers in-person user groups with lessons from expert Act-On customers, and also direct mail that offers gift cards to customers who take reference calls from Act-On prospects.
The company also tailors its social media employee advocacy program to appeal to the different generations, depending on the channel. For instance, it curates multiple social media messages that appeal to different employee personas, ranging from a highly professional and experienced tone to enthusiastic and eager-to-grow.
David Greenberg, Act-On SVP of marketing, says understanding generational differences is especially important for technology marketers.
"Gen Xers lived a long time before the internet, so they're unique when coming on board with new technology, versus millennials who are digital natives," he says. "Yes, gen Xers are technologically proficient, but they've had to adapt to it. And because of that, we've found that they're format neutral."
Greenberg adds that understanding generations is particularly apropos to account based marketing, in which an account may be made up of a dozen or more stakeholders, including the ultimate decision maker. Here, gen X prospects tend to appreciate and use email to a greater degree than younger prospects, who are more attuned to social media and apps, he notes.
The Last of The Loyalists
According to industry psychologist Mia Mulrennan, marketers may be well advised to keep an eye on the cynical-and-realistic nature of gen Xers. Gen Xers feel frustrated that boomers still retain their positions of power, while millennials pass them for higher positions, she says.
"Sandwiched between two behemoth generations, the members of generation X are the outnumbered, seldom-mentioned underdog generation," Mulrennan says. "When the recession hit, boomers didn't leave, while millennials who wanted a steep career track were cheaper. Gen Xers have been in a tough spot because of it."
For Mulrennan, author of Passed Over and Pissed Off: The Overlooked Leadership Talents of Generation X, the demographic offers attractive characteristics to marketers, such as gen Xers' penchant for well-known brands and suppliers with lengthy, successful track records.
Marketers who are gen Xers themselves may have a unique perspective in crafting messages that appeal to the generation's sense of nostalgia. Mulrennan calls gen Xers "the last of the loyalists."
"They also were the first generation to use technology for both fun and work, while boomers were forced to learn technology for work," she says. "That means gen Xers can be specifically marketed to as making day-to-day buying decisions about products they would rate highly."
While generational differences often overlap and can be overly broad in their definitions, generation X is a distinct marketing persona, says SAP Ariba's Crichlow.
"Yes, at the end of the day, you're marketing to human beings with stories about business they care about," she says. "But don't forget that gen X is the 'middle generation' where social media, geopolitics, and technology changed rapidly. For marketers, there is a huge opportunity to get the right mix of digital and traditional marketing communications aimed at this group."