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Dec 31, 2018    Good Company

The X, Y, and Zs of Advertising: Marketing Through the Generations


As an award-winning digital agency in Austin, Texas, we like to think that our methods are so next-level intelligent that they are entirely disconnected from legacy of the original Madison Avenue agencies. Silicon Valley has invented new channels to reach consumers and business purchasers, and that has major implications for the advertising industry. But there is also and an underlying shift in how we communicate through marketing that reaches across various media. That change has always been driven by consumers and how they want brands to interact with them. You can trace the basis for contemporary creative agencies’ strategies back to the rise of Generation X.

X Marks the Start

If you lived through the 90s, your memories of the era are likely as bright and fanciful as a Lisa Frank-adorned Trapper Keeper. The aesthetic of the time was splashy and weird, which made conventional ads seem out of touch. Advertising agencies had to adapt. This video from YouTuber The90sKid showcases some of the stranger ads of the Gen-X teen years:

The intro makes the case that this generation had the keen ability to pick up on the phoniness of traditional TV advertising, which meant that marketing firms needed to make their ads look less like ads. Or at least much less like the cliches everyone had come to expect.

This is not unique to television ads for kids. Every week I get some piece of direct mail marketing disguised as some kind of bill or notice with the foreboding warning to “OPEN IMMEDIATELY.” What is the point of that if not to make the recipient – young or old – believe this piece of marketing seems like anything but.

However, those mailers are not a great way to build any kind of brand loyalty. Creating fun and unique content – even if it’s a TV ad – can engender a brand with an aura of cool, a desirability formed more around the perception of the brand than on specific selling points of the products.

Rock Candy Media was started in 2009 by a Gen-Xer and total 90s kid. The focus of the company reflected the idea that brands should show, not tell––to build a positive, emotional connection to the company, as opposed to straightforwardly selling a product or service. For the first few years, RCM didn’t even have a paid search team. That put the pressure on the creative department to attract customers organically. We put this into practice on our own brand, for example, by creating a Chrome theme that had no purpose other than to prove that we were innovative and highly capable.

You can also see this on our social media account. Rather than showing a screenshot of the Chrome theme to promote it, we made a video poking fun at our own web browsing habits

Anyway, on to the next generation of consumers…

Millennial Mania

Generation Y has been the subject of much analysis and ensuing consternation. Their values, ambitions, and spending habits seem to defy all expectation. While they may not share their parents’ interest in Applebees and golfing, they share the previous generation’s skepticism of brands that are blatantly trying to sell them something.

In response, companies turn to avenues like social media to try to ingratiate themselves to the youths. Even that strategy can backfire. In 2014, the Twitter account known as “Brands Saying Bae” delivered a constant stream of cautionary tales for creative agencies like us. Blatant pandering raises the same BS-alert signals as crass consumerism.

So what brands succeed among all this skepticism? Dollar Shave Club comes to mind. They made a big splash with a video that was genuinely funny, was not trying to hide anything or deceive anyone, and came off as authentic since it featured the founder.

RCM founder and CEO Annie Jones used to get down on millennials until she came to a realization: it’s the generation that came into the working world at a time where it is much less stable, and there is less loyalty between employers and employees. She goes into detail here, but the idea is that if you cannot rely on having a good income, healthcare, and reasonably affordable housing, of course, that affects your spending habits. Understanding that is much more important in marketing to millennials than understanding how SnapChat works.

Z and Whatever Comes After

Research published here in Forbes about mobile advertising for Generation Z furthers the trends set by millennials. They want their ads to reflect their lifestyle and blend into their internet usage. Which means more native advertising, but adapted to their internet habits. Again, the approach to reaching this generation differs little from Gen-X, aside from the platforms and delivery methods.

Perhaps in the future the 30-second TV/video ad will no longer exist. Maybe direct mail will be wiped out as eco-conscious youngsters revolt against the paper waste. Blogs might lose their value as people’s patience and attention spans shrink. We will definitely see more than a few social networks come and go. Either way, the approach to creative will have more to do with how consumers feel about consumerism itself than what platform the marketing runs on.

We’re Not So Different After All

The conclusion here is that the underlying methodology for effective marketing does not change much generation to generation. Any marketing strategy for gen z, millennials, or gen x should take many more factors into consideration than just age. The ability to target highly specific groups based on numerous demographic variables is the strength of digital marketing. It’s important to not get hung up on generational divides, as they aren’t necessarily as divisive as you might think. A millennial who grew up Greenwich, Connecticut probably has more in common with a Gen-Xer from the same town than someone the same age who immigrated from Honduras. So think more about your specific audience. Think of them not as members of a generation but as people with interests, habits, and fears that affect their buying habits. Their age is just one factor that influences those characteristics.

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