How important is it to brand and market across multiple generations?

Branding and marketing to attract multiple generations is not a new concept, but it certainly has changed since the 1960s, when there were only two generations to contend with, and the 1980s, when there were three to take into consideration when developing a creative approach to ensure the sales pitch met its mark.

With the advent of the millennium, a new generation - sometimes called "Gen Y" or "Millennials" - has entered the marketing world. Even though many Millennials are still in elementary school, the words "I want that" pour forth from their mouths with eagerness, and impact buying trends.

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How Important Is It To Brand And Market Across Multiple Generations?

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Before you can think about how to attract the various generations, you need to know something about them. What are the external forces that have shaped them? Who are their influences? What are their values? Let's begin with a profile of the four generations.

Born between 1909 and 1945, this generation grew up experiencing Prohibition, The Depression, The New Deal, World War II and the GI Bill. Icons of their generation include Walt Disney, Bob Hope, Joe DiMaggio, Sidney Poitier, Ann Landers, Katherine Hepburn and FDR. They tended to marry young, be conservative thinkers, paid with cash and save for a "rainy day." Their virtues include being self-sacrificing, hard workers who have a respect for authority. They are also team players who like to celebrate a "win."

This group, born between 1946 and 1964, has been molded by economic prosperity, the Vietnam War, the expansion into suburbia, TV and "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll." Other Boomers they relate to include Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Donald Trump, and Bill and Hillary Clinton.

They are extremely career-focused and strong believers in self-improvement and proving themselves. They are offended by greed and ignorance, and, like the comic strip characters of their generation, they want to be fighters for good versus evil and have a deep sense of family, community and philanthropy.

This post-World War II generation has been the most populous and influential generation to date. They have enjoyed unprecedented employment and educational opportunities and have higher disposable incomes than their parents. They have a sense of adventure and crave new experiences that Matures would have never thought about. As this generation begins to reach retirement age in the next five years, they will redefine the market opportunities currently held by Matures.

Gen X/Xers
Born between 1965 and 1976, they have seen it all - the Challenger disaster, explosion in the divorce rate, AIDS, MTV, Sesame Street, crack cocaine, PCs and let's not forget the Game Boy! Their icons tend to be movie, TV and sports stars such as River Phoenix, Winona Ryder and Tiger Woods, as opposed to the more traditional political and business figures of the their parents and grandparents, the Boomers and Matures. This group is seen as survivors who take little for granted, are persistent, ready to face challenges, perceive hard work as a necessity and are willing to take risks to get what they want. They are marrying at a later age and living at home longer than the two generations that preceded them. They call themselves the "Why me?" generation, do not presume success, as was the case with earlier generations, and see life as being full of trade-offs. Xers believe in "living for today" because tomorrow is no longer certain.

Gen Y/Millennials
Entering the world after 1977, this generation currently comprises some 72 million individuals, or almost 30 percent of the total population, and their numbers are still growing! Combined with the Boomers, these two groups represent almost 60 percent of the U.S. population. These youngsters are already having a great impact on the economy.

They shop on their own using their own money, and they influence their parents' buying trends. This group has grown up with more "incoming stimuli" than any other in history. They have never known a time without TV, radio, satellite broadcasts, microwaves, computers, game systems and for many, the Internet. People they relate to include Prince William, Britney Spears, Leonardo Di-Caprio, Chelsea Clinton and a cast of TV characters (real and animated) too long to list. Unlike Gen Xers, who ask "Why me?" these kids ask "Why?" and your answer better be straightforward and honest, as they tend to be skeptical, particularly if they think you are "gramps" trying to be groovy! Since each of these generations has been influenced by different life experiences and icons of their time, the way they look at almost all aspects of their lives is different. So the question is "Do you brand and market to focus on one or two generations, or do you create programs that try to sell to all of them?" Unfortunately, based on a variety of research studies and buying-trend analyses that have been performed over the last 10 years, there is no perfect answer to this question.

My own hypothesis is that product developers, brand managers and marketing teams must take a long, hard look at their commodity, be it a tangible product or a service. They need to determine which generation(s) will be most attracted to what they have to sell in order to optimize the impact of their message and create the desire to buy. "That's not easy. We want to sell to everyone" is the most common response to my theory. In some cases, selling to all the generations makes sense, and with a well-conceived plan, this approach can be highly effective. Take for example some of the recent financial services ads that begin with a young college graduate and show clips across life-changing events – marriage, first child, etc. Each generation can relate to one or more of the clips and, at a minimum, "hear" the message. At best, it can encourage them make a decision to find out more about the product.

Now, think about some of the cosmetic and clothing print and TV ads you have seen recently and whether they attract one, two, three or all four generations.

Some of my personal favorite generational ads are the ones from Apple. You see the young groovy guy playing the part of the Apple computer and the mature, stodgy, stressed out, "mature" guy playing the part of the PC. Is this a clear message, or what? Obviously, if you want to be a hip, techno-savvy consumer, then you need an Apple computer. The fact that the majority of businesses globally are PC users is irrelevant!

Some advertising is generationally neutral. Take for example Toyota's Prius ad. It does not target a specific age, gender or personality, but rather, it sells itself as environmentally sound and lets each of the generations figure out for themselves why the car is right for them. Another good example is the Verizon Wireless "Can you hear me now?" ad campaign whose sole point is the quality of the network.

By now, you may be wondering how - or even if - accounting firms approach branding and marketing from a cross-generational perspective. The extent to which accounting firms target the generations seems to hinge on the type of product or service being marketed.

On February 21, 2007, The Wall Street Journal announced that H&R Block's "You Got People" TV ad campaign had resulted in capturing two of the Top 10 slots in the "January TV Ads Recalled" category based on a study conducted by IAG Research. For those of you who have seen some of the ads, you probably remember that they introduce H&R Block's Tax Cut software and the fact that "real" people are available to verify the accuracy of your return once you have prepared it yourself using the Tax Cut software. The ads are cross-generational, in that each is targeted to a specific generation that has their own tax issues to address.

Another similar campaign was initiated in 2007 by TurboTax with the slogan "Taxes made easy. Taxes done right." Like H&R Block, TurboTax also geared their ads to specific generations, and since their ads were exclusively software-focused, they targeted the more tech savvy Xers and Millennials.

It is interesting to note that both of these campaigns targeted the general population rather than the corporate sector. When it comes to the corporate sector, I found a series of print ads done by Deloitte that were not generation-specific, but rather, focused on the breadth of experience and services offered by Deloitte. Each of the ads had simple picture backgrounds that did not contain images of people and used taglines such as "We're well rounded," "We think laterally," and "We see your issues in the wide business context...." The ads were graphically pleasing and, in my opinion, would appeal to almost any corporate executive.

So, the conundrum appears to be that there is no perfect strategy when it comes to branding and marketing to a cross-generational audience. However, there are some tips you might want to consider:

  • Target specific audiences
    Know who will be on the receiving end of your message (e.g., the demographic make-up) and then, weight them by purchase power.

  • Use a variety of media channels to send distinct, but reinforcing messages
    For example, multiple generations may use the Web, but the way they use it may be different: Boomers may "stroll" through a site while Millennials and Xers "fly" through it only looking for the quick facts they need, and Matures may prefer direct mail with a toll-free number or a response coupon. Remember that the message always needs to be consistent; it's the presentation method that needs to change to accommodate the different styles.

  • Use the generation gap to bridge the chasm
    It's a gross generalization to say that the older generations are more risk-averse than younger generations. At the same time, aggressive, age-focused marketing tactics that may work well with younger generations (as opposed to a mass media multi-generational approach) can work to the advantage of an up-and-coming youth market-oriented company with a tight marketing and advertising budget. If you know your audience and can easily segment them by purchasing power, focus on where you can get the highest return for your advertising dollars.

  • Toss aside cultural lingo
    Today's politically correct terminology doesn't mean as much to Matures as it might to the younger generations. And the Millennial jargon may not even be interpretable by a Boomer or older Xer!

  • Be careful not to pigeon-hole the generations by age alone
    Remember that saying, "You're only as old as you feel." Many Boomers and Matures don't come close to feeling their age and don't want to be told what to buy based on their biological clock. These generations want to be perceived as still young and vibrant, while the Xers and Millennials want be taken seriously, considered mature, and not patronized.

In conclusion, the way in which you brand and market your offering is highly relevant across multiple generations. However, the probability is that each generation will respond differently based on their cumulative experience as a generation. The key is to know your audience and its demographic composition before you begin planning your media programs. Whenever possible, try to weight the audience by purchasing power and the potential resulting profitability. Once you know your audience, you can focus on developing programs that the various generations will respond to. However, you still need to be careful not to treat any one generation as a single block, but rather, use the information you have to develop assumptions to support designing your campaigns.

Finally, when in doubt, just look at your friends and family and the generations they represent, and ask yourself "Would they buy what I have to offer?"

About the Author: Roberta Aronoff is a director at Cohn Consulting Group, a division of J.H. Cohn LLP. She can be reached at

This article is reprinted with the publisher's permission from the CPA Practice Management Forum, a monthly journal published by CCH, a Wolters Kluwer business. Copying or distribution without the publisher's permission is prohibited. To subscribe to the CPA Practice Management Forum or other CCH journals please call 800-449-8114 or visit All views expressed in the articles and columns are those of the author and not necessarily those of CCH or any other person.