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Generational Marketing to Boomers Takes Business to the Heart of the Matter

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In the realm of marketing to adults older than 45, vigorous debates arise about how best to construct advertising messages and frame offers in memorable and compelling ways. Pundit opinions fall into three overlapping theoretical camps.

Some are proponents of "Ageless Marketing" as conceived and articulated by my colleague David Wolfe. Ageless Marketing is "marketing based not on age but on values and universal desires that appeal to people across generational divides. Age-based marketing reduces the reach of brands because of its exclusionary nature. In contrast Ageless Marketing extends the reach of brands because of its inclusionary focus."

Some are impassioned about "Life-Stage Marketing," which understands the consumer from the life-stage they're experiencing in the present. So, for example, adults between 45 and 55 today have a lot in common such as children in high school or college, the beginning of caregiving for aging parents, accumulation of significant consumer debt, and so forth. Further, stage of life implies psychological priorities. Thus, some argue that middle-age or the "Fall Stage" includes a reduction of material pursuits in favor of accumulating experiences.

And some are committed to "Generational Marketing," an approach for which I'm a proponent. As I write in my newest book, Generation Reinvention:

"... a generation implies membership in a unique group, bound by common history, which eventually develops similar values, a sense of shared history, and collective ways of interpreting experiences as the group progresses through the life course.

"One way to describe this phenomenon of generational identification is the concept of cohort effect, which sociologist Karl Mannheim wrote about as 'the taste, outlook, and spirit characteristic of a period or generation.' He also referred to the notion of zeitgeist, the idea that a generation has a collectively shared sense of its formative historical period.

"Marketers tap into the cohort effect when they remind consumers of cherished events and experiences from the past and connect these acquired memories with brand identity."

Critics deride Generational Marketing as superficial: feckless attempts to connect nostalgic memories with products. Boomers aren't invested in their formative years, critics argue, they're looking ahead. Formative experiences are of little contemporary consequence. What's done is done.

Aside from my assertion that humans always recall nostalgic moments with enduring and emotionally powerful reflections -- and therefore these memories can become potent motivational triggers in contemporary marketing communications -- sophisticated new consumer research substantiates the affirming power of nostalgia.

Authors of a multi-continent research study, published by the Association for Psychological Science, determined that feelings of loneliness -- emotions such as unhappiness, pessimism, self-blame and depression -- reduce perceptions of social support. Loneliness can be alleviated by seeking support from social networks. And here's the surprising psychological insight: nostalgia, a sentimental longing for the past, increases perceptions of social support. A sense of social connectedness nourishes the soul. Nostalgia functions similar to optimism in maintaining health. Nostalgia, appropriately harnessed, inspires positive feelings, including positive brand associations and affinity. (APS, Vol. 19, #10)

This does not mean that creating an advertising strategy around shared generational experiences is always on target or well-executed. Creative problems begin when brand associations are hackneyed or arbitrary.

Misjudgments sometimes occur when those outside a generational cohort superficially interpret generational experiences. We've seen recent ads targeting Boomers that connect brands with peace symbols, classic rock music, and the rebellious spirit of Boomer youth. Once potentially powerful as a creative approach, connecting brands to the spirit of the sixties has been done.

Other marketers create messages where psychic connection between nostalgic memories and a brand have little in common; that is, brand utilities have nothing to do with the creative message.

Successful Generational Marketing requires mastery of nuance and meaning. Linkages between a brand and nostalgic meaning must make sense. Further, all formative life experiences of a generation, from early childhood through young adulthood, have potential for development. Boomers possess a rich repertoire of shared experiences beyond those that occurred between 1967 and 1973. Potential nostalgic motivational triggers go way beyond Woodstock.

Some argue that Generational Marketing is exclusionary: marketing messages that appeal to a specific generation exclude members of other generations who might not identify with the message or conclude that the product is not for them.

I say, "Welcome to market segmentation." Target marketing forces choices about who is most likely to buy a product, their common characteristics, and the most potent ways to evoke an emotional connection, to inspire a brand-consumer relationship. These choices force exclusion.

Further, big brand marketers create and target messages to multiple segments for the same brand. When I handled advertising and sales promotions for McDonald's in Colorado, we executed campaigns targeting young parents, children, Latinos, African Americans, and older customers. Each of these segmented campaigns involved sophisticated messaging that considered cultural and social nuances of the segment. McDonald's brand meant slightly different things to different segments.

As I have written and instructed in my speeches, Boomers, particularly Leading-Edge Boomers (born between 1946 and 1955) have a sturdy sense of generational identification. This is due to two factors.

First, the Leading-Edge grew up during significant cultural and social upheaval. Karl Mannheim and several social science researchers have confirmed that turmoil in youth strengthens generational identification and durability of formative experiences.

Second, Boomers comprise the only generation to have grown up with just three monolithic television networks. No generation older or younger experienced this convergence of technology with youth. Boomers growing up in Alaska and Florida shared many of the same televised moments and thus learned the same cultural and social messages.

Nevertheless, as a marketer, I've always maintained a full toolbox. The three Boomer marketing approaches discussed here can succeed when well executed. All three approaches can fail when creators have inadequate understanding of the market, message, methodology or meaning conveyed through their ads.

Ageless Marketing can inspire advertising messages that appeal across generational divides because of commonly shared values, such as the nearly universal desire for a cleaner environment. Boomers and their Generation Y children share passion almost equally for greener living and sustainability.

Life-stage Marketing can offer another path to success for those who connect a product or service with a stage need. Many Boomers today need help in understanding their caregiving challenges and responsibilities. This hallmark of their current life-stage predisposes them to offers of caregiving support and education.

And Generational Marketing can create powerful associations between a brand and a segment's formative experiences. These nostalgic associations can become instant shorthand for positioning a contemporary brand constrained by cluttered media and product/service parity. Nostalgia is rich with opportunities for deeply personal brand interactions.