How to define a generation famous for evading categorical description? Generation X has long posed a conundrum to marketers. They’re savvy, oversaturated, and busy people with a cynicism regarding the media. And yet the sociological forces that shape their worldviews are powerful and specific and, with a little creative thinking, can be the basis for marketing and development decisions targeting them.
While Gen X may not ever be brand loyal the way their boomer parents tend to be, certain observations about their lifestyles and values emerge. First, Xers are stressed-out individuals. They seek solace from the hectic pace of careers and the heavy image bombardment from advertising, news, and entertainment. The amount of time they spend engaging in technology contributes to their frazzled nerves. These are people who are totally comfortable with today’s myriad gadgets. Technology fuels their lives and enables them to be connected all the time, making it hard to unplug.
Because they grew up with more advertising than previous generations, they tend to resent it; they’d prefer to be highly informed and make a decision based on their own assessment of quality and performance. Authenticity is key for brand messages, as Xers can smell marketing a mile away. Being the first generation to grow up with heavy use of computers and other gizmos, they have a short attention span and don’t tolerate superlatives in advertising. Remember, they’re skeptics—they like to feel as though they’re discovering high-quality products for themselves by virtue of their discerning taste.
Between 1960 and 1980, divorce rates tripled, peaking in 1979. For that reason one might guess that Xers would shun marriage and child-rearing. But true to their ironic sensibilities, this demographic instead vows to be good parents. Those who do marry and have families place great emphasis on providing a stable home life. They strive to give their children the best, both emotionally and materially. From organic baby food to designer maternity fashion to strollers with high-tech shock absorption, Xers demand a more sophisticated range of products.
In fact, Xers are famous for paradoxical behaviors. For example, while certain Xer buying habits indicate an emphasis on value and convenience, Xers can also be snobby about food and beverage quality. One might note the growth of the organic-food industry: Between 1990 and 2002, the sale of organic foods and beverages rose 1,000%, according to a report by the U.S. Market for Organic Foods and Beverages. Caring for one’s body is paramount to this generation. Categories that emphasize quality or craft will only continue to grow—and if the products in question are environmentally friendly, so much the better.
Finally, Generation X prides itself on being tough to define. They reject notions of umbrella characteristics. One ad campaign that highlights this trait is that of the (Apple iPod: the silhouette of cool, youngish men and women rocking out, yet no one really knows what they look like, and the suggestion is that they’ll find their own inspiration without outside guidance.
In a certain light, this sense of individuality has a false lining. Xers do respond to peer influence; in fact, they love to give and get the scoop on new products and entertainment. The catch is, they like to feel as though they’re striking out on their own, down some path where ingenuity and smarts will serve and protect them well. But in reality, they have to look over their shoulder, just to make sure they’re not totally alone.
Cheryl Swanson is principal of Toniq (www.toniq.com), a New York-based brand strategy firm.