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Talking ’Bout Whose Gen X?

You think you’re listening to Gen X. But what do you hear?

Once upon a time members of Generation X were a dark, mysterious puzzle that everyone—parents, marketers, journalists—wanted to solve. Who were these nonchalant products of broken homes, with their grungy ripped jeans, their devotion to MTV, their angst? Who did they admire? What did they care about? Then Generation X grew up, trading alienation for 30-year fixed mortgages and Kurt Cobain for Baby Einstein. And with conventionality, marketers thought, came transparency: Now we get you. Now we can target you.

Not so fast. Today’s marketers are notorious for targeting Generation X, but the true influence its members wield—not only on each other but on the shopping and lifestyle habits of those younger and older—continues to elude many chief marketing officers. This influence can be as overt as baby boomer parents seeking their Gen X-children’s advice before buying a cell phone or choosing a restaurant. Or maybe it’s as restrained as Burton Snowboards’ War Games-inspired jacket, which pays homage to a generation of Atari-playing children—now grown up and carrying significantly hefty wallets. “For us to continue to be successful, we don’t have the luxury of ignoring any demographic,” says Bryan Johnston, Burton’s VP of global marketing. “And Gen X is a huge one. We will continue to target them in very subtle ways.”

“Most companies today aren’t [harnessing Gen X-ers’ influence] well,” says Ann Fishman, president of New Orleans-based Generational-Targeted Marketing. “If you don’t get the way that Gen X-ers shop, the way they buy, the way they can influence their younger siblings, then you’re not understanding the new-style American market.”

So how best to capture and use that influence? The first step is to understand the generation that at one time gloried in its ability to resist definition. (See “Who Is Generation X?”) As the first generation to come of age alongside technology, Gen X-ers invented the art of Internet comparison shopping. As the first generation to grow up in broken homes or homes with two working parents, they became self-reliant and practical—some would say cynical—at an early age; as a result, they’ve never had a lot of patience with insincere marketing efforts. They’re willing to go to great lengths to get the product they want at the price they feel they deserve. According to Fishman, a Gen X-er would be apt to buy a car by selecting the make and model he wants, then e-mailing dealers within a 200-mile radius to see which can offer the best deal. (A boomer, by contrast, is more likely to purchase from a dealer close to home.)

According to David Morrison, president and founder of Twentysomething, a young-adult marketing consultancy, a prime example of Gen X influence lies in the rapid adoption of PDAs 10 years ago. “When PDAs first came out I watched them become embraced by the business schools,” he says. But it wasn’t until those Gen X business school students graduated and entered the workforce with Palm Pilots in hand, showing them to their older bosses, that they really took off, he says.

To turn that sort of influence into successful marketing strategies, experts say, truly innovative companies will learn to speak not just to Generation X but through it: a giant megaphone, tens of millions strong. “Generation X is the epicenter as they adopt new products and create new trends,” says Morrison. “Marketers should be understanding and leveraging that. It’s like a shotgun blast: Put Gen X in your sights, go for that market, and capture the other cohorts around them.” That, of course, is easier said than done. “So many brands are stuck in one generation or another. So few are able to walk that line,” says Andrew Greenberg, CEO of Greenberg Brand Strategy, a research and strategic consultancy.

Peter Pan on a Snowboard

Perhaps no company walks that line better than Burton Snowboards. “Like most companies in our world and in our space, we understand that we have a visual demographic,” says Johnston. “We know that everybody in this company acts, feels and behaves 10 years younger than they actually are. And we use that to our benefit.”

Step inside Burton’s New York city flagship store in Manhattan’s trendy SoHo district, and you might think you’ve entered a world created entirely for those under 30. Gen X-ers represent a large part of Burton’s customer base, but not all of it. So understanding the difference between twentysomething customers and those cruising toward 40 and connecting to both while alienating neither is critical to Burton’s success. “The younger customers tend to buy more units, and Gen X-ers buy fewer units but more expensive product,” says Johnston. Both are important, but Burton has to reel in those Gen X-ers while keeping its brand image young and irreverent.

To that end, Burton’s product and marketing department has learned to tap into the phenomenon of nostalgia for the ’80s, which members of Gen X and Gen Y seem to share, even though most members of Gen Y were still in diapers when Madonna first introduced herself as the Material Girl. “We’re finding that things Gen X-ers grew up with in the ’80s bring back an emotional attachment, and for the younger consumers there’s a fascination right now with ’80s culture,” says Johnston. It’s a sum that’s bigger than the parts of the over-the-top bands, the leg warmers, the rubber jewelry and the birth of gaming culture. Hence Burton’s AK Softshell jacket, which comes in a War Games print inspired by the 1980s video game Asteroids.

Like all good marketing, the way Burton keeps its core image young and hip while maintaining a solid Gen X consumer base is part art and part science. “Visually we may not show people in [the Gen X] age group, but we make sure we resonate and connect with them,” says Johnston. “Snowboarding makes you feel younger. We try to emotionally connect it with that feeling of joy and happiness that’s tied to an age that you want to be again.”

Oh, Baby

On the other end of the spectrum lie companies that are successfully targeting Generation X almost exclusively, and they have equally valuable lessons to impart. “Marketers should step away from making erroneous assumptions about Gen X,” says Twentysomething’s Morrison. “If they ever were out skateboarding with piercings, they’re driving minivans now.” Take Zutano, the children’s clothing company (started in New York City but now based in Cabot, Vt.). In the 16 years since the company opened its doors, a lot of Gen X-ers have become parents, and they’re very different parents than their parents were. “Gen X parents are determined to be great parents,” says Fishman. “They’re not going to get married until they find the right person. Being single in this generation has no stigma attached to it: You stay single until you find someone to make your life better.”

Gen X-ers, to be sure, take their parenting seriously. Raised in an era of broken marriages and whose-weekend-is-it-mom’s-or-dad’s, they’re resolute in their efforts to provide stability for their children. They also bring to parenting all the self-reliance and practicality that made them discerning shoppers in their teens. (The first generation of mall rats, Gen X-ers embraced shopping as part of their social lives.) These days, Gen X-ers understand the power and the allure of seeking and sharing information online. “This generation of parents is really very communication-driven and knowledge-driven,” says Mary Admasian, Zutano’s CMO. Websites like Big City Moms and UrbanBaby.com bring parents together through message boards and chat rooms, and in those virtual, informal settings they dispense and absorb information that, once upon a time, would be passed along only between close friends, if at all. Zutano, recognizing the power of this sort of communication, uses websites like Big City Moms to hold contests and promotional giveaways. “When they’re having a new moms’ dinner, we contribute newborn socks or a Zutano bunny as a party favor to begin the brand awareness process,” says Admasian.

Here’s where marketers across the board can take note, even if they don’t have stuffed bunnies to give away. While the topics of conversation among Gen X parents—either virtually or during traditional get-togethers that the online communications promote—may begin with baby strollers or diaper wipes, they can move quickly to mortgages or mutual funds or vacation spots. That means that any company that understands the way Gen X-ers communicate and influence one another can quickly get a leg up on its competitors. When an entire generation brings the same fluid method of connecting and communicating to everything they buy, opportunities to capture their attention abound.

On the Technology Front

Once upon a time it was faintly embarrassing—for everyone involved—if parents asked their children for advice. Now boomer parents consistently seek Gen X-ers’ counsel before making purchases, particular technology items like cell phones or digital cameras. Gen X-ers are more comfortable with online shopping, and more adept at navigating message boards or other online communities that publish product ratings or consumer opinions. “I doubt that there’s a piece of technology that’s bought by the older generations without the advice of a Gen X-er,” says Fishman.

The message here should be clear: Even if Gen X-ers aren’t your target market, or your entire target market, you’d better make sure you’re speaking clearly to them because they may well be advising the customers you really want to reach. A good example of this lies in the iPod. According to Twentysomething’s Morrison, when the first iPods came out it was Gen X-ers who had the savvy and the money to buy them; it was under Gen X’s influence that they took off so quickly. But Gen Y was waiting in the wings, and when prices started dropping and supply and choice increased, they stepped in. Now you might find a Gen X-er or a Gen Y-er buying an iPod for a parent.

According to Greenberg, the wine industry has also started listening to Gen X. “Gen X-ers have everything to do with the ratification of wine snobbery; they’re not seduced by ‘wine for the rich,’” he says. “Gen X has created a larger platform from which wine companies and brands can create additional subbrands.”

Yet in between the Zutanos and the Burtons of the world lie a host of companies that have not yet tapped into the Gen X influence. Experts say that there’s room to absorb that influence in most industries, particularly in the financial and automobile industries, which have mostly stuck with the staid, traditional approaches to marketing that worked for Gen X-ers’ parents.

“Boomers have been the engine driving businesses for so long,” says Fishman. “Businesses get lazy, and boomers are having a hard time admitting there’s been a generational shift.”

Admitting there’s been a shift is a good step, though it’s only the first step of many to building a brand image that will capture the attention of Generation X. If you build it right, they’ll probably come. And don’t be surprised if they bring their parents, their baby-sitters, their younger siblings, their friends and everyone else they know.


Meg Mitchell Moore, Darwin. January 26, 2006

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