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Feeding the Tree: The Angst and Advantages of Marketing to Generation X

By Michelle Gunn, PhD in Direct Marketing on September 8th, 2015

As it turns out, BKV Creative Director (and resident word wrangler) Michelle Gunn isn’t afraid to be the voice of a generation. We asked her to tell us how to market to a notoriously diverse and disaffected audience: Gen X. And let’s just say she took it personally.

Generation XImage courtesy of Sterogum

 

This old man I’ve talked about
Broke his own heart, poured it in the ground
Big red tree grew up and out
Throws up its leaves, spins round and round
I know all this and more
So take your hat off when you’re talking to me
And be there when I feed the tree

Belly, “Feed the Tree”
1993

I love the music they play at the supermarket.

I first noticed it a couple of years ago, when, standing in the checkout line at Publix, I heard Paul Westerberg’s “Dyslexic Heart” from the Singles soundtrack, followed by Dinosaur Jr’s “Start Choppin’.” At first, I congratulated myself. “Good work, self,” I crowed in my head. “You have not only excellent taste in music, but also a knack — no, a gift, really — for discovering cultural value in the unlikeliest of places."  

But then, little by little, I began noticing that the music wasn’t only good at that particular Publix. It was sort of, well … everywhere. Kroger spun the Guns ‘n’ Roses ballad with all the whistling. Walgreens busted out a cover of Alanis Morissette’s “Uninvited” with a house beat that — fine, I’ll admit it — made me want to sashay down the clearance items aisle like a Fashion Week model with knees as knobby as a newborn foal’s.

Okay, so it’s a year-long musical lucky streak, I thought, not a little smugly. The Universe must be giving me my own soundtrack to keep life from being so drab.

But then, late last summer, as I schlepped plastic grocery sacks across the parking lot, it hit me. I stood in the blinking in the late afternoon sunlight, the heat shimmering off the blacktop and the laden sacks turning the tips of my fingers an angry, nerve-damaging red.
 
This wasn’t some blessed collision of culture and retail.

This wasn’t a playlist from God.

This was Muzak.

 

As a 41-year-old suburban working mother of two, I am the supermarket’s target demographic—a fact that makes me feel like I’m playing dress-up in someone else’s clothes. It’s not just because I suffer from Impostor Syndrome (which I do) and have aged more quickly than I like to think about (which I have). It’s also because, as pretty much the closest thing Generation X has to an average member, I’m ill accustomed to being marketed to.

Once upon a time, back when the Internet was little more than a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye, Advertising Age described Generation X as “that cynical, purple-haired blob watching TV.” In 1990, Time Magazine narrowed their own eyes at us, grumbling, “They have trouble making decisions. […] They have few heroes, no anthems, no style to call their own. They crave entertainment, but their attention span is as short as one zap of a TV dial.

Born between 1965 and 1979, we were the first “latchkey” kids, children of the divorce boom and Watergate. We watched a lot of TV, learned to heat up our own dinners and developed a cynical distrust of authority that not only belied our youth, but also would later come to be one of our few defining characteristics.  

Generation X remains sandwiched between the much-ballyhooed Boomers and our Millennial brethren. To put it another way, “Gen Xers are a low-slung, straight-line bridge between two noisy bohemoths.” It’s hardly surprising, then, that we’re often likened to Jan Brady—the middle child with an identity crisis and a chip on her shoulder the size of El Paso.

A 2012 Pew Research Center study observes that one reason Xers struggle to define our own generational persona is that we’ve rarely earned attention from the media. But a 2013 MetLife study suggests it’s the other way around: Because we have a tough time defining ourselves, it’s all the more challenging to talk about us—much less to us.

When asked if they thought their own generation was unique, about 60% of Boomers and Millennials said yes. But only about half of Gen Xers said the same. And even among those who did, there was scant consensus about what makes us distinctive, or why. Meanwhile, the two most common characteristics Xers used to describe ourselves in the Pew study were “hardworking” (8%) and “lazy” (5%). Heck, we can’t even agree on basic nomenclature. A whopping 49% of us object to the moniker “Generation X” in the first place.

Okay, so we’re a tough crowd. But tough crowds have never deterred marketers before. So, why aren’t we a larger part of the marketing landscape, beyond a handful of Brady Bunch-themed TV spots? Why aren’t more marketers taking on that challenge, and figuring out a way to court this largely neglected audience? And what should you know about Generation X in order to talk to us effectively?

  • We're Quiet.

    Gen X makes up about 25% of the US adult population. That sounds impressive enough, but at 49 million (give or take), we’re the smallest generational cohort alive today. So the expectation has been that we lack cultural influence—and that what cultural influence we ever had was used up back in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

    And, as much as I hate to admit it, it’s true; we don’t grab headlines like we did back in the days of Nirvana and the X-Games. But by graciously granting the spotlight to the Justin Biebers of the world, Generation X has instead turned inward, focusing our desires on providing for our families.

    You’ll find members of this generation quick to purchase items or experiences with lasting value, such as heirlooms or once-in-a-lifetime experiences. We’re also aggressive about taking care of ourselves, and we invest a surprising amount of our (scant) disposable income on health food, fitness products and other items to help ensure we’ll be around for the long haul.

  • We're broke. Kinda.

    According to Federal Reserve data, we lost a staggering 55% of our overall net worth from 2001 to 2010, far more than any other generation. Our home equity tanked by 27% (versus Boomers’ 17%). Add to it the fact that Gen Xers carry 50% of the nation’s student loan debt, shoulder the highest average credit card debt, and aren’t setting aside nearly enough for retirement. At first glace, it’s no wonder brands aren’t gambling on us.

    But maybe it’s time they start rolling the dice. After all, Generation X boasts more spending power than any other generation, with 20% of estimated net worth dollars and 31% of total income dollars. Plus, we spend more of our paychecks on luxury items than do our Boomer counterparts.

  • We're diverse.

    While Gen Xers tend to defy definition, that diversity is itself a defining characteristic: Some 22% of Generation X are immigrants, versus 17% of Millennials. That ethnic diversity is visible in our tolerance for difference and acceptance of those from diverse backgrounds. But don’t think for a moment we’re all out in a field weaving daisy chains; unlike left-leaning Boomers and Millennials, we’re split right down the middle in terms of our political affiliations. All this diversity is noble enough, but it makes Gen X a sticky wicket when it comes to building a powerful and consistent messaging strategy.

  • We're omnivorous.

    Nearly 95% of Gen Xers use a mobile phone, and the lion’s share of those are smartphones. Almost 75% of us use social media, and a good 79% of us downloaded or streamed digital video in the last month. But peek out your window and you’ll find your Gen X neighbor bringing in the mail every day, and actually reading it. (Not just the bills, but the advertising, too.)

    Born analog and bred digital, Generation X is the only segment that regularly consumes marketing messages for all the main media channels: TV/cable, video on demand, mobile, social media, you name it. That means it takes a healthy media mix and a still-healthier marketing budget to reach us—versus a reliably digital Millennial audience, or a Boomer audience that’s largely (though not exclusively) analog. That means advertisers might find themselves having to hit every marketing channel to get their message out to a Gen X audience.

  • We're iconoclastic.

    Okay, maybe not in a noisy, smashing-of-guitars way anymore. But our values are a little different from those of previous generations. For example, nearly a fifth of Generation X men earn less than their wives, compared with 14% of Boomer men. Two in ten of us have blended families. Nearly 10% of Xers meditate or practice yoga. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, we hold the highest education levels of any generation before or since. We’re the first generation unwilling to sacrifice family lives on the altar of workaholism, coining the phrase “work-life balance” and making it both desirable and increasingly attainable.

    In ways both big and small, then, Generation X presents a world view that marketers may be unaccustomed to accommodating.

    “The new bohemia is less than a place than a headspace,” wrote Jeff Gordinier prophetically in his 2008 book, X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft But Can Still Keep Everything From Sucking. “It’s flexible enough to bypass all the old binaries. It encompasses mass and class, mainstream and marginal, yuppie and refusenik, gearhead and Luddite. It’s everywhere and nowhere in particular.” And, as you might expect, that contradictory headspace can be an awfully difficult place to target.

  • We're cynical.

    Gen Xers “have a BS meter more sensitive than any seismograph,” opines Darryl Roberts of Wine X Magazine. “During the years we were watching Saturday-morning cartoons, we were assaulted by a barrage of advertising so intense it had to be addressed by federal legislation.” And with juvenile consumerism came hard lessons: Count Chocula cereal made us twitchy and gave us cavities. The arm of that new Stretch Armstrong deluxe action figure would snap off in a matter of days, oozing toxic goo and dashing dreams. One after another, these little disappointments would add up to a deep skepticism about big brands and their claims for greatness.

    But that sense of caution has a flip side, one that marketers would do well to engage. We research our purchases exhaustively, seeking reviews from opinion sites, as well as from friends and family on social media. And, while Xers are practical and almost embarrassingly thrifty, we’re just as moved by the customer relationship as we are by the dollar signs. After all, this is a generation that’s constantly “looking for an affinity and a sense of connection.” So if you do take the right measures to penetrate that armor of skepticism, you’ll find the Generation X consumer to be passionately, fiercely brand-loyal. Earn her trust, and you’ll be rewarded with a lifelong ambassador for your brand.

Douglas Coupland, the author generally credited with having “named” Generation X, decreed in 1995 that “Generation X”—as a cohort, and as a catch-phrase—is dead. Also dead: Our poet laureate, David Foster Wallace. Kurt Cobain, deader still. And these days, Axl Rose looks like a cross between Neil Young and my fifth grade Language Arts teacher, Mrs. McGhee.

Coupland was right. We’re too disparate and scattershot to organize any cohesive generational identity. In that sense, X was always DOA.

And yet: Here we are now. We have families. Little kids and aging parents. Student loans and still-underwater mortgages. Practical cars and grocery sacks of expensive microbrews. Meanwhile, our cultural legacy remains—subtle and a little wallflowerish, but decidedly undead. Said The New York Times’ Carl Wilson of the recent ‘90s revival, “Nostalgia highlights our compulsion to interrogate our ghosts in search of meaning—and the inexorable way they slip our grasp.

Right now, someone is ringing up kale chips. And the soundtrack to that transaction is an anthem of my long-gone coming-of-age.

I like these supermarket songs because I’m nostalgic: They remind me of a time when I was young and fearless and thought Snackwells cookies qualified as health food. I like these supermarket songs because they’re my generation’s gift, a tree falling in the forest that’s no less beautiful for the absence of anyone to hear it. And I like that, even in this small way, there’s evidence we’re being recognized as an audience — one that’s viable, valuable and maybe at last worth a soupçon of respect.

With that promise, I’ll keep on dancing in the aisles.

BKV can help you bring the right message to the right audience at the right time.

Talk to our messaging strategist now.
  • Valerie

    22% are immigrants?! Wow. Did not expect that.

  • GSexton

    Great article! Incredibly valuable.

  • John

    I got a lot out of this article. The ideas were well formed and reflect what I thought already. My group has seemed to drop off of the radar for pop culture. New is in, as always. And the nostalgia factor that used to hold strong for the baby boomers is almost nonexistent for us. And the article was well supported with hard data.