A view from David Proudlock

The untapped power of Gen X: marketing for the jilted generation

Shifting attention from millennials and taking time to understand Gen X as more than just the 'parent' generation may prove to be very rewarding, writes...

Over the past 12 months the number of opinion pieces, insight reports and conferences dedicated to millennials has exploded. Probably the most hyped generation in history in terms of their supposed importance to marketers, the 16- to 34-year-old cohort are held up as the arbiters of all things innovative, cool and current. And full disclosure: Inkling contributed to the deluge by publishing our own millennial study late last year.

Concerned that a lot of the industry’s talking heads were drawing conclusions about youth in the UK based on US data, we set out to take the temperature of British millennials and unearthed insights around authenticity, ethics, brand loyalty, wellness and the rise of influencers and the experience economy.

Yet in creating the report, what became clear is that many of the ideas and behaviours ascribed to millennials aren’t new at all. In fact, many of them had been established by the cohort that came before, Generation X: a demographic long ignored by the marketing community as a whole. Again thanks largely to clichés derived from America, Gen X has been pigeonholed as the slacker generation – highly cynical of brands, distrusting of organisations and hard to reach.

When you consider that this audience of 35- to 55-year-olds represents nearly 28% of the UK’s total population (source: ONS) and has the highest weekly expenditure of any group (ibid.), this feels shortsighted. And in terms of the seismic shifts in technology, communications, music, media, fashion and even the make-up of the traditional family unit, it’s been Gen X that’s been at the vanguard.

The parent trap

As a result, Inkling has commissioned new research laid out in the report, Marketing for the Jilted Generationto provide a more nuanced view of Gen X rather than just saddling them with catch-all, broad-brush terms and definitions.

In fact, it’s lumping this generation lazily into the "parents" bucket that has led to some marketers failing to tailor their communications accordingly. While it’s tempting to think that this audience is only worried about staying on top of their busy schedules and raising a family, our findings revealed that a myriad of social pressures affect Gen X. In fact, although 39% of our respondents did feel the pressure to be better parents, it was keeping up with the Joneses that scored more highly – one in two felt apprehensive about looking good and dressing well, and 51% felt the pressure to have a beautiful home.

Perfect parents

Clearly Gen Xers don’t define themselves as parents running around after their kids, but rather have their own individual identity as people who take care of their self image (interestingly, these pressures index even more highly with Gen Xers with children, indicating that there is an implicit pressure to be perfect in many aspects of their lives).

The fact is this cohort’s identity extends far beyond a singular, outdated picture of the man as sole breadwinner and the woman in charge of the kitchen. Fifty-one per cent of Gen X males identified themselves as the primary decision-maker for household furnishings and 60% for all grocery purchases. And yet 44% of men agreed that home furnishing brand communications were neither interesting nor relevant to them and a whopping 79% said the same about food brands.

The same was true when viewed from the other side: 34% of women responded as the primary decision-maker for cars purchased by the household and 42% said automotive messaging had no relevance to them. Clearly, long-held gender stereotypes are hindering brands from attaining genuine cut-through. Which is a shame, as from our results Gen Xers can be converted from cynics to fans through utilising many of the same strategies that have become synonymous with millennial marketing briefs.

The simple pleasures

When asked about the brand behaviours that would promote loyalty, our respondents placed most emphasis on making their lives simpler and more convenient, providing them with inspiration and entertaining them with content.

Similarly, Gen Xers grew up with broadcast media at the height of its influence while also developing and adopting social channels: TV cannot be a silver bullet to reach this audience. Instead a focus on an integrated, multichannel approach is key.

The only way for brands to create real value exchange with any demographic is to take time to understand them as more than just stereotypes. This is never more true than with Gen X: whether that’s providing genuinely entertaining and informative content, appealing to Gen Xers as vital individuals rather than parents and caregivers or subverting clichéd messaging around gender stereotypes, the reward is the loyalty of an affluent and relatively untapped demographic.