Modern consumers are complex creatures, and marketers have their work cut out for them if they want to reach new customers. More than ever before, today’s brand owners must carefully tailor their efforts to appeal to their customers’ unique buying habits. Consumer values have fluctuated over time as political and economic climates have changed. Brand owners must consider their messaging, design, and imagery in everything from postcards to marketing collateral. This is the only way to ensure that campaigns come together and are relevant to the intended audience.

Marketing budgets can be impacted when campaigns fail to consider generational differences. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule, but the members of a given generation will tend to behave similarly. As a result, it is important for brands to understand these differences so they can attract attention in today’s market.

Generational marketing can seem daunting, but it doesn't have to be. This article defines generational marketing as it applies to print, explores how to personify the different generations, and considers how to approach them with resonant messaging.

Generational Marketing

Some of you may have seen the famous meme featuring Steve Buscemi from the “30 Rock” TV series. He’s carrying a skateboard, wearing a backwards baseball cap, and a “Music Band” T-shirt. The caption reads, “how do you do, fellow kids?” This image has been used in many humorous and topical ways to satirize that ever-present generation gap. In some cases, this meme is aimed at brands that fall flat in their attempts to reach younger generations.

What can your company do to avoid making this same mistake? Building customer personas by generation is a good start. In doing so, you can create segmented campaigns that may resonate more deeply than a “one-size-fits-all” approach. As a reminder, the marketable ages to consider include:

Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964

Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980

Millennials, born between 1981 and 1996

Gen Z, born between 1997 and 2012

Although the above years may vary slightly from source to source, these groups represent a cohort of people at comparable ages who have been shaped by shared experiences. These include major life events, trends, and developments.

When you identify specific generational values, you can be better positioned to connect consumers with your products and services. For example:

Baby Boomers and the members of Gen X often have long-standing routines and lifestyles, so they tend to be more loyal to brands than their younger counterparts. They have likely tried a lot of products during their lives, so they know exactly what they like and don’t like.

Millennials and the members of Gen Z value information, transparency, and authenticity in their brands and are more open to exploring their options. If two brands hold similar values, the younger generations are more likely to align themselves with the one that can deliver a relatable message.

The Importance of a Good Communication Design

To clarify our earlier example, Wikipedia defines a “meme” as an idea or behavior that spreads via imitation. Online, this can take the form of images, videos, and words, which are often used in conjunction to create an unexpected and clever take on a subject. This is the essence of communication design.

Communication design connects images, words, and relevant materials to an audience. Graphical design tends to focus on the technical aspects of a presentation — the color and layout. While it is inclusive of graphic design, communication design strives to ascribe meaning to each individual component. Every visual, every word, and the overall presentation are carefully constructed to convey a message and create engagement for the intended recipient. The elements are balanced to immediately draw the eye to the pertinent information while subconsciously processing and associating with the other design choices.

Communication design also includes the use of tech-supported features. Whereas Millennials were young adopters of the digital transformation, the members of Gen Z are “digital natives” who have only known a world with the internet. Both of these groups have strong handles on social media and pay attention to online reviews. The eldest members of Gen Z have graduated college and/or entered the workforce, bringing a proclivity for the latest trends.

Younger consumers respond well to personalized print and messages that speak specifically to their needs. When marketing to Gen Z and Millennials, you may want to include designs that encourage technological interaction, such as QR codes or Augmented Reality. Create hashtags for printed communications that enable these consumers to engage with on social media. Their retention as customers can be often fostered with loyalty and rewards programs.

On the other hand, Baby Boomers and Gen Xers may prefer something less complicated and more direct. Many Boomers won’t hesitate to pick up the phone, so a call to action that includes a phone number may yield better results than an online only connection. According to Pew Research, Baby Boomers started retiring at an accelerated rate since the start of COVID-19. Once they enter retirement, Baby Boomers are more likely to splurge on big ticket items. When attempting to connect with Boomers, an opportunity to upsell complementary products and services exists.

Meanwhile, the members of Gen X may display more rigidity in their regimens and finances. Quality-of-life improvements that don’t intrude greatly on their established routines may be especially appealing. Coupons and bulk deals are a great way to attract their attention, and direct mail is still an effective means of communication. According to The Gen-X Marketing Guide, 68% of Gen Xers have used coupons they’ve received in the mail.

Moving Toward the Future

Nothing is written in stone when it comes to print and design for the various generations. Millennials now represent the largest population in the US workforce, accounting for 35% of the total. For comparison, 33% of US employees are Gen Xers and 25% are Baby Boomers—but this latter value is shrinking. As time goes on and the members of Generation X move toward retirement, it's difficult to predict whether they will adopt the same beliefs and practices of today's Boomers. It is important to stay current on the trends with each generation because their values and the ways they relate to brand messaging continue to be fluid.

Millennials and older members of Gen Z are now having their own kids; those born after 2013 have been dubbed "Generation Alpha." When designing a direct mail campaign, it doesn’t hurt to develop a persona for today’s youngest consumers. Members of Generation Alpha might not have much in the way of buying power, but their parents certainly do. Consequently, consider age-appropriate color palettes and familiar imagery when designing a family-oriented or cross-generational mailer. In this case, the goal is to make the parents identify with the design based on the interests of their children. Better yet, provide a nostalgic trigger that reminds parents of their childhood interests to draw them closer to your brand and its message.

The modern educational and workforce challenges for the members of Generations Z and Alpha certainly don't mirror those of earlier generations, so updated personas are extremely important. In addition to delivering eye-grabbing images and messaging that aligns with a given generation, the right persona can serve as a guard rail so brands can avoid the disconnect of a Steve Buscemi meme.

The Bottom Line

Making generalizations about the various generations is a wide net to cast, and it also isn’t foolproof—there are exceptions to every rule. The members of a given generation will often act in similar ways, but there will always be consumers who simply don’t fit the mold. Each generation also comprises a broad age group. Gen Z alone ranges from early adolescents/tweens to recent college graduates. Even so, the members of a generation will often have shared influences that determine their mindsets. They will remember the same presidents, the same wars, the same economic upturns/downturns, and the same tragedies and triumphs.

Generational marketing is a proven way to supplement a demographic marketing approach. At its core, marketing is about engaging the intended audience. By understanding the things that are important to a given generation, a brand can adjust its messaging to motivate its intended audience to take action.

Karen Kimerer of Keypoint Intelligence has experienced the many challenges of expanding current market opportunities and securing new business. She has developed a systematic approach to these opportunities, addressing the unique requirements of becoming a leader in our changing industry. She is well-versed in 1:1 marketing, web-to-print, direct mail, book publishing, supply chain management, data segmentation, channel integration, and photo products.

This article originally appeared in the November/December, 2022 issue of Mailing Systems Technology.