Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Why Gen X suddenly matters more for brands

By Alex Moulton, Chief Creative Officer, Trollbäck+Company 

Among the many pivots that brands will need to make in a post-COVID-19 world, there’s one oversight that no one seems to be discussing yet: the rising relevance of Gen X.

For many years, marketers have been so laser-focused on meeting the needs of Millennials and Baby Boomers that they’ve mostly overlooked the so-called “lost generation.” But with nearly 10,000 boomers hitting retirement age every day and an unemployment crisis that has disproportionately devastated the Millennial job market, industry experts say it’s Gen X that will soon dominate the workforce in the U.S.  

That’s big news for those of us that have long suffered from middle-child syndrome when it comes to market influence. In pre-pandemic times, lower population meant lower spending power, resulting in a myopic view of consumer behaviour that consequently underserved millions.

Now, Gen Xers are not only poised to control the workforce, we’re increasingly making big spending decisions for ourselves, our families, and even our parents. In March, #GENX trended on Twitter as the conversation around these growing responsibilities during the crisis hit new levels. Is now the time for us to finally take centre stage?

Who are the real influencers? 

In addition to (soon) representing the world’s largest workforce, Gen X now also holds the majority of leadership positions globally. In 2018, that number hit 51%, according to DDI. Meanwhile, roughly 68% of CEOs of Fortune 500 corporations are Gen X. What will that number be by 2021? 

From the workplace to their homes, Gen X is also the most connected generation. By 2017, those of us born between 1965 and 1980 actually proved to be more active on social media than Millennials, with YouTube and Facebook claiming the most attention. And yes, we’re also still consuming traditional media as much as digital media. As a result, any Gen X-focused marketing strategy will need to be platform-agnostic. These efforts must also focus their efforts on how their brand delivers deeper meaning to our lives every day.

Historically, Gen X has been labelled as sceptical, often with a negative connotation. But this inherent doubt also belies deeper desires that smart brand managers should pay attention to. What is scepticism, if not a search for deeper truths, better knowledge, more education, or honest authenticity?

Take this as an example from my own experiences as a Gen X leader: When we were working with Smithsonian Channel, we landed at this insight early on, playing up the entertainment brand’s rigorous fact-checking and educated outlook on the world of non-fiction programming. By offering up something unique to Gen X’ers that aligned with their values and standing apart from the slippery slope of “reality programming” that often dominates its competitors’ lineups,  Smithsonian Channel was able to catch this next wave early, earning huge accolades this past year for its historical, timely, and family-friendly storytelling. 

In fact, every brand and marketer has an opportunity to feed this core Gen X desire for truth and fact, each in their own way. It’s as simple as cutting through the bullshit, saying it straight, and empowering more conscious choices. 

This idea applies equally well to Millennials and Gen Z, who also want more direct relationships with brands they love. But where Millennials and Gen Z are more likely to test many new brands, Gen X prefers to sustain relationships with brands they trust. 

Long-term loyalty

In this new era of post-pandemic marketing, it’s also critical to point out that brand loyalty is a defining characteristic of Gen X. As it turns out, branding that connects with Gen X audiences is not just a worthy investment because of their spending power, it’s actually an investment in long-term brand sustainability.

Recent studies on our generation consistently surface a shared desire for security (financial and safety), research (hard data and recommendations), and value (literal and emotional). By ensuring that brand positioning, messaging, and identity systems are able to clearly speak to this underlying need for fact-based, truthful, and meaningful information, it’s easy to see how a Gen X-focused strategy can come to life.

Some of the biggest, and perhaps most obvious brands engaging Gen Xers in this meaningful, fact-based way include Apple, Netflix, Disney, Samsung and Nike. As MBLM’s Brand Intimacy Study suggests, Gen X is loyal to these brands for a host of reasons that include clarity, simplicity, emotional resonance and, in some cases, good old nostalgia. But it’s also interesting that all are considered “premium” brands, with Gen Xers clearly being more willing to pay for higher quality or at least the perception of higher value in the things they buy every day.

Some newer brands have also done a wonderful job of communicating an authenticity-based approach with an emotional thread. West Elm, Oatly, RX Bar, and TOMS all come to mind as businesses that know how to “say it straight.” Although you may not see brands being as bold as Shiseido in actually spelling out their Gen X target demographic, the clues are there, and our generation has been some of the quickest adopters. 

You also see this in recent entertainment trends: Think about why iconic properties like Transformers, Full House, The X-Files, and most of the Marvel universe are all getting reboots lately. Gen X parents are fiercely loyal to the brands they grew up with, nostalgic, and excited to share them with their families. Brands know this and are going to be quick to cash in as the market continues to shift toward our generation. 

The X Factor

Finally, let’s end things with a quick thought experiment: Consider the last time you bought an item and had an honest customer service experience–– one where you were supplied with ample inspiration and information to make an informed decision. Perhaps you encountered marketing that recognized your intelligence and didn’t speak in superlatives. Maybe the brand was vocal about giving back to a cause you care about or offered a simple program to reward your loyalty. Wasn’t it refreshing?

In fact, the key to unlocking both Gen X’s brand loyalty and creating long-term brand sustainability are often one and the same. Brands that consistently deliver value by aligning their brand values with their audience’s values win loyal customers, and that matters now more than ever.

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