Gen Z, millennials, boomers... possibly amongst the most overused words in the English vocabulary. Overused because they're largely meaningless. After all, no one can draw meaningful distinctions based on macro demographics alone.
Yes, there's been much written about the death of demographics for years. But that doesn't stop sweeping generational labels like 'Gen Z' or 'Millennial' popping up in every report, white paper, or study that the industry produces.
Marketing science and the diversification of human beings has taught us that it's probably not a good idea to categorise large segments of the population under a single arbitrary label anymore; as if they are all the same and instantly ready for target marketing. After all, the differences between people within a certain age cohort can be vast.
Leading American think tank, The Pew Research Center, announced earlier this year that they will no longer be using generational terms like Gen Z or Millennial to describe different cohorts of society.
Kim Parker, the center's director of the Social and Demographic Trends team explained in an article the reason behind the decision to ditch generational terms: "A typical generation spans 15 to 18 years," wrote Parker. "As many critics of generational research point out, there is great diversity of thought, experience and behaviour within generations."
"For as long as we have mass marketing, it’ll be necessary to draw arbitrary boundaries somewhere to try to find commonalities amongst large groups of people," says Tom Davies, strategy director, Rufus. "The question we need to ask ourselves is whether carving out a lower and upper age limit is the best way to define our potential category buyers (spoiler alert: it’s not). Yes, age plays a role in our behaviour and interests, but things like social context, cultural background and prior experience are far more important."
Getting back on target
It was French botanist Achille Guillard who coined the term demography in 1885 to describe the scientific study of human populations by demographics i.e., Age, gender etc.
"Historically we lived in a society with less social mobility, more local affinities and without always-on global communications that enable us to connect with like-minded people and ideas wherever they may live," says Colleen Ryan, partner, TRA. "It just doesn’t make sense to be using a model of the world as it was in 1885."
Indeed, planning based on ‘generations’ is a hangover from a time when age was a reliable predictor of life stage and lifestyle.
"Turning 30 meant you were married, owned a house and had a couple of kids," says Davies. "Today, if you were to profile me as a male aged 25 to 34 in Australia, you’d have me in the same audience as Troye Sivan, Liam Hemsworth, Dylan Alcott and my mate who teaches high school in rural Queensland. Good luck writing that pen portrait…"
Leading American think tank, The Pew Research Center, announced earlier this year that they will no longer be using generational terms like ‘gen Z’ or 'millennial' to describe different cohorts of society.
In 2023, there appears to be very little merit in sticking to generational terms. yet they still seem to be used so frequently.
"While age can provide insights into generational preferences and behaviours, it’s an uncontrollable variable––it might not be as pertinent as the passions, preferences, and choices people actively make, which are generally what influences their decision-making more," says Tim Lindley, managing director, Vayner Media APAC. "A 13-year-old and a 90-year-old might find common ground just as easily as two 25-year-olds could have polar opposite TikTok feeds. Understanding attention and creating for relevance is likely a better strategy than targeting based on when someone was born."
Targeting communities instead of generations
Even today, marketers and their agencies spend huge amounts of time analysing what makes their audience tick, only for some to turn around and translate those insights into a generic age-band they happen to be able to buy on linear TV.
"We currently plan for the centre of the bullseye and then buy from the outside-in, which is an approach that’s as flawed in practice as it sounds in theory," says Davies. "We need to plan and buy media based on the communities our target audience belongs to. A generation isn’t a community—it’s a stereotype."
Chloe Fair, client services director, Virtue APAC, agrees that instead of age cohorts and general demographic data, a better way to do targeted marketing is via communities and subcultures.
"Young people are more likely to define themselves by their personality, values, interests and hobbies, than age or gender," says Fair.
The importance of connecting through common interests is further evidenced in the increasing preference for niche community platforms like Reddit and Discord, over mass public platforms like Facebook and Instagram, or the popularity of Spotify’s Blend feature that generates and blends playlists based on you and your friends’ music preferences.
"Brands should devote as much effort to smaller interest-based initiatives dedicated to particular communities, as they do to high-profile mass activations," adds Fair.
Coca-Cola Creations, a limited edition platform that taps into specific cultural passion points of Gen Z such as music, gaming and anime, has recruited more than 12.6 million new Coca-Cola drinkers worldwide in 2022.
Meanwhile, back in 2021, Johnnie Walker launched its ‘The Walkers’ program—a culture and community initiative that has united the most powerful voices in our culture to drive change for the collective good, tapping into a range of communities including drag, music, dance, standup and LGBTQ+. The initiative has reached over one billion globally, and driven positive shifts in brand salience and engagement across markets.
Likewise, media targeting has advanced quite a fair bit beyond demographics and moved towards interest-based, personas, affinities, lookalikes etc. With advanced customer data platforms and the ability for more complex and sophisticated digital customer journeys to be built and executed, marketing can be done on a more precise and personalised level today which could lead to more effective and efficient spend of marketing dollars across the marketing funnel.
"Taking a community-first approach on both creative and media fronts could be the silver bullet brands, who are increasingly being left outside culture, are looking for," adds Fair.
Is it time for the industry to ditch demographics?
There are more than 500 million people between the ages of 18 and 24 living in Asia Pacific; Gen Z is a group that is simply too big to lump together. How could using an isolated demographic data point like ‘generation’ lead to anything other than ineffective marketing?
"When it comes to targeting, the assumption is that 18 to 24-year-olds share more in common with each other than they do with people aged, say, 45 to 54, which I’d argue is a flawed premise," says Davies. "If I’m trying to sell a pair of vintage Jordan sneakers, I’m far better off reaching a 45-year-old NBA fan and a 22-year-old NBA fan, than I would be trying to target that same 22-year-old and their 18-year-old cousin who loves Taylor Swift."
But Davies argues there is still a place for macro demographic variables like 'generation', and that it's not time to ditch them entirely.
"There are absolutely use cases where it’s valid to understand and consider the age, gender (albeit, with a far more nuanced lens than we have in the past…) and socio-economic status of the consumers you’re trying to talk to," says Davies. "We just need to re-examine the importance that we’re placing on those factors, because if they make up the operative line of your marketing brief, you’re probably doing it wrong."
Lindley at VaynerMedia APAC says that it’s not whether we should discard demographics, but rather how to augment them.
"Demographics are a foundational layer, a structured canvas, but they can’t be the sole tool. Instead–– dig deeper, add layers, add nuance, and build out sophisticated cohorts grounded in genuine behaviour, interest and community. When we truly understand consumers, we can begin to command their attention."
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