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A TCI Book Review

Rocking the Ages: The Yankelovich Report on Generational Marketing

J. Walker Smith and Ann Clurman
HarperBusiness, New York, 1997

Smith and Clurman are both senior members of Yankelovich Partners, one of the largest consumer research organizations in the US. The book they have written investigates differences in society that are generational that is, based on age groupings and discusses the types of marketing approaches that will have appeal to each age segment. The findings are based on the annual MONITOR survey undertaken by Yankelovich, which asks consumers about their values, attitudes and buying behaviors. The MONITOR survey dates back to 1971, so there is a good track record of trend data to rely upon. (In fact, throughout the book there are so many references to the MONITOR survey that it's difficult to avoid the impression that the book is just one giant pitch for Yankelovich.)

Generational marketing makes sense, say the authors, because the marketplace evolves in response to the different needs of each generation. These needs in turn are conditioned by three factors:

  1. formative cohort experiences
  2. age and life style
  3. current social and economic conditions

As each of these factors differs from one generation to the next, we can accordingly expect their marketplace behaviors to vary, and thus the marketing strategies that will maximize appeal to each group to in turn be different.

Smith and Clurman identify three major generational groups in society today, which are:

  1. the 'Matures', who were born before 1946, and tend as a group to be cautious and somewhat conservative in their buying behavior as a result of experiences in the Great Depression and World War 2 this group in the US accounts for approximately 68 million individuals and 41 million households;
  2. the 'Boomers', who were born between 1946 and 1964, and currently comprise 78 million individuals and 43 million households unlike Matures, Boomers tend to reject sacrifice in favor of self expression and a quest for personal identity; and
  3. 'GenX' (short for Generation X, the term popularized by Douglas Coupland in his novel of the same name), born in 1965 or later, who number 45 million individuals and 14 million households GenXers have never taken the future for granted, as have the Boomers, so they are much more likely to be cautious about their lives, demanding of candor and honesty the authors take some pains to point out that the reality of GenXers is quite different from the popular stereotype of them as a 'lost' generation which is looking for diversion, a momentary thrill, and not expecting too much from the future.
"The Matures, born between 1909 and 1945, came of age under the shadows of the Great Depression, World War II, Korea and the Cold War. Their attitudes toward life and work were formed in the crucible of economic upheaval, common enemies and America's role as an emerging superpower. Matures grew up in tough times, so they had a more constrained set of expectations. As a result, their core values are what we think of today as traditional values discipline, self-denial, hard work, obedience to authority, and financial and social conservatism.

These values still determine the way in which Matures relate to the marketplace. They have been slow to embrace new products. They saved their money and saw retirement and leisure time as rewards for hard work. Products that fit their basic values have succeeded and will continue to succeed because these values grew out of their shared experiences and still guide their consumption." (p.8)

In marked contrast to the Matures, Boomers were born into times of prosperity and economic expansion. They took for granted that they 'deserved' these riches and opportunities, and developed the philosophy of the "Me Generation", predicated on a sense of entitlement. This philosophy enabled them to easily embrace inclusive social policies, since there was 'enough for all'. "Boomers believed there would always be plenty to go around lots now and more and more in the future so why not share with everyone." (p.10)

"The next group, Generation X, or Xers, could be dubbed the "Why Me?" generation. Born in the wake of the dominant Boomers, they have been buffeted by tumultuous political and economic conditions. They are wary and uncertain about America's position in the world and about their own place in America. Yet contrary to the image portrayed in the popular media, this is a savvy generation, enthusiastically ready, willing and able to take on the challenges they face.

For Xers, hard work is a pragmatic necessity and they are careful in planning for the future. In many ways, Xers are embracing some of the values of Matures because they too have lived through uncertain formative years. For this reason, Xers seem better able to deal with economic downturns than their Boomer predecessors." (p. 10)

Rocking the Ages is divided into two parts. The first describes each of the three generational groupings in some detail while the second focuses in upon the implications of generational marketing upon certain key sectors and areas of life: technology, computer and Internet use, health care, consumption patterns, leisure, and home-buying activity.

Key marketing conclusions coming out of the first part of the book are:

  • Don't think of Matures as 'seniors'; they resist the label and will punish products and services that attempt to pigeon-hole them into that stereotype. Rather, promote the convenience and accessibility of products along with the idea that 'you've earned it'.
  • In contrast, Boomers feel that they deserve products and services as an inalienable birthright, rather than having to earn them. Marketing approaches to this group have got to walk a fine line between realizing that Boomers are aging (while never mentioning the dreaded word 'senior') and thus will require in time the full range of age-related products and services, while at the same time continuing to cater to their need to rebel and forge their own path. Particular interests of the Boomer generation at this point in their lives and at this point in the economic cycle is the desire to simplify, and a focus of the family.
  • GenXers tend to be skeptical of modern advertising and overly-slick marketing pitches. Approaches to this group that work particularly well tend to be frank, not take themselves too seriously, and involve a little fun at the same time, though, GenXers are still somewhat unsure of themselves, and need to be reassured that the choices they are making are fundamentally sound and practical.

Using this generational framework and a sea of data from the MONITOR survey, Smith and Clurman identify in the second part of the book a number of generational differences that have interesting marketing implications in specific areas:

Regarding technology, the authors make the point that simplicity of use will be a key selling feature in the years ahead. This, though, should be presented to the three generational groups in different ways:

  • Matures will interpret simplicity as accessibility, which implies ease of use, service and support, as the key features that will sell them on new technologies and products.
  • Boomers will be attracted by the efficiency of new products and technologies, that will make their lives easier and save them time and headaches, or contribute more directly to their personal productivity.
  • GenXers will value practicality, and will be attracted most by technologies that will make things more useful and functional.

Turning to the use of computers and the Internet, the authors here define a new concept, cybercitizens, which simply means people who are comfortable with and frequently use this technology. Matures who are cybercitizens are quite different from the general profile of Matures overall, who tend to shy away from direct computer use. Mature cybercitizens seek out novel experiences and opportunities for personal creativity, and actively embrace computer technology. Boomer cybercitizens, in contrast, are much like Boomers overall, and use the Internet for work and personal fulfillment. Xer cybercitizens are again a little different from their generational cohort overall, and tend to be on-line for fun and recreation rather than business reasons. (The authors expect that this will naturally change over time, as Xers become more job and career-oriented.) Clurman and Smith do make the point that while Matures and Boomers see the Internet as a separate technology to be incorporated into their work or personal lives, Xer cybercitizens see the Internet and the world wide web as completely integrated into their day to day being.

In a related area, entertainment, Smith and Clurman note the following:

  • Matures want entertainment that is easily-digestible, presented in a non-confrontational and non-controversial manner. They want their information presented to them in summary form, and feel as a group no compelling need to be part of the 'information age'.
  • In contrast, Boomers need to feel and be plugged into the information society. They need their information presented in terms of categories and options, so that they have full access to the entire range of options available. Organization of content and programming is important here.
  • Xers want to participate in their entertainment experiences, and interactive and highly participatory media and technologies that allow them to do this will do well in appealing to this group. For example, they are the most likely generational group to time-shift (tape television programs on a VCR to watch later) as well as being the most likely to purchase pay-per-view experiences.

Incidentally, the authors see the real growth of the Internet in the area of on-line entertainment, and not (as was once touted) on-line shopping.

Regarding health care:

  • Matures look for continued reassurance that their health care needs will be met, but a major worry to them is whether they will outlive their savings.
  • Boomers are slowly coming to terms with their health care needs as they age. A big concern for them is the health care needs of their family.
  • Xers have few illusions about the dangers they face (AIDS, new viruses, etc.) and are looking to empower themselves through information to develop their own health care strategies.
  • All generations are looking for healthier lifestyles. Simple and direct messages that appeal to them to a greater degree than ever before are 'low in fat', 'fresh' and 'ethnic'.

Other chapters in the book take the same sort of approaches to consumption patterns for homes and consumer goods.

Throughout the book there are cute comparison tables showing the differences between these three mega-generations. Examples include:

Matures Boomers Xers
Generational Remembrances Orange juice
Dr. Spock
Mom, Dad, Grandfolks
The Juice runs
Dr. Strangelove
Mom and Dad
The Juice walks
Dr. Kevorkian
Mom or Dad
Media Icons John Huston
Edward R. Murrow
Robert Altman
Walter Cronkite
Oliver Stone
Parts of the Dream Life First Kiss
Sex on honeymoon
First House
Sex in the back seat
Super Bowl
First Computer
Sex on the Internet
Dream Team
Major Theme Save the world Save the country Save yourself

Rocking the Ages makes for an interesting (and relatively quick) read with some good observations on the types of marketing approaches that are likely to work best in appealing to each generation. Where it falls short somewhat is in describing the underlying drivers of differences between the generations compared to books like, for example, David Foot and Daniel Stoffman's Boom, Bust and Echo or David Cork and Susan Lightstone's The Pig and the Python .




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