Small Business

The ABCs of Selling to Generation X


By Karen E. Klein How can entrepreneurs tweak their marketing and sales campaigns to better reach today's young families? A new survey of 3,020 parents, conducted in late 2003 by Boston-based marketing-strategy firm Reach Advisors, lays the foundations for a better understanding of the social and attitudinal differences between Generation Xers -- those born from 1965 to 1979 -- and their baby boom parents. What follows are some of the key points drawn from the survey, Generation X Parents: From Grunge to Grown Up, and the lessons savvy businesses will draw from them:

Better educated, downwardly mobile: Gen X parents have more schooling than boomers yet are far more pessimistic about their financial futures. Gen X parents are more uncomfortable with their debt levels, have much lower expectations of remaining in their current jobs, and are less likely to expect defined-benefit pensions in retirement. The specter of financial insecurity haunts them much more than it did their parents at the same age.

Lesson: Value sells -- and permanence, being such a rare commodity -- sells even better.

More family time, less contentment: Gen X moms and dads are more likely than upwardly mobile boomer parents to turn their attention from careers to put a greater emphasis on children and household responsibilities. Still, the Gen X parents are less satisfied with the amount of time they allocate to family -- not because they don't like the trade-off, but because they wish they could spend even more time with their kids.

Lesson: While "quality time" was the much-quoted goal of boomer parents, Gen Xers also want "quantity time" with their kids. Bear that distinction in mind if marketing family-related goods and services.

It's all about value: Generation Xers in the top 5% of household income -- those with annual incomes of $150,000-plus -- tend to be in industries that have seen layoffs and where income growth has stalled. The consequent uncertainty leads to more cautious spending across the entire income spectrum. Where wealthy boomers might brag about how much they pay for something, Gen Xers relish talking about how much they managed to save -- and that applies even to those in the top income brackets. Spreading the word to friends and workmates about great deals and where to find them is actually a means for Xers to signal their tech savvy.

Lesson: If an Xer thinks you're offering a great deal, expect to see his or her friends as word spreads.

The "soccer mom" is history: Only 9% of Generation X mothers describe themselves that way. Today's young moms are more difficult to classify, given the variety of factors that shape their existence: They have high levels of education, and they married and had children later than their boomer counterparts. As a consequence, they generated higher percentages of household income before confronting decisions about whether to return to work after having children.

Lesson: Ad and marketing campaigns that target young mothers with one-dimensional portrayals are likely to be met with a resoundingly cold shoulder.

Dads do more at home. Today's fathers are less likely to draw a hard and fast line between work during the week and family on the weekend. Dads are proud to be involved in the daily lives of their children and are more likely to play a significant role in purchases and activities for their kids.

Lesson: Put those Ward Cleaver stereotypes in the shredder. Fathers have an ever-growing say in their kids' lives and day-to-day upbringing. If you ignore this social and cultural change, you do so at the peril of the bottom line.

The survey's findings should be taken as indications that, just as families are changing, so must marketing tactics. Says Reach's James Chung: "For companies that serve mostly baby boom parents with older children, much of this change is on the horizon. Companies serving Generation X parents with younger children, however, are starting to feel this shift earlier than others."

The smart business owner will swim with the tide -- or be swept away by it. Klein

is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues


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