How To Target Market To Gen X, Bring Your Flannel & Green Hat

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Ah, Generation X, perhaps the most misunderstood generation of them all. Unfairly pegged as disaffected slackers early on, the label itself became a stigma—some younger X-ers even claim affiliation with Gen Y to avoid the negative associations of being branded the surly, cynical “MTV Generation.” The broadest possible parameters for this group are those born between 1961 and 1981.

Marketing sometimes overlooks us (yes, I am an outlying, peripheral member—born in 1980, owned cassette tapes, etc.) because of our smaller numbers. As Karen Ritchie noted in her landmark book Marketing to Generation X, we were born in a time when access to birth control was more available than ever before. Because of this, Gen X encompasses only about 50 million-ish Americans, whereas Boomers and Millennials represent a bigger chunk of the population. Still, many X-ers are just beginning to come into their own as they hit their mid-thirties and forties, and their purchasing power has never been greater, so it’s a mistake to ignore them—many are preparing to buy cars and other big-ticket items. For an in-depth, statistics-driven breakdown of their spending and purchasing habits, these three features from CRM are must-reads. Here, we’ll simply highlight a few of the central traits that make them tick.

Family Values

One notable trait of Gen X is that they turned out to be very family-oriented. It isn’t surprising when you consider that so many of them lived through the divorce of their parents, or were “latch-key” kids who came home from school to an empty house. Yes, it’s true they earn less than the generation before them, but that isn’t because they’re “slackers.” There are a host of reasons for that, but one factor is that they work less because they want to spend more time at home with their families, as opposed to the stereotypically work-a-holic Boomer parents. They’ve exchanged the Boomer desire to dive into a vault of gold coins for the desire to live a more balanced life, and to be present for their loved ones.

So appeals to the family unit can be powerful. Look at this Volkswagen ad from 2011. 

First of all it has Darth Vader, and the original Star Wars trilogy is a massive touchstone for Gen X (just ask Dante and Randal from Clerks). Don’t get distracted though, focus on the parents here: the mom, at home during the day, making a sandwich for “Darth.” Look at the dad, arriving home from work while it’s still light out. Why? So he can spend time with his son. The fact that the dad can even play the “force” game at all with his kid speaks to the close bond they share. This ad couldn’t be more tailored to Gen X values. Even the final note is aimed at us—these cars start at only 20k, and Gen X is far more frugal than their parents (more on this in a moment).

They’re Starting to Feel Nostalgic for a Simpler Time

The heavy featuring of Star Wars concepts (even the music in the Volkswagen ad is lifted straight from the movie’s score) brings us to the next point—like the Baby Boomers before them, Gen X is starting to get nostalgic for the things that entertained them as kids. We can see this in Hollywood right now—movies based on our childhood cartoons such as Smurfs, Garfield, G.I. Joe, Transformers…even Beavis and Butthead got a second act (though that one didn’t quite take).

The comic book heroes many of us avidly read about? They’ve become the biggest movie stars in the world. And many of our iconic musical acts are back on the road as well–Third Eye Blind, Snoop Dogg, Alice in Chains, Neutral Milk Hotel, Wu-Tang Clan, Black Flag, Weezer and (*gag*) Limp Bizkit are packing mid-size venues with middle-aged (or soon-to-be there) Gen X-ers eager to listen to songs they first heard two decades past…and oblivious that they have now become their parents: still going to those Rolling Stones concerts to remember the good ol’ days. So if you grab our attention, slather whatever you’re selling in flannel and have Winona Ryder be your pitchman while Pearl Jam plays “Jeremy” in the background. OK, bit much, but you get the idea.

Is it too soon to get nostalgic? It might feel that way to some, but that’s only because they’re in denial about aging. Consider this: Nevermind was over twenty years ago, gang. Buy yourself a deck of cards…and deal with it.

The Greatest (Educated) Generation

It’s true that we are better-educated than any of the generations that came before us. Due to various social and economic factors, Gen X went back to school…and then, some of them went back again. Once they realized that, A) Boomers weren’t retiring as quickly as they would like, so upper-level positions were agonizingly out of reach, or perhaps B) the job market was awful and they may as well kill a few more years learning something before leaping back in (hey, if you’re gonna be unemployed for awhile, you’re gonna need an excuse). So not only can they claim a better high school graduation rate than previous generations, according to an Institution of Social Research study, 43% have earned at least a Bachelor’s degree. In addition they’re the first generation to graduate more women than men from college. The takeaway here is that 

dumbing down your message or “talking down” to a Gen X consumer will get you nowhere.

A Thrifty, Practical Bunch

This generation knows the value of a dollar. We’ve already stressed that a good percentage were latch-key kids who made dinner for themselves when they got home, while their single parents worked overtime and balanced a tight budget. Compounding this, many lived through the economic craziness of the 80’s and watched their parents lose money in the stock market, lose their jobs, or both. As a result, they are wary of investing, and wary of corporate authority–far more likely to make lateral moves in their careers than stick with one company and try to rise up the corporate ladder, and far LESS likely to play roulette on the stock market. No matter if they were born in the mid-60’s or the early 80’s, they’ve witnessed staggering amounts of government or institutional negligence/incompetence: Watergate, Union Carbide-Bhopal, Iran-Contra, the Challenger shuttle, Clinton/Lewinsky…forgive them for not putting a ton of faith in the system.

As noted here, those finishing up college in the late 1980’s had to deal with the market crash of ’87 and the resulting recession, and more than a few ended up moving back home into mom and dad’s basement (making X the original “boomerang” generation, sorry Gen Y). They learned some hard lessons, and the importance of saving a buck was one of them, so they’re a lot less likely to splurge Boomer-style on a red Corvette in their 40’s, and more likely to go after functional purchases with quantifiable added value.

A study from showed that Gen X prefers cars which are “practical, spacious, and family friendly.” In fact their #1 preference in automobiles is Volkswagen, with Audi, Mazda, Honda and Nissan also in the top ten; these are all manufacturers that emphasize safety, practicality, and–most essentially–competitive price points.

A Generation of Entrepreneurs

There’s also a strong case to be made that Generation X is the most entrepreneurial age group.
Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Tesla’s Elon Musk, and Girls Who Code’s Reshma Saujani are all X-Men (and woman). Those are obviously the heavyweights, but the particular cocktail of independence/self-sufficiency and headstrong resistance to authority that defines this demographic translates into a lot of us becoming our own bosses; this is something that is happening all the time on  a smaller scale as well: check out Candace Nelson’s cupcake bakery, featured in this illuminating report.

The distrust that Gen X holds for corporate America and the finance sector factors into this as well—the disastrous financial crises and years of downsizing have turned a lot of us into self-starters. So products and services that make it easier to build businesses are a big hit with this lot. Think of services like Kickstarter, Techstars, or Squarespace.

If you can make the process of starting/funding/operating a business simpler for them, you can tap into that entrepreneurial Gen X spirit, and they will reward you with their business, and flattering Yelp reviews.

That’s it for this edition, but check back in for the third and final installment of our “generational trilogy: on how to talk to the Baby Boomers. FOR THEM IT’S BEST TO USE LARGE PRINT. I kid! I kid, because I love.

– Stephen K. Hirst