Gwoke: Understanding inflences of youth can predict consumer behavior

BridgeWorks’AUSTIN, Texas — Understanding the cultural, political and lifestyle events to which people are exposed in their formative years can be a powerful predictor of consumer behavior and inform more effective marketing efforts to engage them. That was one of the key takeaways from Phil Gwoke’s, BridgeWorks generational consultant, speaking at the NEXT Conference here.

Moving beyond the “Millennials-are-entitled, underemployed and technology-obsessed” thinking that characterizes many generational discussions today, Gwoke offered a detailed and nuanced assessment of the four primary generations impacting today’s marketplace, as well as a look ahead to the next generation heading toward the marketplace: Gen Edgers.

Gwoke pointed out one of the most common mistakes people make when looking at generational marketing: defining the future in terms of the past. “Even as we get into a next focus, we get into a ‘last’ mindset,” he said.

He cited the example of the “save” icon commonly found on computers today, which is a graphic representation of a “floppy disk;” something few under the age of 35 would even recognize.

“If you were to hand an actual floppy disk to a 13-year-old, they would think you had made a 3D model of the save icon on their computer,” said Gwoke. “Even technology companies are locked into old paradigms.”

As one example of how technology and culture can define generational behavior, Gwoke cited the rotary phone, a primary means of communication for Baby Boomers and Gen Xers that required dialing and remembering myriad numbers, as there was no phone memory. Also, unlike today’s cellphones, using a rotary phone often required “making an appointment” to call a friend to ensure they were home to answer, particularly prior to the invention of voicemail (patented in 1982).

By contrast, Millennials are the first generation with widespread access to cell phones in their formative years. “For the first time in history, you had people who could bypass the gatekeeper of parents and go directly to their friends,” Gwoke said. “You have to understand the impact of this when people ask why are Millennials so relaxed and unprofessional. This group did not grow up with the informal lessons on formality like so many previous generations did.”

Looking through this lens, Gwoke walked through the key attributes of each generation currently exerting the greatest influence in the marketplace. He noted that Baby Boomers came of age at a time of great optimism and with a large generational cohort against which they needed to compete.

“This is the generation that said, ‘Don’t dress for the job you have, dress for the job you want’,” Gwoke noted.

By comparison, Gen Xers grew up at a time when “there were 50% fewer movies made for kids than for Baby Boomers or Millennials,” Gwoke said. Gen Xers were the first generation to see a U.S. president resign, the one that introduced the term “latchkey kids” and the first who could see all the things going wrong in the world 24 hours a day.

The result, Gwoke noted, is a generation that is more resourceful, more efficient and more skeptical. In dealing with this generation, Gwoke advised, “be a resource, not a salesperson.”

Gwoke also explored the post-Millennial generation, sometimes called Gen Z, who has taken Millennials’ obsession with social media and text communication to new levels. He noted the challenge previous generations had convincing Millennials that “are” is not spelled “R.” Today, post-Millennials are fundamentally changing communication styles with even more extreme abbreviation.

“This is a generation that grew up with imagery and bullet points,” said Gwoke. “When they see this litany of information (in descriptions or other marketing copy), they say, ‘It’s not worth my time.’”

Another key distinction of this generation — many of which are the children of Boomers — is they are the children of Gen X, growing up in a post-recession world and hearing their parents say, “No, we can’t afford that.”

“They’re being denied a lot of the things that Millennials were given,” Gwoke said. “This is a game changer.”

This is also the YouTube generation, he noted, pointing out that 80% of teens today use YouTube as a source to seek advice, research for school and do homework. “This is a generation that’s looking for someone to point them in the right direction,” Gwoke said.

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