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Generation X
Generation Y

The Dos And Don'ts Of Advertising To Generations X And Y

Generations X and Y are savvy and skeptical consumers. I know this as a fellow Xer and as the CEO of a generational marketing company. We are an elusive market and advertisers struggle desperately to reach us.Nevertheless, there are a few key tactics to keep in mind when selling a product or service to Xers and Ys: keep it real, be relevant, be creative, and tap into messages or ways to benefit us personally, professionally, and also benefit our communities.

Generations X and Y are savvy and skeptical consumers. I know this as a fellow Xer and as the CEO of a generational marketing company. We are an elusive market and advertisers struggle desperately to reach us.Nevertheless, there are a few key tactics to keep in mind when selling a product or service to Xers and Ys: keep it real, be relevant, be creative, and tap into messages or ways to benefit us personally, professionally, and also benefit our communities. Here are a few examples of dos and don'ts when it comes to advertising to X and Y:DON’T use fictionNostalgia marketing often works with Generation X because it reminds us of our childhood and a brand we trust. But when American Family Insurance recently tried to convince me that my family was just like The Brady Bunch, I was not convinced.The Brady Bunch was a television show! Yes, it entertained us as children (and the ad is entertaining, too). But trying to convince us that selling insurance to the Brady family is the same as selling insurance to our families really misses the mark.Seriously — how many Xer families have six children, a cat and a dog, and can afford a full-time maid on an architect’s salary? And let’s not forget that the actor who played Mr. Brady later died of AIDS.Xers are skeptical, critical consumers. Comparing our families to the families we watched on television is a serious mistake.Here’s a better idea: Use actual families we can relate to–not fictitious characters.DO use a message we want to hearHeineken Premium Light’s "Share the Good"

 commercial begins with a hipster walking across the desert to deliver a beer to a couple in a hot tub. Next, the couple is giving a beer to a young woman, who traipses through the snow to give the beer to a bearded cabin dweller with an excellent laugh, who then goes on to an Indian celebration, and so on.The commercial has been compared to the ‘I'd like to buy the world a Coke’ commercial and the ‘We Are The World’ initiative that Xers remember from their childhoods.While it may not be the most original idea, and the beer may not be considered the best-tasting, the ad itself has received a lot of positive buzz from young consumers who were looking for a refreshing break from the standard American beer commercial.In this example, marketers used nostalgia to reach a younger audience, but they updated it so it was relevant and meaningful to the Xers as grown-ups.DO give something to consumersAs attention and media channels become more fragmented, consumer attention becomes harder to get and therefore more valuable. The old tricks just aren't cutting it anymore. People are too aware of what their time is worth and can change the channel until the commercial break is over, or record a show and fast-forward through the unwanted content.Advertisers are beginning to find better ways to get our attention, realizing that consumers are more apt to listen to and welcome an advertiser’s message when they give them something of equal value in exchange.Jones Soda is giving social networking communities something they find worthy of their attention. Jones is giving well-designed customizable pages to MySpace users. With an entire generation consumed by social networking, what could be more useful than the ability to have an exceptional user profile? It's that kind of thinking that sets a brand up for success in a world of finicky and fickle Gen Y consumers.Likewise, companies are setting up and sponsoring groups on Facebook (which doesn't allow companies to brand their own web pages) and providing worthwhile benefits for membership.Apple Computer, for example, sponsors the Apple Students group, which offers deals on Apple products and has more than 471,000 members. Chase Bank promotes its credit cards on the Chase +1 group, a loyalty program for college students. Members of the group are offered chances to meet celebrities or win concert tickets and VIP passes.Advertising is no longer a spectator sport. Generations X and Y will respond to advertising that goes above and beyond entertainment and offers relevance and meaning. Don't overlook their market share and do advertise with their values and worldview in mind. That's the only way your company will win their attention–and their purchases.

Zs came of age in an era of disruption

In many ways, it’s symbolic that Generation Z is named after the last letter in the alphabet because their arrival marks the end of clearly defined roles, traditions, and experiences. After all, Gen Z is coming of age on the heels of what has been referred to as the most disruptive decade of the last century. America has become an increasingly changing and complex place.

For example:

  • ‍Zs were born into a “modern family era” in which highly involved dads help out at home, and the nuclear family model (two parents, married, with children) represent only 46% of American households.
  • ‍Zs are the first generation to be born into a world where everything physical, from people to places to pennies, has a digital equivalent.
  • From the time they were infants, Zs had access to mobile technology. As a result, their brains have been trained to absorb large amounts of information, and Zs are especially adept at shifting between skills and subject matter.
  • Zs tend to have crystal-clear memories of sitting up for the first time at six months old because they can easily and quickly reference the photos and videos their parents shared on social media or saved in the “cloud”. 

Members of this generation have undoubtedly been shaped by crisis and disruption. This generation will largely be responsible for confronting the aftermath of the Great Recession, high youth unemployment, the effects of climate change, terrorism, energy sustainability, and more. These dark events have undoubtedly made this generation more cautious and pragmatic, but they have also provided this generation with the inspiration to change the world – and their grit will likely allow them to do it.

Coming of age during disruption means that most Zs will be comfortable being the disruptors. While Millennials tend to be collaborative and innovative, this generation tends to be sincere, reflective, thick-skinned, and self-directed, and will likely approach work in much the same way.

Zs were raised to be competitive

In the era following World War II, Boomers (1946-1964) were born and eventually became the wealthiest, most prosperous generation in history. Raised to aspire for the American Dream, this very large generation moved into positions of power and influence, and served as the workforce majority for 34 years.

With the American Dream alive and well, Boomers had no reason to teach their children, mostly Millennials, about competition. Instead, they taught them to focus on academic achievement and to be team players because if everyone works hard, everyone can win.

Enter Generation X (1965-1981). In contrast Boomers, Xers came of age during a time when change and economic and political uncertainty began to take root. They have lived through four recessions, struggled with debt and economic decline most of their lives, and watched the best educated and accomplished generation of all time (Millennials) graduate during the Great Recession and become the most debt-ridden generation in history.

Gen Xers can be defined by their independence and anti-status quo approach to life, and they have taught their Gen Z children to be competitive, believing only the best can win. They have encouraged their children to be realists, finding something they are good at and aggressively pursuing it.

Xers have raised their Zs with an intense focus on competitiveness -- in academics, sports, and other activities. This approach to parenting has many implications, but one stands out in terms of business: Gen Z is likely to lead.

Millennials in the workplace created and aggressively advocated for collaborative work environments. In fact, their aversion to leadership has been so strong, some Millennials sought out companies that boasted boss-free or team-managed workplaces.

In contrast, Zs have been raised with an individualistic, realistic, and competitive nature. They have been taught the skills to successfully defy the norm. This means we’re going to see the pendulum shift away from collaborative workplaces towards a widespread demand for, and pursuit of, leadership development.

Zs are career-focused.

While Millennials have been criticized for their “delayed adulthood”, Gen Z is showing signs of “early adulthood”. Educators and parents often describe this generation as being more serious and contemplative about the world. Zs are thinking about their career paths and exposing themselves to career training at an earlier age than Millennials. It’s probable that some of this early onset of adulthood is caused by parents, who are pressuring their children to be competitive and successful and to avoid the debt that plagued both the Gen Xers and Millennials.

The numbers from our global research found 46% of Gen Z said they know what career to pursue and 51% have taken a class at school focused on their career interests. Forty percent joined an extracurricular program (team, club) based on their career interests.

Zs are seeking financial security. 

Zs have been shaped by the aftermath of the Great Recession. They watched Millennials become debt-ridden and are concerned about falling into the same trap. XYZ University’s survey results show 66% of Zs said financial stability is more important than doing work they enjoy, which is the exact opposite of Millennial survey results.  Also, 71% of survey-takers have a paying job.

Zs value leaders who are positive and trustworthy.

When presented a list of leadership traits, Zs ranked positive and trustworthy the highest. While Millennials and Gen Zs both value trust in a leader, Millennials usually cite collaboration and vision as most important. In other words, Millennials focus on the outcomes leaders inspire, whereas Zs are more likely to consider leaders’ attitudes and personalities. To Z, what leaders encourage others to do isn’t as valuable as how they make them feel.


Zs want to be challenged.

Both Millennials and Gen Zs place a very high value on feeling challenged and appreciated in the workplace. However, according to our survey results Millennials rank appreciation slightly higher than challenge, whereas Zs rank feeling challenged slightly higher than appreciation.

Time will tell how Zs go down in history, but we know this generation’s influence on history will be unlike any other.


Does your organization have what it takes to engage the next generation? Take this quiz to find out.


Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University. Our generational intelligence can assist you with engaging and retaining young talent and members.

Sarah Sladek

Concerned about declining engagement in our nation’s membership associations, non-profits, and workplaces, Sarah Sladek founded XYZ University, the nation’s first and only generations-focused training and engagement strategy company, in 2002.

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