The fallacies of generational labelling:  Marketing for temperament, not demographic

Victoria Kent questions whether age is really the most useful way of understanding people, or if marketers should be looking to other more telling factors, like temperament and personality traits instead.

I have a confession to make: I am a millennial. This realisation came as a shock to me, too. As a professional mum of two, I don’t feel particularly youthful. But I did come of age around the millennium. Despite this label, you can rest assured TikTok is not installed on my phone and don’t have the foggiest idea what Justin Bieber is up to.

Am I passionate about sustainability issues? Yes! But I don’t think this has anything to do with being a millennial. I have older friends who care just as much about sustainability as I do. Indeed, I don’t share all my passions and beliefs with people my own age. It makes me wonder, how useful is segmentation by age demographic?

The problem with age-based segmentation

The generational labelling debate was reignited recently. The broad-brush Gen Z, Y and X labels have been referred to as the ‘marketing equivalent of a horoscope’. Or “a fairytale built from simplistic stereotypes and lazy thinking” as Mark Ritson told The Australian. Ritson goes so far as saying demographic labelling is politically incorrect: “Judging someone by their age is just as heinous as doing so based on gender, race or sexuality.”

Why this sudden shift in thinking? A report from UK-based marketing research house BBH Labs found these ‘generations’ were “simply random collections of people who share no special connection beyond being born within two decades of each other.” BBH also found UK citizens born between 1997 and 2013 had no stronger connection to each other than to the rest of the country. They used a Group Cohesion Score to assess like-mindedness.

BBH determined that lumping age groups with the stages Z, X, millennials and Boomers was meaningless. The problem was even more pronounced with millennials in the UK – there are 78,000 whose children are also millennials. So, when we say ‘millennial’, we’re labelling tens of thousands of children with the same attributes as their parents, whilst identifying the Gen Z kids (who are a year younger) as being utterly distinct. This clearly makes no sense.

Currently, there are 2.8 million millennials in Australia according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. I wonder how many of those identified are children of millennial parents.

Temperament versus age

Before we set out on the marketing journey for Elevate Super, we commissioned research firm Tungsten Works to ascertain which consumers were more likely to value sustainability – specifically the UN Sustainable Development Goals – when it came to their superannuation.

We surveyed over 1,000 respondents in a randomised experimental trial to understand how the brand and brand messages would be received by different groups (personality types, generations, etc.); which brand names and messages were best, why they were the best and for whom they were the best.

Our initial hypothesis was millennials, and to a lesser extent Gen X, would be more likely to care about sustainability issues when it came to superannuation. We were wrong. And in doing so, greatly underestimated Gen X. We found having an interest in sustainability transcended age demographic. In fact, a more useful predictor of switching to a sustainable superannuation fund was not age but personality traits.

The importance of personality

The intersection of openness and extraversion was the sweet spot of our target customer. Other traits mentioned were conscientiousness, agreeableness and neuroticism. In hindsight, this makes a lot of sense. Personality traits are a reliable method for understanding humans since they transcend cultural, social and economic variables.

As interesting as the findings were, the research was conducted prior to the product launch. So, now we’re past that point, what does our actual customer data tell us? Lo and behold, Elevate Super’s data suggests both Millennials (44 percent of our customers) and Gen X’s (54 percemt) care about sustainability issues. While we haven’t given all of our customers personality tests, it’s clear to see that interest in sustainability transcends demographic segmentation.

So, what’s the bottom line for marketers? As researchers, observers, commentators and entrepreneurs, we have to practice empathy when attempting to understand the citizen, the investor, and the consumer. Our research showed us that Australians had a lot in common irrespective of gender, age, industry, occupation level, or geographical differences.

It’s wrong to label sustainability concerns as the purview of millennials. And marketing to meaningless age segments is misguided. Marketers need to target for temperament, not generation. Above all, brands need to engage in honest conversations with customers about what matters to them.

Victoria Kent is the senior investment specialist at Elevate Super.

Photo by Chris Murray on Unsplash.

NOTE: This information does not take into account your personal objectives, financial situation or needs. You should consider if the relevant investment is appropriate having regard to your own objectives, financial situation and needs.