Generational cohorts appear neat, even useful; but the elements that truly unite us and can actually help guide marketing activity are attitudinal, argues Mike Teasdale. 


The solution to seemingly every problem in marketing.

But aside from the madness of obsessing about a group of people who account for less than 5% of national wealth, there is also the folly of treating an entire generation as a meaningful targeting cohort.

I’ve read loads of reports about millennials and one of the themes that often crops up is how diverse they are, how conflicted they are on all sorts of things from the benefits of social media to the importance of brand purpose.

However, what these reports fail to make clear is that it’s not individuals who are conflicted. The contradictions occur at the group level. And they occur at the group level because the group lacks cohesion. Think about it, why would millions of people born within a sixteen-year window have much in common other than the fact they were born within that time window?

The uncomfortable truth for marketers is that millennials are not a cohesive group, any more than other generations are cohesive.

Of course there are similarities within millennials based on their shared experiences and culture. And of course some of those similarities are different to those of previous and later generations because the world has changed and continues to change. But why would those macro similarities translate into meaningful buying behaviour patterns that you can exploit?

The boffins at BBH Labs have recently published a fascinating study of UK cohesion. They looked at how different groups of people responded to hundreds of questions about lifestyles, behaviours, and attitudes. What they found was that the various generational groups had no stronger connection to each other than to the national average. In other words, there is no world view that each generation holds. By contrast, there were strong connections between people who had similar habits or attitudes or interests or buying behaviours.

This makes intuitive sense. For example, I bet I have more in common with other serious long-distance runners of any age than people my age who are not runners. Talk to any dedicated long-distance runner and within minutes you will be discussing their history of injuries or choice of shoes, whether they are aged 20 or 80.

Here’s an example from my past of a meaningful targeting cohort that spans generations. Many moons ago, when I was a baby planner at BBH, the first brand I was given responsibility for was The New Covent Garden Soup Co. The NCGS Co. had invented the fresh soup sector in the UK grocery trade. Before them, soup was either tinned or dried packet if you didn’t want to sweat your own onions.

The NCGS Co. came to BBH when their initial PR and word of mouth success had led to listings in a major supermarket. They wanted to explore what advertising could do for them, but they did not have much budget. That meant we had to be canny about what we wanted advertising to achieve and how we went about it. 

The key to working this out came from a lot of deep targeting work to understand the people who had already discovered the brand. They were passionate about the brand, real ambassadors for it. They were sending their own recipes into the company and even turning up unannounced to get the company to test their home-made creations. 

On the surface, they looked like a very disparate group (e.g. all ages) but in terms of attitudes towards soup they were completely united and in The NCGS Co. they had found a similar obsession and passion. 

Understanding these super fans enabled us to decide how to recruit new ones. The resulting ads featured real staff at The NCGS Co. and by showcasing their story as “the people with a passion for soup” it summed up what these fans were buying into when they purchased the brand. 

This thought about fervent passion became the blueprint for all their marketing activity, not just the advertising. It was hugely successful for them (and for me because it won an APG Creative Planning Awards Gold in 1995 which gave this ugly little duckling some baby swan credentials at BBH).

What I learnt from this is that planning is a contact sport, not an academic exercise. It involves going outdoors to understand real people and their lives. The more you delve into the messiness of people’s lives the more you can create meaningful connections. 

A smaller more cohesive target based on similar habits or attitudes or interests or buying behaviours is a better creative start point for most brands than a larger less cohesive target united by little more than their D.O.B.

So, whether it’s obsessive long-distance runners or soup fanatics, look beyond generational labels to find meaningful targeting cohorts. It will pay dividends. Plus you may meet some nice, if slightly odd, people.