Generation Explanation

Selling to boomers
Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the February 2000 issue of . Subscribe »

Back in 1988, pre-Jada and -ID4 Will Smith had his first hit song, "Parents Just Don't Understand." We laughed and acknowledged our survival of similar situations--getting busted for using the car without permission, parents dressing us in styles from the previous decade. But a funny thing happened: Even though we're older now and starting our own families, we still don't understand our parents.

Gen X and Gen Y have led an entirely different existence than our boomer predecessors. Life without a PC or VCR? May as well have been born in the Dark Ages. Watergate? Oh yeah, I saw that movie Dick. OK, maybe the differences aren't that extreme, but J. Walker Smith, president of research firm Yankelovich and author of Rocking the Ages: The Yankelovich Report on Generational Marketing (HarperBusiness, $15, 800-331-3761), offers this politically correct explanation of generations: "Baby boomers grew up as the Watergate generation: The more you find out, the more you want to know. Xers grew up as the Iran-Contra generation: The more you find out, the less you know. And echo boomers [Gen Y] are the Monica Lewinsky generation: The more you find out, the less you want to know."

But even though you view the world through different eyes, as entrepreneurs, you can't ignore boomers. A generation 78 million strong, boomers still control a whole lot of wealth--whether through their own spending or their influence on children and grandchildren. And although they scare the Social Security-pants off us with their spending-not-saving habits, someone's got to profit. Why not you? Smith offers his tips for pitching your products and services to those born between'46 and '64:

  • Suckers for a good ad: Whereas Xers are leery of sales pitches, boomers don't mind being marketed to. "They've always loved being talked to in advertising," says Smith. "All the inside jokes in advertisements have been directed to baby boomers in the past 30 years, and boomers have enjoyed that."
  • Freedom of choice: You may cringe when you realize there are 200 options to choose from when buying a new car, but every new gadget and color thrills boomer decision-makers. "Boomers continue to be very interested in novelty," says Smith. Also, unlike Gen Xers who bristle at the thought of more info clouding their hectic day, boomers welcome information to help them make a decision about all those choices.
  • Back in the day: As kids, they had free love, freedom rock and almost-free drugs. "Boomers like to look back to their youth because they remember it as the best of times," explains Smith. "A backward-looking appeal is often far more persuasive than a future-focused market." Hello, VW Beetle and Nick at Nite.
  • Spring chickens: Says Smith, "Anything that has a focus on youthfulness is going to be inherently persuasive to baby boomers--a focus on themselves as energetic, vibrant, willing to take chances, to break rules, to challenge taboos, to be always open to the next new adventure, and looking at life as a continuing acceleration into the future." In other words, no Metamucil or senior cruises quite yet. Try motorcycles, SUVs, adventure travel or parachuting.
  • Trimming the edges: Gen X is edgy; boomers just want to be hip. "The hip generation is all about making lots of money, but deep down inside you still feel like there's got to be more to life," Smith explains. "Being edgy is all about being on the inside of an IPO, where [making] money for its own sake is the right thing to do." Smith cites the current MasterCard campaign as a good example of hip: "There are some things money can't buy. For everything else, there's MasterCard."

And though you may still be offended that boomers branded Xers as the generation of slack, let it go. Any attitude on your part is a sure kiss of death. "There's some lingering resentment of having been dismissed by baby boomers," says Smith. "But allowing that negative perception color how you talk to boomers gets in the way of establishing an effective connection with them. And a bit of that would come through in youthful condescension: `Oh, you're just an old boomer--what do you know?'" Well, they know how to spend money. Enough said.

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