Ageless Branding

Readers of this blog may be surprised to hear me advocate for non-age specific branding! Yet the most successful brands are in fact ‘for the ages’.

Study after study of the strongest brands among Gen Y reveal very few that are specifically designed for them — I can think of only a few: Van’s, Herbal Essence. Even Facebook is for everyone now.  Favorite Millennial brands like Apple, Nike, Jet Blue, Trader Joe’s, Coach, Starbucks, and Coca-Cola, to name a few, have multi-generational appeal.

Millennials don’t particularly like brands that overtly go after their specific demographic.  (See earlier blog posts: “Gen Y discusses the iconic brands of their generation” and “Why Aren’t there more iconic Gen Y brands?“) When brands try to act cool, they end up looking like an uninvited guest — out of place and uncomfortable.

We know that reaching a Gen Y target requires a different approach than traditional media and messaging as usual. They are hard to reach, connected, have high expectations of personalization and interactivity and are highly suspicious of any claim to superiority. In contrast, they consider ‘iconic brands’ that have withstood the ‘test of time’ to be uncontrived and authentic. They are more trustworthy.

Marketing to ‘everyone’ is, as every marketing student knows, a recipe for disaster. Gen Y is a special and different target audience. But in a remarkable turnabout, they may in fact be the new mainstream.  There is a remarkable convergence happening, and marketing to Gen Y actually has more resonance with other demos than vice versa. It was not always this way. The youth target traditionally was the ‘niche’, and 25-49 was the mainstream. Now, with Gen Y trends rapidly migrating across demographic lines, what works for youth is  likely to work for older age groups, as well.

Gregg Lipman makes this point quite eloquently in his recent Ad Age article, “What Generation Gap?”

“We see this not only in the video-game world, but also in other brands: moms and daughters with matching Ugg boots, Juicy Couture sweatsuits, Abercrombie hoodies and Coach handbags. Fathers and sons comparing fantasy football rankings on matching iPhones or killing precious productivity hours on YouTube. Teachers and students sipping from matching Starbucks latte cups or ordering the same items from Pinkberry. Moms and daughters rooting feverishly for their favorite “American Idol” contestants or shaking their heads in utter disgust at the shameless and hygienically dubious conduct of the latest batch of “The Real World” participants. Moms and their adults friends, with or without their daughters, attending Jonas Brothers concerts, or standing in line for midnight premiere showings of the brow-furrowing fest that is the “Twilight” franchise. Aunts and nieces perusing the same Kiehl’s or MAC products. Uncles and nephews cracking open cans of Red Bull. Grandparents, parents and their children conversing freely on Facebook or Skype.”

Jonas Brothers? Really? Yet I agree with Lipman’s central argument that brands should aim to transcend age categories, by going after Gen E (Everyone). I also agree with his conclusion about how it should be done –  by focusing on the ever narrowing cultural gap between Millennials and their Gen X and Boomer counterparts.

These companies [iconic brands] have successfully created branding stories that resonate across a spectrum of ages because they have largely ignored age-based demographic “insights” as they were, and instead focused on harnessing societal (the blurring of the generation/cultural gap) and technological (the desire to be ever more connected) trends to their benefit….Appealing to Generation E requires a massive shift away from the standard “What are they looking for in a product?” to “What does this brand say about me as a person?””

The key sentence here is the importance of is basing a brand’s appeal on something greater than the product attributes that have traditionaly formed the foundation of brand strategy. Successful brands are becoming more culturally-driven than attribute driven.

Marketing to Gen Y today — and Gen E tomorrow– is more about organizing content and conversations around common interests and passion points than about message points.

This trend has important implications for research and brand strategy.  While traditional research still has a place, there is a greater need for understanding customer interests beyond the category or even ‘lifestyle’.  Social media offers a new way to strategically differentiate a brand and build customer relationships by shifting the focus of the conversation on shared purpose and common cause.  And isn’t that the definition of community, anyway?

Lipman concludes his article by saying “We don’t think that the generation gap will ever totally disappear, and that’s probably a good thing, but in this age of hard-core partisanship, perhaps we as marketers can soften the rhetoric between the generations and create stronger brands at the same time.”

Or said another way, perhaps ‘purpose‘ provides a clue as to how to make a brand ‘ageless‘?