By: Paul Sparrow and Philippe Harousseau
Our friend Traci Philips, an exceptional executive leadership coach in Raleigh, NC recently attended a presentation by someone who called herself a “generational strategist.” Firmly in the camp of the organizational effectiveness crowd, she spends her days crisscrossing the country, visiting organizations where generational dynamics are creating a disconnect and affecting business.
The problems she solves represent uncharted territory in the corporate world: This is the first time in history where we have five different generations in the workforce together. This has created a mega-gap between the employees, who fall into Millennial and Gen Z camps, being led by organizational leaders of the Traditionalist, Baby Boomer, and Gen X's categories.
As a result, Traci shared, you have decision makers looking through one lens while those who execute those decisions see things through an entirely different set of glasses. And all are bringing their own generational views, norms, perspectives, and opinions to the table.
This has created a particularly gaping maw in the marketing discipline, freshly arrived at the digital precipice and struggling to break through to a finicky public. Add in a dose of generational discord and it becomes difficult to define a coherent direction, to determine who and how to influence, and to understand the motivations of today’s consumer.
As a purpose-driven marketing executive, Philippe has a fascinating perspective on all of this. Defining himself as being “smack in the middle” between Baby Boomers and Gen X, and a father to four millennial and Gen Z sons, he has a front row seat to this battle under his own roof. You can bet that has led to some animated “discussions” at his house!
But once we tune out the noise created by these generational conceits, and peel back the layers, one universal truth remains that everyone can agree on – communication is essential, and despite the differences in parlance and mode, you must find common ground to get people swimming in the right direction, in the same pool (even if the swim lanes are narrow and distinct).
As marketers, it’s our job to bridge the generation gap and stick to the fundamentals of marketing communication: Who is the proper audience? Where are they looking for your product or service? And how do we choose the right channels to reach these disparate consumers?
Whether we are marketing a bar of soap or a DNA diagnostic test for dogs, we need to start with insight. We’ve often discovered that in the wake of insight gathering, we find that the “stratum corneum” of aid for Gen Z is not that dissimilar to that of the Boomer. There is a similarity of needs for each product – and honing the right message can be the common denominator.
Whether someone remembers when there were only three channels on the TV or someone has never experienced life without a smartphone doesn’t really matter. Without starting with a insightful message, you can miss a lot of the subtleties of how to present and deliver information. Only then can we start to dig deeper and understand what matters to each group.
Back to the generational strategist. As Traci continued to recap the presentation, she explained how communications and insights led to some fascinating findings. For example, Gen Z folks are quite sensitive to security and surety. They’ve lived much of their lives in a world of turmoil, and they are most afraid that there won’t be a planet to live on in their lifetimes.
To them, if they don’t understand how the companies and products they patronize are looking out for them in a supportive way, it simply feeds into their inherent mistrust and fear. They want to know exactly what you want them to do. They want to know the right way to do it. They don't want to go up there and figure it out.
In a world of fast communication, you must be very careful to say the right things with this generation, because they're so sensitive to the meanings of things that any disconnect can create large challenges.
Conversely, the older generations (that would be both of us) came up in an era where being “told” was the norm and advertising messages were shoved down our throats – damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead! Today it’s less about control and more about influence – gone are the days of “Boss Leadership.”
Traci’s fearless generational presenter had one other ace up her sleeve. She said it may be most useful to think of each generation as you would separate countries – with different languages, different cultural norms, and different habits. When people travel from one country to another, typically they don’t try to resist these unique differences – they get curious, seek to understand them, even try to learn the language and the customs.
This, said the presenter, is the same mentality marketers must have when they work to understand other generations. When, for example, Boomers paint Gen Z as lazy, they fail to understand the different ways in which this generation moves through life. It’s a reminder that we all have a desire to be heard, understood, and accepted, and that we all have a responsibility to peer below the surface. It sets us up to be more connected than disconnected.
And who would disagree that connection is a whole lot better relational state than disconnection?
In our next blog, we’ll take a closer look at the interests and desires of Gen Z when it comes to purpose-driven marketing. Should be fun. In the meantime, if you’d like to probe deeper to bridge the generations at your company, we’d be happy to help or to connect you to resources to bring that to bear.