Busting the Myth of Generational Targeting

It has become intellectually superior to start any discussion on marketing and advertising with at least one reference to generational targeting. The real question is how relevant is an American view of generations relevant to the rest of the world including India? The Baby Boomers about whom volumes have already been written in America are almost completely irrelevant to large parts of Asia. Because while Baby Boomers were watching Woodstock in the US, intoxicated to the gills for 3 days, the Baby Boomers were the Red Guards in China trying to impose the Draconian measures of the Cultural Revolution. (In any case, the real baby boom for China only started after the one-child policy was relaxed in October 2015.)  Or take the rather amorphous claim that most American millennials have grown up without any religious leanings. What use is that to a Chinese population where religion has been banned since China turned communist in 1949.

In India, our Baby Boomers had to wait in a queue for everything only to consume something that was so limited in that one would have found it difficult to be different on almost any parameter. I am referring to the Nehruvian hangover of quasi-socialism when we had to wait years for a telephone connection or a Bajaj Scooter or an EC TV, and there were only 2 cars to choose from; a Fiat 1100 or an Ambassador.  And Singapore was going through the worst flood for thirty-five years in 1969 and its per capita income was much less than SGD 1000, a very different country from what it is today.

But with India having liberalized, it is perhaps appropriate to talk of millennials and Generation Z, although a straight-line correlation in attitudes with millennials in the US would again be a big mistake. For one, millennials in India would be much poorer than their counterparts in the U.S. and higher incomes and power do affect behavior. As India approaches the magic date of 2020 when the median age for India will be 29, there is a great interest in general for younger target groups and that is but natural. First of all, India is supposed to have over 400 million millennials. That by any stretch of the imagination is not a segment, it is a universe! And to ascribe unique characteristics to 400 million millennials on their behavior and attitudes would not only be a lazy way to target, it would be a huge mistake. Especially since you are talking about a third of the Indian population. Since millennials are defined as those who achieved adulthood around 2000 AD it also means that the oldest millennial is now thirty-eight years old. And he is unlikely to be anywhere similar to the twenty-six-year-old millennial.

In the 90s, when client service executives used to come to me with a creative brief describing a target group of women aged 20-40, as users of Lux, I would throw the brief back at them. How does one expect the 20-year-old woman to have the same attitudes to beauty as the 40-year-old? As any creative person would say “Tell me about the average Lux user”. And if we are not careful we might be doing the same thing with generational targeting. I see creative briefs in agencies that say we are talking to “millennials” hoping that the magic word will encompass everything a creative person wants to know. But as we know a broad sweep of the target helps no one, especially in this age of Big Data and analytics.

As my good friend RP Kumar, New York-based marketing and communication expert says “Using lazy and sweeping generalizations about huge masses of people prevent us from fully using the power of data-based marketing which allows us to pinpoint people and have genuine and deep engagement with them. That’s why he is not yet a digital junkie as most of our apps and software is still English.”

Vikas Mehta who has worked with Havas and Lowe overseas says “This is a very Metro/Urban viewpoint. It implies that a millennial in Mumbai is the same in Dehradun. Because of most of our sociologists, planners etc. have an urban bias this seeps into our thinking. A millennial in Doon may have the same education but for example, does not think and write in English. That’s why he is not yet a digital junkie as most of our apps and software is still English driven or at best also Hindi.”

Generational Targeting fails when it refers only to demographics

Generation X refers to people born between the early 60s to early 80s is the vaguest group of all. It gets a tighter definition when demographers call it the ‘post Baby Boomers’. Millennials refer to people who reached adulthood around 2000 AD, and Generation Z refers to people born between 1995 and 2005. So, when we use these fancy generational labels are we referring really good old demographics? I would rather say I am talking to teenagers than saying I am talking to Generation Z. And so on. Remember the old target group definitions we used, which said ‘youth 16-24 years with an epicenter at 18 years’. Frankly, that does more for me than giving this target the broad sweep of Generation Z. Demographics is an old-fashioned way of targeting so if generational targeting is being used to largely describe age groups it has failed miserably.

Sumit Roy of Univbrands who has been training people in advertising and communications for the last two decades says, “Demographic segments have never been valid. Brands have ‘emotionales’. Emotions change not age, sex, or occupation.”

Generations are a function of the historical timeline of the country

Generational targeting is often taken by referring to the USA as a base. Unfortunately, when we look at our own countries, we were at different points of evolution from where the USA was. Which is why I mentioned earlier in this article that generations like Baby Boomers and Generation X have little relevance to Asia because a lot of Asian countries were still growing up while America was perhaps maturing as an economy.

Histories of countries vary. Like people, countries too are at different life stages, so making a global comparison between countries becomes difficult.

Generational targeting is a function of culture

When Heineken recently launched the Indian version of the #OpenYourWorld campaign, it relied on an age-old cultural Indian value. Of parents wanting to guide their children into specific professions. It showed that Publicis had hit a universal Indian cultural insight of parents wanting their children to choose traditional careers like engineering, medicine, and law. The campaign attempted to then break down these barriers between parents and children as a social experiment. Obviously, the campaign spoke to youth or if you understand this better shall I say ‘millennials’? But the campaign proves one point: that Indian millennials are still under the same pressure from parents as earlier generations were. According to Vikas Mehta “ A millennial in Bharat still lives with his parents, even after marriage. So the concept of filial relationships a more important role than “friends”. That’s why festivals and marriages are still celebrated with gusto and enthusiasm unlike in Metros where they are an excuse for a holiday.”

All this proves that culture can be an important force in guiding generations. RP Kumar, when asked about culture, says, “I find that the whole concept of Millennials is a new form of cultural imperialism. It’s an American construct born out of the post-World War II baby boom.”

So where are we really on Millennials then?

The biggest myth-buster for me conversations that I have had with Indian millennials. The other day I was privy to a social media conversation between millennials and I thought that they were having a good laugh at what the research on millennials was saying about them.

“If we are supposed to be lazy like all the millennial studies say, why am I working my butt off?’

“ This millennial research  It says that we only shop online. I love going to stores to check out a piece of clothing”.

“Who said I am happy with earning less for working less? This millennial research seems to treat us like we are a generation that is about to retire”.

“I don’t understand this thing about us having bad manners. I am as well behaved as any other generation in the world.”

Those conversations only prove one thing. That making broad generalizations about such a large population downright dangerous. Its nearly impossible to deduce something about such a broad demographic without leading to vague and nebulous conclusions. So I for one am unwilling to give the Millennials demi-god status just yet like some other people have done. They somehow seem quite mortal to me according to their own admission!

The article first appeared in Ad Age India on February 26, 2018

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Prabhakar Mundkur has spent 40 years in advertising and worked in India, Africa and Asia. He is currently Chief Mentor with HGS Interactive a part of HGS in the Hinduja Group. He is on the advisory board of Sol 's Arc (solsarc.org ) an NGO dedicated to special education for intellectually challenged children. He is also a member of Whiteboard ( whiteboardindia.org ) which supports senior management of NGOs in financial management, PR, Communication and HR through pro bono expertise.


  1. The separation of generations into types is, as you point out, very much like a kind of USian imperialism. It is important to recognise these hegemonistic aspects of models created in the anglophone system because they can skew our perceptions of what is actually going on.

    In other fields of study, like archæology, for instance, it was again the European + anglophone hegemony that decided to group history into Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three-age_system

    As the wiki article points out: “It is, however of little or no use for the establishment of chronological frameworks in sub-Saharan Africa, much of Asia, the Americas and some other areas and has little importance in contemporary archaeological or anthropological discussion for these regions.”

    While archæology has done its best to move away from this simplistic anglophone-on-top model, in other fields like marketing, as you point out, the dynamic of normalising whatever the US (or, in the recent past, the UK) says still proceeds apace.

    There is nothing wrong with targetting a demographic that you define functionally – like “digital native”, which clearly excludes people like me who were brought up on mechanical typewriters and dial-type telephones. But the crude representation of people as just generations designated by USian pop-sociologists, is dangerous: articles or “think-pieces” trying to capture the mood of a generation become co-opted by marketeers who do not realise that the definitions apply primarily for politics, not purchasing decisions.

    So the labels Millennial, Generation X, Baby Boomer and so on, while good shorthand for marketeers to impress clients with, are actually very misleading when it comes to actual marketing.

    As you point out, the sociology of the Indian joint family usually over-rides any consideration of digital nativity or millennialism. But this can be taken further…

    As just one possibility, consider women in India. They are traditionally considered, by marketeers, to have agency and decision-making power in the domestic arena, and even then, only insofar as they are the wives of the household or, better still, the mothers-in-law. Yet recently, high value (and presumably high margin) brands for jeans, mobile phones, sneakers and so on, have targetted young women in urban environments who, presumably, have the kind of spending power that professionals are, in general, expected to have. Yet it is this target audience that contains the women to whom “Nirbhaya” type incidents occur. Very few of the marketeers seem to understand, let alone acknowledge, the constant fear these women are under, from “eve teasing” to parental pressure to even institutional discrimination (vide the university that said all female college students should wear only salwar-kameezes on campus).

    A good marketeer in this situation would NOT be a man, for whom the commute is not fraught with fear. It would not be a man who is expected to gain value through education so as to reduce the dowry his parents pay for him. It would not be a man who ever thinks “those are provocative/sexually inviting clothes she is wearing.”

    Perhaps we need more women in marketing who understand these considerations and can sell campaigns to brand managers that go against their standardised grain. Or perhaps we need men who do not think like the common or garden metro eve-teaser.

    And similar considerations apply to people of different castes. Of different skin tones. Of different religions. And yes, of different purchasing power.

    Generational difference is just one factor among many, and there is no evidence, in India, that it is the most important one.

    I know, tldr, but I felt it was necessary to say this.

    1. Wow Ravi. Love your thoughts on the subject. Hey have your read a book called Guns Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond? I think you would love it. Sending you a copy. Cheers. Prabs

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