Three Brands Communicating to Gen X Successfully

It’s all well and good knowing who Gen X are and that they are an untapped marketing segment, but what’s the use if we don’t communicate to them well? A good place to start is to look at how brands communicate to this segment across a range of categories.

Seek Inspiration from Parallel Worlds

When receiving a brief at Butterfly one of the first things we always do is to look to parallel categories interrogating brands that have tackled similar consumer and market challenges successfully and find similarities that we can use across categories. Our view is that no matter what category you look at, although communication might look different; we are all trying to have a conversation with human beings whose deep set of needs are broadly the same.

Here are three brands from different categories that have communicated to Gen X successfully that we can learn from and take to our respective category challenges.

Suzuki: Understand the Why

The latest campaign from Suzuki is centred around the sponsorship of Ant & Dec’s Saturday night takeaway show. As part of the sponsorship deal they gained access to the comedic duo collaboratively creating a series of one off, bespoke short films to air on prime-time Saturday evening TV to target the family car buyer. The short films depict a sense of directive control from Ant & Dec over Suzuki’s advertising and seemingly important sales opportunities, as they bring their non-formulaic humour to the films which ooze authenticity.

Suzuki marketing director, said “We decided it was time to embrace who we were as a brand and find the human truths around why people drove rather than the what”. Having this outlook at the start of the process led the Suzuki communications strategy down a different path than the ‘ultimate driving experience’ cliché of automotive advertising. In this quest, Suzuki discovered that the family car buyer placed far more importance on the reason they were travelling rather than what they drove to get there. This set the tone to understanding that this audience didn’t take driving too seriously and in turn led to Suzuki looking for the authentic humour route that the Ant & Dec were able to bring.

Other brands outside out the automotive category can take a very clear & simple, yet effective principle from this example; and that is to understand the why behind the behaviour relating to your category from the outset. By applying this before a communications brief is developed; a differentiated consumer centric route is likely to be the chosen path rather than an ‘industry norm’ direction that doesn’t capture consumer attention.

M&S: Find Universal Truths 

“If it doesn’t take you somewhere extraordinary, then say no” is one of the latest taglines communicated in the M&S ‘Spend it Well’ campaign. Reading this without any context the logical guess of the target audience and strategy would be “another brand targeting Millennials with a travel theme. However, if you’re familiar with the campaign you will know that this isn’t the case; and may even struggle to pin down the target audience. However, this isn’t because the marketing department or ad agency couldn’t define a segment to focus on; it’s an intentional strategic move to target attitudes rather than demographics. As the different spots play out you can see the diversity in faces shown on screen; and yet one underlying message remains the same; push yourself outside of your comfort zone and you’ll be rewarded.

Authenticity isn’t just a thing that Millennials scrutinise brands over; it’s the key to successfully resonating with any large group of individuals. The first thing that M&S have done well in the ‘Spend it Well’ campaign to resonate with Gen X is to not box them into the stereotypes such as; their lives are lived through their kids, mum is always stressed or that it’s time to settle down.

By starting with an age-neutral target audience mentality; M&S have looked to tap into universal truths across ages that make it easy for any consumers to agree with. Often brands look to niche insights that only relate to a specific demographic. This not only limits the growth potential of the brand by focusing on one audience; it is less likely to widely resonate with the demographic as not all individuals will think and act the way that someone ‘their age should.’

In the case of M&S, the universal truth behind “If it doesn’t make you feel 10 feet tall then say no” or “Does your food excite you? Does it stir the soul? If it doesn’t then say no and pick up your knife and fork and get ready to travel”, is likely to be along the lines of everyone wants to live life to the fullest but sometimes everyday life gets in the way. Hardly something anyone would strongly disagree with. 

Therefore, the key learning that other brands looking to target Gen X can take from M&S is to know the difference between a piece of research data and a universal truth. So, what’s the difference? Data is any bit of research information you may gather from qual or quant whereas a universal truth relates to anybody you talk you, you can instantly think of many ways to communicate it, and overall gives you an ‘aha’ moment.

Direct Line: Appeal to Aspirations

In a market where it’s the norm to ‘understand the pain’ that consumers go through when something goes wrong; Direct Line has made the bold move to take their recent communication in a different direction, with Direct Line Marketing Director Mark Evens stating that, “we wanted to reinvent ourselves as the “fixer” brand.” As you watch the TV spots, you notice high positive energy situations and although it depicts a problem/crisis as any good story should; it’s very short lived before the solution comes along and picks the positive vibe right back up.

The key to the success of this campaign was in no doubt the extra mile gone to find what consumers need to solve their problem rather than just identify with the emotions surrounding the occasion. Having a solution based approach to insight digging naturally lends itself to communication with a positive frame. Ultimately consumers want to get on with enjoying life; but with the responsibilities that come with being a Gen Xer there are constant barriers to feeling this. Direct Line has successfully carved out a purpose in the consumer’s mind helping them reach their aspirational mindset.

So, although it’s important for brands to really understand the feelings, emotions and tensions that consumers experience in their category; a brand looking at creating campaigns for Gen X would likely benefit from asking the questions “How do I improve the life of my consumers?” This way; the brief to communication agencies is positively framed and the output is more likely to create positive associations around a brand.

Lessons to take from these successful brands

  1. Understand the why behind category behaviour
  2. Understand universal truths
  3. Appeal to the consumer’s aspirational mentality


Ben Blackbourn
Consultant