We started defining cohorts and giving labels to generations more than a hundred years ago. With Gen Y, it’s definitely reached an avocado toast-crunching, latte-sipping, stereotyping peak. Now we’ve turned to Gen Z and even Gen Alpha to provide a new wave of opportunity. But is trying to define the attitudes, behaviours and characteristics of a 10 or even 15-year cohort just an exercise in mildly entertaining futility? Can the Generation Game really have any value in framing brand, innovation and communication strategies?

Intuitively, cohort analysis seems, at best, a blunt instrument. If you think back to your school years, it’s a safe bet that not everyone was alike in tastes, attitudes and behaviour.  It’s even less likely they have precisely the same shared needs and values now. Your cohort was probably more akin to an extended version of the Spice Girls: the Sporty One, the Posh One, the Nerdy One who researched everything, the Clown who wanted to entertain and be entertained, the Cool One who curated and defined style (and yes, that ill-advised Spice Girls cultural reference has almost certainly nailed me). If you were so very different in your small corner of the world, can trying to sum up the zeitgeist of a generation really deliver any meaningful insight to guide brand development nationally, let alone globally?

In part, it can – if we understand its benefits and limitations. We’re all affected by the economic, political, social and cultural climate of our formative years, and while life may move on, that influence remains. 

The recessions of the 70s and early 80s as well as the latest financial crash of 2008 had an impact on attitudes to money, debt and employment among those cohorts who grew up slap bang in the middle of them. Western Gen Zs, the children of the age of austerity, have a more conservative, anxious attitude towards their futures than Gen Y. They’re putting hedonism on hold, taking control and planning for their future in a world that they’ve learned is uncertain and often a bit scary.

Generations are also influenced by their education, what was hard-wired into the school curriculum. Gen Y, in many markets, grew up with education on climate change and sustainability – their commitment is instinctive. It’s not superficial. Gen Z have been schooled in healthy eating and the dangers of hidden sugar consumption. In Europe (at least), they’re dropping out of sugar-loaded soft drinks. Generation Alpha may well go further.

Behavior is coloured by the impact of technology and the possibilities it opened for the way we interacted and connected during our childhood and teens. 

Gen X were the first to be formed by the web. They use the internet to research, use online shopping for convenience and social media to keep in touch, but it’s a tool, not a shop window for their personal brand.

Gen Z, in contrast, are growing up living their lives on permanent digital display and want brands to help them experiment with and define their identity. They know the value of its networking power. They’re relaxed about being targeted by algorithms – it’s just the way things work – and they expect the hyper-personalisation that goes with that. Growing up with digital, they’re confident that they know how to block if they choose. Previous cohorts are far more conflicted about the trade-off between digital intrusion and personalisation.

Looking at cohorts gives brands an overview of how the consumer landscape is shifting.

Good cohort analysis, supported by wide ranging qualitative and quantitative research, can help challenge blanket preconceptions and stimulate fresh thinking by providing the context for differences in generational behaviour. It helps highlight what that cohort is likely to embrace or reject and why. You don’t have to accept the generational norms, but at least you know where they’re rooted.

But, inevitably, it’s only a starting point. There’s still a need to dig underneath the narrative to target effectively and identify opportunity. 

So, to play the generation game with flair, think about how you can:

  • Segment the cohort. Are you looking for the adventurers and experimenters or those craving certainty and reassurance? The dreamers or the pragmatists? Those driven by style or by values? Cohort life influences are a useful lens to think about how to target the segments.
  • Anticipate how the cohort characteristics will evolve through life stages – as they become parents or even grandparents, as customers for pensions as well as unicorn lattes.
  • Find the right media to deliver your goal: Do you want to establish new rituals and habits? How that cohort gained their digital experience can give a route in. 
  • Explore and exploit cross-generation influences: Which cohorts have experiences in common, and does that have value for your brand in building reach? 
  • Make it relevant in regional, national or global contexts. Cohort attitudes and behaviour are driven by formative economic, social and cultural influences. Some (not all) will cross geographical boundaries. Get into the regions and test the thinking.

And never abandon past generations when the next letter of the alphabet comes into view. Every brand needs to be looking ahead, but we’re all living longer and more actively. Endlessly chasing the next generation leaves profitable opportunities untapped. The future is not about one cohort. More than ever a before, it’s all about digging the spoon into a multi-generational alphabet soup.