Consultation: The Key to Gen X Marketing

January 29, 2018

There’s an oft ignored generation called Gen X. Gen who? That’s right. Even the Gen Xers themselves don’t embrace this label—less than half (41 percent) claim the name.

Born between 1964 and 1981, they’re the MTV, Breakfast Club, and Oregon Trail generation; some people refer to Gen Xers as the latchkey kids. In terms of racial make up, education levels, marriage rates, political opinions, tech adoption, and even number of Facebook friends and selfies taken, they’re sandwiched between baby boomers and millennials and have long been overshadowed by these influential generations.

Just as their parents ignored them after school, marketers also ignore this middle-child generation, and cite numbers as the reason why. While there are 75 million boomers and 89 million millennials in the United States, there are only about 49 million Gen Xers, but you can’t stop at that figure. These former latchkey kids have traded in their skateboards, flannel shirts, and blank gazes for smartphones, expensive jeans, and entrepreneurial pursuits. And they have a surprising amount of buying power.

Rather than giving Gen X an edgier version of your baby boomer marketing or a watered-down version of your millennial-focused adverts, it’s time to reach out to this generation on their own terms. They grew up hearing Loreal’s “because I’m worth it” slogan, and based on the numbers, they are worth it.

Family time

Gen Xers boast $2.4 trillion in spending power. Although they make up only 20 percent of the population, they have 14 percent of the nation’s wealth, and by 2030, they will have 30 percent of it, twice the projected share of millennials. Gen X spread their finances to nearby generations—many live in inter-generational homes. Whether they embrace a modern family lifestyle or not, 75 percent help their parents financially, 52 percent support their adult children, and 54 percent hold the purse strings for their materialistic Gen Z tweens and teens.

Although Gen Xers make up the largest share of the nation’s parents, this generation has fewer kids than previous generations, and they take a very hands-on approach. The war on drugs, missing kids on milk cartons, and “do you know where your children are?” public service announcements directly influence their parenting styles. To make up for their own absent parents, Gen Xers love handing out participation trophies, lending an empathetic ear, and driving kids to extracurricular activities. They’ve even adopted tech to track their precious cargo.

But, they didn’t all take that route. Forty-three percent of college-educated white collar women from this generation don’t have kids at all. That figure’s less than 25 percent for the previous generation. Always kids at heart, some Gen Xers laud the DINK (dual-income, no kids) lifestyle.


Kids or not, as this generation hits their late thirties and march toward their fifties, they are in the midst of life changes. They want career advancement. If boomers are in the way, they just start their own companies; this entrepreneurial generation has launched over half of all U.S. startups.

As they plan for kids’ college or their own retirement, they focus on investments and savings. They are a major force in the market for homes, cars, appliances, and kids stuff, and because life hasn’t always gone as planned, they also like safety nets such as auto club memberships and life insurance.

Regardless of what they’re buying, Gen Xers are busy people, and they need the buying process to be easy. With borderline Gen Xer Jeff Bezos at the helm, Amazon appealed directly to this generation, and the company has definitely reaped the rewards. Its blend of discounts, options, transparent reviews, and convenience catapulted Amazon from an online bookstore to the world’s third largest retailer.

Today, close to two-thirds of all households have an Amazon Prime membership. Subscription-style ordering, tech-infused ease, shows on-demand, unlimited music, and personalized recommendations—exactly what Gen Xers want as they get older. They can introduce their kids to the rebellious lyrics of Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and stream the newest edgy dramedy, all while ordering more dish washing liquid with a tap of a Wi-Fi-enabled Dash Button.

Gen X and Tech

Although they propelled the growth of an e-commerce giant, Gen X love both old and new media. They still listen to the radio and watch TV, but they also use smartphones and computers.

These Oregon Trail survivors are the original cross-channel consumers. They research online and shop in stores. They use the web regularly but prefer to watch their favorite shows on TV. They check their social media accounts several times per day, but also run to the mailbox daily. The majority use the internet for banking but still get paper copies of their bills. They wish their friends happy birthday online but also send paper birthday cards.

Marketers need to reach this generation on all channels, and they need a message that resonates. Incorporating consultation without authoritarianism. Unfortunately, marketers haven’t mined Gen X for their opinions like they have millennials and boomers, and that makes an effective message harder to pin down.

Solving for X

The oldest Gen Xers went to high school in the 1980s, graduated from college in the early 1990s, started their careers, and got on the property ladder in the midst of an economic upswing. They’ve enjoyed boomer-esque economic stability, and now, they’re preparing for retirement and sending their kids to college.

By contrast, the younger Gen Xers had such a different experience they even created their own microgeneration: the xennials. They went to high school in the 1990s, finished college during economic downturn of 2002-2003, switched careers multiple times, and got on housing ladder in peak of bubble. Now, they’re juggling young kids, running green energy companies or food trucks, and reestablishing themselves after the Great Recession of 2008.

Despite differences and inevitable outliers, there are common threads in every generation, and to appeal to this group, you need to find the strands that tie them all together. For clues, watch the Breakfast Club. When this movie came out in 1985, the oldest Gen Xers were in high school or just starting college; the youngest were toddlers who grew up with this flick playing in the background.

They are rule breakers fighting together against authority

The plot: A rebel, a princess, a basket case, an outcast, a brainiac, and a jock have run afoul of the school’s rules and are in Saturday detention. After a requisite 1980s dance montage and some soul bearing, they realize in spite of their differences, they have a lot in common. They’re rule breakers fighting together against authority, and they want to be seen as individuals, cool in their own ways.

That’s all true for Gen X. During the economic stability of the 1990s, they expressed their pain and angst through the post-punk revival. They profited from the dot-com bubble, while simultaneously complaining about the establishment. They indulged in extended childhoods and slacker culture until they decided to grow up, and even when they got all the trappings of adulthood, age never slowed down their quest for all things cool.

Like the character Ferris Bueller, they had their best adventures skipping school and rebelling. They slacked off and questioned the meaning of life as convenience store Clerks, and after college, they whined about how much Reality Bites. They enjoyed life as Singles during Seattle’s grunge era and grew up to be Friends who spent more time talking in coffee shops than working on careers or families. Recently, they’ve become the fashion-forward “cool” parents on Blackish and Modern Family and disaffected childless adults as seen on Transparent or Difficult People.

From their teen years through adulthood, the cornerstone of Gen X cool has always been well-cultivated apathy with a side of rebellion.

End of the World As We Know It

In 1972, the oldest Gen Xers watched terrorism rip through the Olympic Games, and two years later, their president resigned over the Watergate scandal. In 1978, the world’s biggest mass suicide in Jonestown rocked their perceptions of the world even more.

REM sang, “It’s the end of the world as we know it,” and that theme played out in the Iran-Contra scandal, the space shuttle Challenger disaster, Operation Desert Storm, Rodney King’s beating and the LA riots. With those stories marking their childhoods and early adulthood, Gen X developed a sense of discontent and a loss of faith in social structures that continues today.

The world changed around them, and they became the first generation in U.S. history to have less wealth than their parents. Now, just 64% believe in the American dream, and to deal with the inevitable bumps in the road, they’ve become more frugal than other generations. That’s evident in the amount of coupons they use.

Coupon Clippers

Paper-based coupons beat out digital ones for this money-conscious generation. They favor coupons from printed ad inserts, circulars and direct mail over all other formats, but they’ll also use digital coupons if the deal is right. They also use coupons on a regular basis. Their feelings toward advertisements reflect these preferences. While digital spending is on the rise, Gen X claim to dislike online marketing. They tune out digital and prefer analog.

They admit to making unplanned in-store purchases

The right ads can get Gen Xers out of the house and into the store. Before shopping, these savvy consumers research, compare, and contrast, and effective marketers give them the tools to do that.

Gen Xers love to make lists, but they also admit to making a lot of unplanned, in-store purchases. Whether you convince them to buy through research or because you managed to strike their fancy with an impulse item, once you get them, you’ve got them forever. At 70 percent, brand loyalty is highest among this generation.

Consult, Don’t Sell

Gen X identified with a group of teens in detention because they don’t like being told what to do. They buck against authority, and they even shun authoritarian practices in their parenting and management styles. From blogs on alternative ways to say “no” to toddlers to books on democratic management styles, this generation reinvents leadership to work for them.

To reach Gen X consumers, mirror this approach: consult and inform. Focus on transparency and honesty—this group is way too skeptical for gimmicks or hard sells. To be effective, don’t focus on product attributes or manufacturing techniques. Rather, highlight services and craft marketing efforts around the consumer’s journey. When plotting the journey, figure out how to grab their attention. Tell them how the product or service makes their lives easier, but also identify where you lose consumers before closing the deal and find an angle to bring them back.

Connect, Solve and Entertain

For these lonely latchkey kids, human connection is essential. They even respond to people who aren’t real. Take Flo from Progressive. To sell low-cost insurance from a tech-focused company, Progressive gave Gen Xers a substitute for the traditional agent. Cue Flo. She’s so popular people even follow her social media channels. The best -day-ever campaign was a big hit, and it made Gen X comfortable with a blend of personality and irreverence delivered through old and new technology.

Remember, Gen X grew up during the height of Saturday morning cartoons from the late 1960s to the early 1990s. They love to be entertained, and they expect storytelling in advertising. In the 1980s, Mikey wouldn’t eat anything until he discovered Life cereal, but after a spoonful, “He likes it! He really likes it!” Women faced scathing disapproval from their manicurists until they found the skin-softening magic of Palmolive. Until burger lovers discovered Wendy’s, everyone wondered “Where’s the Beef?”

None of these ads or their kin explain what is in the cereal, dish soap, or burgers. Instead they solve life’s problems for picky eaters, rough hands, and unsatisfying fast food burgers, while also being entertaining.

As they get older, Gen X delight in revisiting themes from their childhood. Hollywood has repackaged their old favorites (RoboCop, Fame, Karate Kid, Annie, and Ghostbusters), rebooted their favorite sitcoms with the child stars all grown up, and poured 1980s nostalgia into a host of hits such as Stranger Things, The Americans, and Glow. A re-release of the original NES and the Atari Flashback has pulled them into retro gaming.

The Old Spice “smell like a man” campaign hit this note perfectly by revisiting tropes from the Zestfully clean soap ads of the 1980s, and with a new face and an interactive YouTube channel, the campaign managed to revive an old brand. Although the product stayed the same, the compelling character, irreverent storytelling, and splash of nostalgia reignited consumer interest.

Not another Brick in the Wall

While rebellion is predominantly an adolescent pursuit, Gen X turned it into a lifestyle. They’ve rebelled against a shockingly long list of social practices and norms and changed the world into what they wanted as teens, something a bit more honest and a lot less staid. Where their parents got divorced, they consciously uncoupled. Where school administrators meted out detentions, they gave their kids a sympathetic ear and enrolled them in alternative charter schools. When the economy held them back, they started their own businesses.

Gen Xers aren’t sure if they ever outgrew teen angst, but they’ve got the money and the power now. Ask them for feedback, blend old and new media, and focus on what your product does for them. Most importantly, do it all while being cool, irreverent, rebellious, and a bit nostalgic. Gen X is not another brick in the wall, and if they want chocolate ice cream before dinner, they’ll just have it so you may as well offer it.