It's hard to miss the most recent meme war pitting baby boomers against millennials and Gen Z. The meme and ensuing viral spread of the phrase "OK Boomer" got its start on meme factory TikTok. The remark is positioned as a sarcastic response to baby boomers who have spent the past decade or so blaming millennials for killing everything from breakfast cereals to casual sex.
As a result, "OK Boomer" has spread across social media and even found its way into legislative halls of power — as demonstrated by a 25-year-old lawmaker in the UK parliament using the term to shut down a heckler. Brands crashing the party to stake a side in the "demographic wars" was all but inevitable. Natural Light used it to mock a tweet by Miller Lite, for example.
Beyond the memes and clapbacks, is there something else to be learned from demographic groups sniping at one another?
I have argued that we are living in a post-demographic society. The validity of demographics is a zombie idea that has long outlived its usefulness in modern branding and marketing/advertising. Demographics are studies of a population-based on factors (though not exclusively) such as age, gender, race, sexual orientation, and more. Generalizations based on these clusters are then used to make assumptions on group behavioral traits. This supposedly sound science is anything but, as the outcome is often misleading conclusions.
An emphasis on demographics can miss the role that culture plays in identifying more robust insights, for example. Culture consists of the shared world of ideas and values that connect us and are manifested through people, places, and formal and informal networks. Culture rounds out what demographics attempts to flatten. Culture can be shared and experienced despite presumed demographic differences. Understanding and drawing insights through culture and shared values are hard work; meme creation is not.
Sweeping conclusions based on demographics have become such a default, it's only natural that with the slightest provocation, perceived differences can be weaponized. Faced with unique economic, political, and social challenges, it is only natural that "OK Boomer" would become the rallying cry for millennials and Gen Z. And standing off to the side, seemingly nonchalant and unbothered, is Gen X, wondering why they are the "overlooked generation" in the generation wars.
Rather than jump in to stir the pot, brands that recognize the limitations of a demographic approach should pivot into a different type of outreach. They should consider and use elements of the more significant cultural landscape and lead with the promise of a stronger emotional connection. Their outreach should resonate with people holistically, not just based on one or two demographic attributes. Orlando Wood, the author of Lemon and chief innovation officer of System1, makes the case that ads that have an emotional hook are found to be more effective over the long term.
Regardless of the demographic assignment, "OK Boomer" is a culmination of talking past one another rather than with one another. These surface divisions mask deeper emotional connections that could tell a different story. For instance, research has shown that people are becoming caretakers of elderly relatives at younger ages than ever. Millennials are also living at home longer than at other times in history. These trends point to the possibility of caretaking, of coming together, of community.
It might be a more challenging narrative to tap into "why" that is buried in these trends. But the growing numbers would suggest that it is foolhardy to deny that there is a cultural shift occurring. These trends have a real impact on any number of sectors, including automotive, consumer products, financial services, housing, and more. Larger purchases (homes and cars) might be delayed to a later stage in life, or other purchases (household items) might never occur at all.
Instead of the circular firing squad of demographic warfare, marketers should focus on the values manifesting through people's lived realities. Broadening the scope of consumer segments to have a culture-led perspective highlights the limitations of a demographic strategy, which obscures more significant insights. "OK Boomer" is a perfect example of this.
Brands that are seeking to establish a long-term connection with people would be wise to resist the temptation to do what is easy by participating in shallow trends. Memes are quick and catchy, but they are only as valuable as the insights that can be potentially uncovered by making a connection to culture and shared values.
"OK Boomer" has a story to tell, but unfortunately, many brands are missing it and choosing to emphasize the simplistic one.
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