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Understanding generational audiences

From Baby Boomers to Gen Z, each generation has been shaped by its own set of cultural, economic, and social experiences, influencing how they interact with brands and consume media. Understanding these generational differences is essential for creating marketing and advertising campaigns that enable brands to forge deeper, more meaningful connections with their audiences.

Who are the different generations?

Baby Boomers, born after the Second World War between 1946 and 1964, are currently aged 60-78. They represent resilience and adaptability having seen significant societal transformations.

Generation X members were born between 1965 and 1979 (aged 45-59). Known for their independent and entrepreneurial spirit, they witnessed the dawn of the digital age.

Generation Y (Millennials), born between 1980 and 1994 (aged 30-44), are often associated with social consciousness and digital fluency.

Generation Z, the digital natives born between 1995 and 2009, are aged 15-29. They’re marked by their adaptability to rapid changes, especially in technology and media.

While Boomers were named due to a spike in post-war births, the term ‘Generation X’ was popularised by Canadian journalist Douglas Coupland in 1983 who took it from a book about the American class system by Paul Fussell that used ‘X’ to refer to a segment of people indifferent to the conventional societal pursuits of status, wealth, and prestige.

The next generation was initially named Gen Y to follow in alphabetical sequence, but authors William Strauss and Neil Howe coined the term ‘millennials’ in 1991 to describe this cohort who came of age at the beginning of the 21st century. Gen Z (and now Gen Alpha) have seen a return to the alphabet.

What influences each group?

Baby Boomers

Boomers enjoyed economic prosperity after the war, with the rise in population leading to a boom in housing and the economy. This generation brought about societal change, with the beginnings of feminism and protest movements.

In Australia TV shows like Number 96 and Prisoner brought same-sex relationships and other social issues to the fore.

This generation is typically seen as high net worth, owning their homes and influencing economic trends.

Generation X

Gen X-ers are known for their anti-establishment, anti-authority mindset. Often left to their own devices as kids, they learned to be resourceful. Against a backdrop of musical influences including INXS, Midnight Oil and Crowded House, they rejected the ‘job for life’ mentality of Boomers, with many pursuing entrepreneurial paths.

Technology also impacted Gen X in a big way. “While Gen Y and Z are mostly considered the true natives of the ‘internet age’, it’s easy to overlook the digital revolution of the late ’80s and early ’90s in which Gen X witnessed the proliferation of personal computers, mobile phones and the advent of the internet, dramatically accelerating the shift from analogue to digital in various aspects of their lives,” says Jack Geraghty, senior strategist at Resolve, a creative and content agency owned by The Media Precinct.

As a strategist with experience in both media and creative, Jack brings a fresh perspective on the industry, with views on either side of the advertising fence.

Generation Y (Millennials)

Millennials experienced the shocking events of 9/11 during their formative years and are the generation said to be most concerned with social issues, as demonstrated through their inclination to buy from ethical brands. According to GWI research, two-thirds of US Millennials would boycott a brand or company for homophobic, racist, or transphobic behaviour.

Friction between Millennials (and Gen Z) and Boomers has been highlighted with the former blaming the older generation for societal problems and their challenges with getting on the property ladder.

Generation Z

Gen Z have experienced the devastation of Covid lockdowns on their lives, with many missing seminal moments of their youth.

According to Mintel’s Marketing to Gen Z’ report, over half of Gen Z, including teens and adults, are keen to get better at saving money for the future. This growing interest in financial wellness is something brands should take note of when trying to connect with this age group. At the same time, with economic challenges piling up, Gen Z is facing higher levels of debt, turning them into more cautious and demanding consumers who expect a lot more from the brands they choose.

Beyond global pandemics and financial turbulence, they’re also leading the TikTok boom, further increasing mass fragmentation of media consumption compared to previous generations.

While these ‘defining moments’ impact those living through them with varying degrees of intensity, it’s important to remain conscious of the pivotal moments of yesteryear that have shaped the world for generations prior.

For example, constitutional changes to how Australia operates can’t be ignored with the 1967 recognition of Indigenous citizenship and more recently, the 2017 marriage equality referendum has had an unprecedented socio-cultural impact. “Whether technological, medical, financial, or constitutional, people of all generations have borne witness to seismic shifts in how the world spins,” says Geraghty.

Marketing to different generations

When tailoring a communications strategy to different generations, considering the varying values and mindsets between each age group is vital. For instance, Baby Boomers often appreciate traditional values and may respond more favourably to marketing that references family matters and evokes nostalgia.

Millennials are often said to value experiences over material possessions when compared to other generations. For Gen Z, diversity and inclusion in communications is vital, as well as ensuring campaigns are digitally tailored to personal preferences wherever possible.

“As we grow older, being conscious of each generation’s ‘life stage’ and the responsibilities and lived experiences that come with each of these stages is also crucial,” says Geraghty.

In addition, it’s important to acknowledge that a healthy level of scepticism towards advertising has been entrenched in the Australian mindset for many years. “Understanding the nuances in how different demographics respond to different creative messages is a must – what’s convincing and believable for one generation may be the polar opposite for another,” says Geraghty.

Avoid stereotyping

While we can speak to generations collectively, failing to acknowledge that each generation is not a single audience can be a recipe for disaster. Many brands, for example, fall into the trap of assuming that all ‘young people’ go about their lives in a similar fashion with similar views and similar tastes when now, more than ever, this is simply not the case.

We see a similar scenario with Boomers. “There’s a pressing need to shatter stereotypes,” says Glenda Wynyard, managing director of The Media Precinct. “Many Boomers don’t want to see advertising and marketing campaigns that depict them as ‘old’, yet that’s often the image they encounter. With advancements in technology, science, education, and finance, people are living longer, healthier, more educated, faster-paced, and wealthier lives. It’s high time for marketers to seize this opportunity.”

It’s also important to know who your key audience is to avoid alienating them. In the US, Budweiser launched a campaign featuring a trans woman, Dylan Mulvaney, presumably to tap into socially progressive values by showing support for the LGBTIQ community. But it experienced a major backlash from its predominantly conservative customers (Singer Kid Rock fired a gun at some of the beer maker’s cans) and saw a 25% drop in sales.

Appealing to multiple demographics

If your brand appeals to broader demographics and multiple age groups, from an investment perspective it’s important to ensure you’re minimising wastage and maximising personalised connection at the right moments. “Typically, audience- targeting tends to become more granular the further down the funnel you move – upper funnel OOH or TV have less specific targeting potential than lower funnel social channels where audience profiling is a lot more refined,” says Geraghty.

For this reason, in upper funnel, awareness channels where messaging will be seen by a wider cross-section of age brackets, it makes sense to make messaging more generalised, ensuring it can resonate with audiences of all ages who may be exposed to the ad.

“As you go further down the funnel into consideration and conversion channels such as Meta where ad placements are more measurable and age gating is more stringent, tailoring your campaign message to resonate more personally with each age group is beneficial,” says Geraghty.

Who’s doing it right with generational marketing?

Car companies often address specific need states informed by their audience’s generation and stage of life. “Successful brands in the automotive category may focus on safety, reliability, affordability and family-oriented value for a ‘people mover’ while speed, style and sophistication are championed for a mid-life crisis cruiser,” says Geraghty.

He also cites beauty companies such as Dove which have effectively considered the evolving values of younger generations, focusing on authenticity, inclusivity, and social responsibility. “Their ‘Real Beauty’ campaign challenges traditional beauty standards and aligns their positioning more closely with the attitudes of their audience,” he says. “Their commitment to body positivity is a stance that resonates strongly with Millennials and Gen Z, resulting in more favourable brand perceptions and greater revenue in the long term.”

Wynyard, meanwhile, notes that marketers should expand their approach beyond demographics. “Instead of solely targeting age and gender, they should consider factors such as passions, hobbies, attitudes, and behavioural patterns,” she says. “This approach appeals to a cross-generational audience, spanning from Gen Z to Boomers, opening up new revenue opportunities for businesses.”

One brand doing a good job of this is Microsoft, which has adopted a more insightful approach by segmenting consumers based on mindset, categorising them as tech natives, early adopters, or tech avoiders, rather than relying solely on demographics. “This shift has been reported as having driven higher engagement, increased relevance, and, ultimately, a superior return on investment,” says Wynyard, whose own agency has used this strategy successfully. “We see motivations within our own Media Precinct client portfolio as one of the most effective targeting methodologies for fundraising and behavioural change advertising.”

Channels and content for different demographics

Although the 55+ audience remains steadfastly loyal to television, they’ve increasingly embraced digital and social media platforms, with Facebook being a particular favourite. According to World Advertising Research Council (WARC), between 2016 and 2020, there was a significant uptick in how often Baby Boomers used brands’ social media updates to discover new products and brands, highlighting a notable shift in this generation’s media consumption habits.

Covid prompted older generations to adopt many digital tools and services, notably in areas like online shopping and banking. This shift in behaviour opens up a wealth of opportunities for marketers, provided, as noted above, they move past the outdated stereotypes often associated with these consumers.

According to WARC, audio is garnering increased interest from consumers in Australia, suggesting a potentially underexplored avenue for marketing initiatives. Its research found that both listening to music and podcasts was similar across all generations, while talk radio was twice as popular with Boomers as it was with Gen Z.

WARC also found that Gen Z are omnichannel shoppers. They like to connect with retailers through a variety of channels and are good at using all the options available to them to find the best deals on products they want.

In GWI’s Meet the Millennials report, it notes that Millennials’ favourite social media channels in 2023 are Facebook (22%), followed by Instagram and WhatsApp at 21% each, with TikTok making up just 9%.

The ageing factor

AI is set to have an unprecedented impact on society (with some calling it bigger than the debut of the internet and iPhone) and the emergence of Generation Alpha (born 2010-2024) highlight the need for continuous adaptation in marketing strategies. It will be important to continue to take into account different generations’ influences, values and experiences, especially as each of them ages and embraces – or not – new ways of life and technologies. As well as this, as Geraghty noted, “understanding that each generation is not a uniform, homogenised audience is incredibly important if we want to market to them effectively.”


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