How brands can negotiate the new generation gap
Dr Veronika Nikitina
“Everyone wants to be young.” This was the pronouncement of Dolce and Gabbana at their teenage-inspired show at Milan Fashion Week 2016, which was opened by teen icon Justin Bieber. D&G are far from alone in targeting and promoting youth. Indeed, the fashion retailer Forever 21 has even integrated the ideal of eternal youth into its brand name. They and a huge number of other brands focus on the tried and tested signals of youth: smooth, wrinkle-free skin, vitality and size XS.
But ideas of youth are evolving, and the relationship between youthfulness and demographics is losing its relevance. Celebrity culture and its fans may still nurture the obsession with eternal youth, but generally social perceptions of youth – among young and old – are changing. Being young is becoming decoupled from biological age and is increasingly about lifestyle and beliefs. It is broadly understood as having an independent, active, adventurous attitude to life.
This paradigm shift is already being recognized by many brands. Uniqlo collaborated with the 63-year-old Influencer and Stilikone Lin Slater for its LifeWear collection. Lin Slater is also to be seen in the new Mango advertising campaign, “A Story of Uniqueness”, alongside 29- year-old model Bhumika Aurora. L'Oreal uses 72-year-old actor Helen Mirren to promote its Age Perfect line under the motto “Gold, not Old”. These new role models personify the “young at heart” spirit, and the campaigns signal the value of age-agnostic brand management.
Lifestyle and belief are central to self-awareness and identification. But when the characteristics of a target group change, and as age brackets and classic gender roles blur, what does define the target groups? And what can brands use to identify and pinpoint their target groups? As we enter a post-age era in the West, it is lifestyle and beliefs – our attitude to issues like sustainability, climate change, and politics – that shape our identity. For brands, this means making lifestyle and beliefs the central principles of branding and communication.
Simplicity and versatility
Modern, urban and youthful consumers have a lifestyle driven by a desire for simplicity and versatility. The new fashion brand Arket, launched by H&M on August 25, targets the fast- paced lifestyle of urban professionals. The brand concentrates on these people’s needs: quality, versatility and longevity, and simplicity in the buying process. The collection is modern, without compromising on consumers’ wish to keep up with short-lived seasonal trends. Timelessness and simplicity are at the heart of Arket; core designs are manufactured in different materials that have different qualities, and are therefore suitable for every season of the year. Products remain in the range, and are the exact opposite of “fast fashion”. Arket shows that when a brand understands a specific lifestyle and the needs associated with it, age is barely relevant.
Our political beliefs are another identifying feature of social groups, which can be used by brands to identify and address an audience. A perhaps-less-risky strategy is to adopt a position on social policy issues. This is exactly what the Edeka supermarket chain did with their anti-racism campaign in August, when they showed empty shelves labels “How empty the shelf would be without foreigners”. The advertisement immediately became a viral hit and was broadly discussed in social media and the press. This success helps Edeka stand out and be relevant in the fiercely competitive food retail trade.
The new challenge
The fact that marvelously clear data such as age and gender are losing importance – and that brands increasingly have to focus more on lifestyle and beliefs – does not make life easy for brands. Brands now have to address the lifestyles and attitudes of their target groups as specifically as possible in order to be credible, and at the same time, they still need to maintain an appeal across a spectrum of target groups. This is a tough balancing act, but one that – if brands get it right – can fuel sustainable growth.