Firms Ignore Stretched, Skeptical Xers; fashion industry’s target marketing of 26–36-year-olds

January 22, 2003 | By Valerie Seckler

Generation X, or the 42 million Americans now ages 26-to 36-years-old, possess attitudes that make them hard for marketers to win over; they’re having children and buying homes, making fashion a diminished priority, and they are roughly half the size of the Baby Boomer and Generation Y cohorts on either side of them. As a result, Xers are seldom targeted as sharply by fashion players as are the other two groups.

That reality explains why the X crowd is most often addressed, if indirectly, in fashion campaigns aimed at the younger generation. It’s far from a sure thing, though, that such ads will resonate with Xers, given the skepticism and pragmatism that characterize them—not to mention the wide disparity of their lifestyles and viewpoints, observers conceded. Generation Y, or those ages 25 and younger, in contrast, are closer in mind-set to their idealistic, optimistic boomer parents, and, also like their parents, perceive themselves as part of a larger group. Those traits make Boomers and Generation Y, or millennials as they’re often labeled, for the most part more susceptible than Xers to marketing messages, industry experts said.

“People in their late 20s and 30s are forming households, and the feeling among marketers is that this distracts them from leading-edge pop-culture trends; that they’ve started switching from being leaders to being followers,” noted J. Walker Smith, president of Chapel Hill, N.C.-based marketing consultant Yankelovich Inc. “So, many marketers tend to focus on a younger cohort, the millennials,” he added, saying this is particularly true in pop-culture sectors such as fashion and entertainment.

The slice of Gen X expressing a “need to dress in the latest fashions,” when asked in 2001, had already plunged 12 percentage points, to 38, from the 50 percent who answered in the affirmative back in 1996, while only 29 percent in 2001 said they “need to be hip; cool; on the cutting edge,” down from 39 percent five years earlier. Yankelovich disclosed these findings last summer, in its most recent report on the group’s changing life stage, dubbed Delta X.

In the first 10 months of 2002, for instance, people ages 24 to 37—Gen X plus fringes of the Boomers and millennials—spent approximately $ 18.7 billion on apparel. That amounted to less than half the $ 41.2 billion expended for clothing by those 23 and under—or most of the 71 million millennials—and slightly more than half of the $ 33.5 billion worth bought by people ages 38 to 54—or almost all 83 million Boomers, who are now ages 37 to 56, according to Port Washington-based market researcher NPDFashionworld. This means Xers accounted for just 15 percent of the $ 123.2 billion in apparel bought between January and October 2002, while millennials purchased a 33 percent share, and Boomers snapped up 27 percent.

Nonetheless, fashion marketers may be missing an opportunity with Xers. That’s because it’s precisely when people are making a transition from one life stage to another, as is much of Generation X, that they tend to be “the most valuable and vulnerable to emotional branding,” said Abigail Hirschhorn, chief marketing officer in the New York office of DDB Worldwide. Marketers in the food, mass, home, and automotive arenas, for example, are zeroing in on the generation in order to leverage their household and family formation life stage. But when it comes to fashion, those in their late 20s and 30s are taking more of their fashion cues from editorial content, Hirschhorn said, because it speaks to them more directly than fashion ads.

“The fashion message for Xers is coming across via editorial exposure; it’s image driven, rather than image-and-message driven [like ads],” Hirschhorn related. “Fashion editorial focuses on the product images. That’s one reason the fashion brands work so hard with fashion editors.”

Currently, the X crowd is spending a growing share of wallet on goods like furniture, housewares, food, children’s clothing, and children’s education, as well as continuing to pay off their own college loans. Those increasingly practical priorities, in turn, have taken dollars away from self-centered spending on fashion, recorded music and upscale restaurants, among other things.

Ads deemed to have successfully taken aim at Xers, as cited in Yankelovich’s June 2002 Delta X data, include those for the Volkswagen Passat, and West Elm, an offshoot of Williams-Sonoma offering lower prices. For example, the VW ad humorously portrays an Xer’s struggle to be a responsible parent. In it, a father is hesitant to let his toddler eat a cookie that’s fallen on the floor, even though it’s only been there for five seconds - the generally accepted guideline for when it’s still OK to eat something that’s fallen on the floor. It’s a subtle appeal to the Xers’ approach to parenting, which skews to the traditional and pragmatic, and stands in contrast to that of their Boomer predecessors, who have tended to be freer and less conventional in child rearing.

“The most conservative people in the U.S. are married Gen Xers with children,” declared Richard Thau, a Gen-X expert and a founder of New York-based Third Millennium, an advocacy group for the generation. “It’s ironic, because Xers were more likely to be latch-key children than any before them,” he noted. “They were also the first generation whose [mothers] took pills not to have children.” Thus, the sensibilities of Gen X run counter to myriad media portrayals that have painted exaggerated images of the cohort, ranging from post-collegiate slackers to dot-com billionaires, added Thau, himself a Gen Xer.

Indeed, Yankelovich’s research found 70 percent of Xer parents say they’ll do a better job raising their kids than the generation before them. Adding to their sense of personal responsibility, 91 percent of Generation X describe themselves as a head of household; 60 percent are parents, and 48 percent own their residences.

“One-stop shopping—the will to buy a broad range of categories at one time—characterizes young families and homeowners,” said Diane Hamilton, a partner in Boston-based Retail Value Consultants, in referring to Gen X. “These shoppers are right in the sweet spot for grocery and mass retailers. There’s a lot of lost apparel shopping, in this segment, that has gone into baby merchandise, generic foods, loss leaders.”

Chains such as Target, Wal-Mart, and Kohl’s are benefiting from these trends, of course, as Xers increasingly express their identities through things they buy for their homes and children, and less so via apparel for themselves. This contingent, Hamilton said, can satisfy much of their wardrobe wants by purchasing basics like turtlenecks and chinos at Target, while also shopping there for clothing for their children, housewares, and consumables.

One niche that has been seeded by Xers’ desires to vaunt their individualism, marketing executives said, has been boutiques, from contemporary independents to vintage purveyors. “Mixing and matching items from different sources, different eras—as they might, shopping from boutique to boutique—speaks to a lack of connection with any one group or era, whether socially, culturally or politically,” maintained Neil Howe, a historian and author of books about generations, based in Great Falls, Va.

Still, certain mainstream apparel and retail brands have found appeal with Xers as well. Those most often credited for having done so, by more than a dozen marketing sources, include Polo/Ralph Lauren, Prada, Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Diesel and Nike, as well as Gap, Banana Republic, H&M, Victoria’s Secret, Ann Taylor and Anthropologie.

Fashion marketing messages aimed at Xer women surfaced last year in ads for Gap Maternity and Nike’s Liz Lange line of Dri-Fit activewear for pregnant women, both of which portrayed pregnant women, in a play to leverage Xers’ interest in children, which, generation experts pointed out, is substantially greater than the interest Boomers had at the same age.

Meanwhile, a number of supermarkets are eyeing a possible addition of apparel to their assortments, as Loblaws has done in Canada since 2000, and the Farmer Jack unit of A&P has done in Detroit. Observed Yankelovich’s Smith: “Grocery stores have done a lot over the years to keep themselves fresh, to make the shopping experience brighter. The best Gap probably doesn’t compare well with the best Safeway or Kroger, in that regard,” he maintained.

Further raising the bar on the Gen-X marketing challenge, sources said, is the cohort’s skepticism toward advertising, among other things; its shopping savvy, which is bolstered by networking to obtain information and by a willingness to be confrontational, and the group’s fragmented nature. It all adds up to a hard sell for fashion, which floats a fantasy, romantic image, or some sort of story about the apparel being marketed - an effort whose success depends, in large part, on a consumer’s feelings of impressionability and community.

Xers, more so than most, use the Internet “very powerfully” prior to shopping, pointed out Robert Wendover, director of the Center for Generation Studies, in Aurora, Colo. As a result, Wendover said, “Xers walk into stores armed with information, and they are much more confrontational than Boomers. They take a salesperson by surprise; they one-up them. They grew up at a time when, if you didn’t ask, you didn’t get.”

“Fashion thrives on some sense of peer commonality and convention,” noted Howe. “There’s no question that the millennials have more of this sensibility than Generation X. Xers are a splintered group and think of themselves individually.” That fragmentation, coupled with the lack of a strong social and cultural center when they were growing up, Howe said, has formed “a hard soil in which it’s difficult for fashion to take root.”

Not surprisingly, Gen X’s splintered nature shows up in its broader consumption patterns, which is enough to strike fear in the hearts of some marketers. “It is imminently frightening that Generation X is willing to shop almost anywhere for most things,” allowed Paco Underhill, managing director of consultant Envirosell, based here. “They’ll buy jewelry at Fred Meyer; some apparel at Target; cars online, and milk in a drug store. Gen X shops for a wide variety of products everywhere—and everyone becomes the competition.”


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