Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Marketing Space to Gen X

Okay, enough with all the fawning over Gen Y. I have no objection to "selling space" to the youths, mind you, but it's like Generation X (born 1963-1977, now aged 32 to 45) has been completely ignored, left behind, and given up on. We've got "the influence list":

  • Space: Apollo 11, Apollo 13, Skylab, Shuttle when it was new, Challenger
  • OPEC Oil Embargo/gas lines
  • Watergate
  • Fall of Vietnam
  • The beginnings of terrorism: 1972 Olympic Massacre, the 1983 Marine barracks suicide bombing, TWA Flight 847, Achille Lauro hijacking, Iranian hostage crisis, Gulf War I
  • “Stagflation”/Misery Index/recession
  • The Cold War: Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, 1980 Olympic Boycott, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Cold War's end
  • Reagan shot
  • Movies: Star Wars, Star Trek, Ordinary People, The Godfather, Kramer vs. Kramer, The China Syndrome, and an endless series of horror and disaster films
  • Other items: increase in divorces, “latch-key” kids (I was one), and working moms; disco, classic rock, and “hair bands”; micromarketing; “upscale” everything
  • New arrivals: Environmental, feminist, homosexual, and multicultural movements, all-volunteer military service, video games, frequent flyer miles, personal computers, cell phones, the internet, women in combat

Anyhow, those are the big influencers. But how do you take these activities/events/influences and translate them into something positive? That's my job, I guess. Anyhow, Gen X has had more than a few hard knocks. The buoyant confidence that put Americans on the Moon two weeks before my birth was spent or lost in disillusionment. The '70s really sucked: the environment was bad, our society was bad, music was bad, fashions were depressingly bad (and have made a comeback now, with slightly better colors), our government officials were bad, crime was bad, our parents' marriages were bad, our international standing was bad. And later, AIDS made sex bad in a totally new way.

On the other hand, we also had the '80s, which featured the great political influence in our childhoods, Ronald Reagan. He introduced supply-side economics to the nation, reduced taxes, increased defense spending, and the heretical idea--after a decade of gloom--that America was a good place to be. Of course Reagan was also portrayed as a gun-toting cowboy by the media and the communist Gorbachev was portrayed as some sort of secular saint. And despite concerns that reduced taxes would hurt government revenue, the economy expanded, along with tax receipts. Our movies became a little more gung-ho as our all-volunteer servicemen (and women) gained renewed respect. Yuppies--Boomers who grew rich in the Reagan era--eventually gave way to dot-com millionaires (yes, us, but obviously not all of us).

I'd venture to say that this has made us mistrustful of idealistic, big-government solutions to anything. Note for example the flat, small, "lean and mean" organizations of the dot-com age. We're quite entrepreneurial and so not shy about working hard for a good wage if it's to be had. I'm not sure how many of my peers are only children, but those who are/were have a strong independent streak to them. So any "campaign" would need to show how space can empower the individual to do more, be better/stronger/faster, make more money, etc. I think Gen X individualism is a little different from Boomer or Millennial individualism in that Xers are more loner individualists rather than individuals-in-a-group. Mind you, we still had Scouting, Sunday School, little league baseball, and soccer. However, it's been my perception--and I could be wrong about this--that we haven't been big "joiners" of things like the Jaycees, Chamber of Commerce, Elks, Moose, or Masons, let alone actual churches.

So the trick here is to work on personalization--find ways for Gen X to access space-related materials/information in such a way that it would be part of their individual lifestyle. It's more of a scatter-shot approach, but it forces you to think creatively about how to place content. This is where I get my notion that if you want to get people interested in space, you need to start with the individual's interests first, and then work your way up to space. If the other person(s) don't give a fig about space, then you've lost them before you ever get to the "relevance" section of your spiel. But, again, that means taking time to "engage in dialogue," to use the current argot, and find out what the other person's interests are first. It's more work up front, and it circumvents the whole idea of a canned speech, but then that's the point. Canned speeches are inherently institutional and will quickly be mistrusted: "What's your angle?" is a likely response. Another is, "That's fine for your organization, what's in it for me (WIIFM)?"

And it's in the WIIFM world that Gen X is almost shameless. Appeals to country, cohort, or creed might work with some (serving and retired military, for instance), but any big-picture pitch is going to have to get to the WIIFM pretty damn quickly or the interest window will close. Even something as wacky as settling the solar system isn't that far out to us if we see that we can make a buck off of it. In the end, the WIIFM for us will boil down to money or an increase in personal options.

Of course we're not all loners or Ayn Rand-ish capitalists. We too wish to belong and to do good works, even if those works are on our terms. To overcome our hard-learned mistrust of organizations, managers need to demonstrate commitment to some sort of principle, even if the principle is making money. Consistency and "walking the talk" matter to us. Hypocrisy might be the biggest crime among Gen Xers. Say one thing, do another, and you've lost the respect of your Gen X employees. Overpromising is another variation of this problem. Don't bull$h!t us. Tell us honestly the whys of a particular activity along with its potential downsides, and we'll accept it more readily than if you try to oversell its upsides and minimize its downsides.

Okay, great. I've got my approach. Now I just need to find a way to apply it. Or better, a way for the Boomers above me to accept it. Interesting line of work I'm in.

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