Target, Gen X, and the value of “overthinking”

A buddy of mine who works in the agency world made an interesting point when we were catching up the other week. He said that when you go to pitch something to Wal*Mart, the first thing they say is “you have to lower the price.” When you go to pitch Target, the first thing they say is “let’s see the packaging.”

If you’ve seen a Target ad (and if you haven’t, welcome to Earth) or walked through one of their stores, this tidbit makes perfect sense. Target is probably the most visually appealing department store experience ever, and that’s not an accident. Even their house brands appear in sculpted, colorful bottles and boxes, the very antithesis of the plain white generic packaging we remember from the ’80s. The average aisle feels like equal parts store and pop art gallery. Warhol would have loved it.

For those who think critically about brand strategy, though, the day that somebody in Minneapolis leaned back in a chair and said the magic words – “affordable design” – is less interesting than the deeper lessons of one of America’s most spectacular marketing successes. Affordable design was the how and the what, but the why had a lot more to do with nailing some important generational and class issues. I can’t say if this is what Target meant to do, or even if they’re aware of it. But make no mistake, the company is where it is because it crafted a brand message that’s perfectly encoded for the Generation X ear.

Meet X
In a nutshell, Target’s goal is to present customers with products that look expensive (reflecting their desire for nice stuff) but that are comparatively inexpensive (reflecting the reality of an increasingly tough economic landscape). You can get cheaper at Wal*Mart, but it looks Wal*Mart, too. And for the millions of GenXers on whom Target’s success has been constructed, looking cheap is an admission of defeat.

X, which encompasses those born from 1961 to about 1980, is unique in that its members were the first cohort in American history fated to have it worse than their parents. (See Howe & Strauss, 13th Gen, for a detailed explanation and analysis of the economic and social dynamics of the generation.) This was a gen that enjoyed a certain degree of economic comfort growing up (albeit nothing like we’ve seen with their successors, the Millennials), but a combination of factors (including skyrocketing real estate prices, obscene student loan debt loads, the professional longevity of the Baby Boomers – who refuse to retire and seem determined to live forever – and rapidly diminishing earnings potential vs. cost-of-living) exerted a broad downwardly mobile pressure that bred a significant crisis in consumer identity.

The front edge of X turned 25 in 1986 and the generational mid-point is currently in its mid-30s. Lay these stats over a chart tracking Target’s growth, and it becomes apparent that the company has enjoyed its most explosive success with X sitting in the demographic driver’s seat. If your Target is anything like mine, it’s full of adults ranging from mid-20s to mid-40s who are shopping for nothing quite so much as a safe psychological foothold in the dwinding middle class. While this group hardly represents all of the company’s customer base, no big box is going to thrive without 25-45s, right?

Hopes and Dreams
This particular group of young adults has a deep socio-psychic need for success. The first public awareness of GenX, which emerged in the early 1990s as its first wave hit 30 (appropriately enough, the archetypal Boomer confessional thirtysomething went off the air in 1991) seemed almost uniformly framed by terms like “slacker,” a profoundly inaccurate and unfair depiction of a group fighting a decidedly uphill battle. X was forced by a parental generation – the “Me Generation,” a cohort responsible for significant social changes, but not one known for its nurturing – to stand on its own and it was encouraged to believe that success and failure were pretty much the exclusive result of personal factors. In essence, they were weaned on pure ideological Americana, except that they got a double-helping every day.

For these reasons, the appearance of success, visually expressed by style and design, are critically important to the generational psyche. Enter Target, a store that offered stuff that actually looked good but that was affordable. Budget chic, and booming returns for Target, which looks to be getting stronger by the day.

It’s Okay to Think
The best branding pros and organizations out there think intensely about these kinds of issues. They think qualitatively as well as quantitatively, because they recognize the limited value of datasets that are a mile wide and an inch deep.

Sadly, people who think to this extent are the exception and not the rule. I’ve been in situations where I was compelled to give my clients B-grade work because those calling the shots, driven by short-sighted cost concerns instead of long-term value propositions, insisted that we didn’t have time to “overthink everything.” Generational dynamics were one of the specific things I was discouraged from overthinking, and innovative media angles were another.

What I see of marketing and branding campaigns, as well as my conversations with a wide range of industry professionals, convinces me that “don’t overthink” is standard operating procedure in most shops, and not a day passes when I don’t see at least one company that could benefit substantially from a seriously cost-inefficient lock-up to consider the story of their customers’ lives.

I’ve never read that Target accomplished all this as a function of intent, but even if it was a blind stroke of pure luck there are still important lessons to be learned by marketers charged with translating potential into results. Think deep. Think long. Think big. The value generated by your insights will dwarf the costs associated with “overthinking,” guaranteed.

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7 responses to “Target, Gen X, and the value of “overthinking”

  1. You have a typo in this sentence:
    …”hit 30 (appropriately enough, the archetypal Boomer confessional thirtysomething went off the in 1991)”

    Off the ……what in 1991?

    Love the sight. Great idea. It’ll work. So will you.

    In midst of study with preachers about understanding congregations. Disucssing the culture of boomers, gen X, etc. I’m digging it in a big way.

    Love,
    yer mother

  2. Thanks, Link. And trust me, right now preachers have a LOT easier task with this generation than do, say, teachers. They’re far more conventional and likely to respect religious authority.

    Professors? Somewhat less….

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