The ABCs of Designing for X, Y and Beyond
When it comes to direct mail design, all generations were not created equal. Today's youngsters, Generation Y, have outpaced the baby boomer generation in terms of size, and already have shown themselves to be prolific spenders, but their inclination toward all things Internet is a barrier to making them a huge direct mail market. The demographically desirable, educated and wealthy Generation X also has yet to grow its direct mail legs, and its smaller size means larger challenges for mailers looking to capitalize on the spending power it yields. As they age, the baby boomer and mature generations are undergoing a number of changes, both physical and psychological, which affect how they view and respond to your direct mail.
Designing successful mail packages for each of these generations requires an understanding of what motivates them, what they value, what concepts they respond to, and how to translate all of that into a printed piece.
Y All the Fuss?
Generation Y offers a huge marketing potential. It combines the sheer size of the boomer market with the spending proclivity of Generation X. In essence, it will one day be a virtual playground of marketing opportunities.
But right now, Gen Yers are a difficult segment to sell to because at ages 7 through 24, while some members are still running around actual playgrounds, others are playing more grown-up games in the work force. The products and methods you use to reach this diverse market vary greatly, but as a generation, they do have many unifying values that your designs should play to.
Gen Yers are growing up in a more diverse environment than their predecessors, so they expect marketing messages to convey that diversity. "When using photographs or illustrations, be sure to show gender, ethnic and socio-economic diversity that reflects your total audience," points out David Morrison, marketing strategist and author of "Marketing to the Campus Crowd."
They may not get playtime anymore, but even the older end of this generation will respond to messages with a playful side, which can be achieved in a number of ways.
On the design side, eschew utilitarian, copy-heavy designs for louder, jumbled, fun pieces that allow readers to process the information in their own ways. "Teens are used to busy and hip, not organized, sort of splash, splash communications," says Lois Boyle, president of Shawnee Mission, Kan.-based J. Schmid & Associates. Look to teen-oriented fashion catalogs and magazines, such as dELiA*s, Teen, Limited Too and Sports Illustrated Kids, and the Web for effective examples of this design style.
Humor is another way to appeal to Gen Y's more playful side, but you must make sure the humor is age-appropriate, not only in content, but in format as well. "Don't think that you can have an abstract concept and a 10-year-old will understand it," stresses Gregory Livingston, principal of WonderGroup and coauthor of "The Great Tween Buying Machine." Make sure you understand who your audience is and its capacity for understanding before you incorporate humor.
If people in this generation love games, why not give them some in your direct mail package by including interactive elements? Livingston suggests taking your product information and turning it into something they can do, rather than read: "Rather than a three-page brochure, why not send something that arrives in a tube that has dice in the bottom and a game that teaches them about your product? Take what this generation loves about the Web and put it in their mailbox."
A challenge to marketing to an age group that is undergoing so many physical changes is finding the right age to portray in your mail piece. The rule of thumb, according to Livingston, is to skew slightly older because kids are eager to grow up and will ignore messages that appear to be for a younger age group. "The visual," agrees Morrison, "should be a mirror of the market or what the market aspires to be." If you skew too old, however, they will not be able to relate to your message. So, if you are developing creative that uses models, you will want to version your images in small age intervals.
Particularly for the younger end of the generation, you need to be completely clear about what your product and offer are promising. Be mindful of inconsistencies and exaggerations in before-and-after images, product photography, metaphors and claims because children cannot always differentiate between what is real and what is hype. This is not to say that you should not make your offer attractive; what your product will do for them is the most important aspect of your sell. Just be honest when it comes to the "how much." "You need to be up front about what you want and what you will provide," stresses Livingston. "Otherwise, you may end up on the distrusted brand list for life."
Beyond your offer, realism also extends to the positioning of your product. "The younger generation does not want to be pandered to," says Boyle. "So don't try to be too hip or too cool or too accommodating. ... Just focus on the benefits."
One final note on marketing to a younger crowd that still lives at home: Make sure you also appeal to mom and dad. "The outside piece has to cater to the head of household," stresses Boyle. "In some 70 percent of cases, it is the female who actually processes the mail. If she thinks it is too risqué or worthless, she'll throw it away."
The X Factor
A quick glance at the chart below will tell you that success in the Gen X market is no easy task. Compared to the boomers before it and Gen Y after it, Gen X is a tiny market. "To succeed with Gen X, you have to get a larger share of a smaller pie," says Ken Gronbach, president of KGC Direct and author of "Common Census: The Counter-intuitive Guide to Generational Marketing."
"For direct marketers," says Gronbach, "only the most savvy, only the most creative, only the ones who do breakthrough stuff, will succeed with Gen X. It's got to be different. It's got to stand out."
With the Gen X crowd, more than ever before, the old direct mail mandate of breaking through the clutter is of the utmost importance. Your creative needs to quickly and effectively grab their attention, play on their values and address their needs. Bear in mind that it also will wear out more quickly in this been-there, seen-that market.
Here are some effective design cues for reaching this elusive group:
Uniqueness. You only have a few seconds to grab their attention before your mail package goes into the trash, so you need to quickly show them something or make an offer they haven't seen before. Stock photography, tired catch phrases and marketing jargon will not do the trick. Use unusual typefaces, interactive elements and intriguing photos to present your product or service in a fresh way. A unique offer presented in an unoriginal way is a contradiction you can't afford to make.
Humor. One of the best ways to get through to the Gen X market, says Gronbach, is to use humor. Gen X campaigns with the most staying power and the best word-of-mouth are the ones that make people laugh. Humor also is an effective way to break through Gen X's skepticism and develop a sincere connection. But, cautions Gronbach, not just any humor will do. "You are not going to win Gen X with slapstick," he says. "The humor has to be intelligent and it has to speak to their intelligence."
Product Benefits. "Gen X is an elusive market," says Boyle. "But even with that, it's all about benefit, benefit, benefit." Your designs, therefore, should focus on making these benefits stand out. Some of the most important product benefits you should stress include:
* Quality. As a well-educated, high-income generation, Gen X wants and can afford high-quality products.
* Value. It may seem contrarian, but while Gen Xers strive for quality products, they love to know they got them at a good deal. Gen Xers make more money than preceding generations, but they are more pessimistic about their financial futures and job status. They also are in the life stage where they are paying off student loans, buying first homes and having children, which all leads to an increased focus on cost, but not at the expense of quality. "Don't make it a deal, make it a value," says Rich Mercado, director of marketing for Stamford, Conn.-based Madison Direct Marketing.
* Appearance. "Finding a mate currently is the largest driver for this generation," says Gronbach. The most successful campaigns will be ones that appeal to their desire to be more attractive. Glossy photographs, attractive models and designs that stress product benefits will be particularly effective in this market.
Older Models. Gen Xers want to appear polished, mature and successful, so they relate better to slightly older models. Campaigns aimed at Gen X parents in particular are most effective, according to Mercado, when they show older, more modern parents that Gen Xers can look up to.
In addition, points out Mercado, skewing older in your design will aid response, as Gen Xers do not tend to respond well to direct marketing until they are more mature.
The Big Boom
Although they are not the same generation, for the purposes of this article, I have combined the baby boomer and silentoften referred to as maturegenerations because while they each exhibit unique traits and spending patterns, from a design standpoint, many of the same concepts apply.
For both of these generations, the visual is vital; it can be used to tell a compelling story, format information, relate to the prospect and stir the emotions that trigger response. "Visual cues are very important, because as we age, we depend more on visual cues and less on lexical ones," says David Wolfe, relationship marketing consultant and author of "Ageless Marketing."
To get the most leverage out of your direct mail visual, keep these concepts in mind:
Visual Acuity. One of the most important factors affecting the design of mail pieces for the boomer and mature generations is that with age come changes in visual acuity. These changes call for special consideration in fonts, font size, colors and paper finish. Wolfe suggests avoiding small type, ornate or difficult-to-read fonts, reverse type, and finishes that produce glare; in addition, bear in mind that perception of color gradients, pastels and colors in the blue-green-violet spectrum also is affected with age. And this is not confined to the older end of the generation; "All of these changes," asserts Wolfe, "are under way by the early to mid-40s."
These changes also have an effect on the way you present information. While the younger generations enjoy more disorganized, Web-style communications, older generations prefer more orderly presentations because they do not process information as quickly. Use clear subheads, imagery that is relevant and not distracting, and visual cues to aid the flow of information.
But, cautions Boyle, make these changes as subtle as possible: "We ran a test using larger type, thinking the older market needed that, and it actually depressed response. They found it offensive because it was obviously larger."
Narratives. Using the narrative format rather than a straight sell is particularly effective with the older markets because as people age, "there is more 'right brain' activity involved in processing information. The right [side of the] brain is the emotional center, so stories are better at arousing emotion than didactic delivery," says Wolfe. Use images that tell stories that appeal to the benefits older generations hold dear, such as family ties, financial security, spirituality and relationships, rather than static images of your product. Product benefits, details, cost and other "left-brain" concerns also are important. Since older generations have more time to read your message, they welcome longer pieces, but the emotional, narrative imagery will draw them in, and therefore should be presented first and woven throughout your sell. "Lead with the right [side of the brain], follow with the left and then integrate the two," advises Wolfe.
Self-perception. Unlike Y and X, which prefer to see models that represent what they aspire to be, the older generations tend more toward models that illustrate what they were. "Women in this generation," says Boyle, "actually see themselves as being 10 years younger than they are. So age-appropriate models will actually depress response."
But just as the generations who came after them, boomers and matures do not want to be pandered to or stereotyped. They see themselves as vital and active, and your visual should represent them as such. Wolfe points to the lessons learned by Thomas House, a retirement home in Washington, D.C., that needed to rebrand itself and bring in younger residents. The home infused its direct mail campaign with images of active, sophisticated residents, and played to prospects' intellectual curiosity and penchant for lifelong learning by stressing the cultural benefits of the home. The result was a successful campaign that resonated with prospects by portraying them as they saw themselves.
Another way to address self-perception is to use conditional, rather than absolute visual cues. While absolute imagery shows the people you want to sell to, suggestive images leave more to the imagination by showing only part of the story, allowing the reader "to fill in the missing pieces, with a bias toward his or her own views," says Wolfe.
Although each generation presents unique challenges and opportunities, you can create direct mail that resonates with them if you give credence to their values, needs and motivations. A strong understanding of what makes each generation tick today can bring success for years to come.