The Oversimplification Trap: Avoiding Pitfalls in Generational Research
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The Oversimplification Trap: Avoiding Pitfalls in Generational Research

August 2, 2017

John Wise

While it’s necessary for Insight professionals to look for patterns, it can be just as easy for the mind to overgeneralize– especially when it comes to studying generations. Read on for guidelines to avoid oversimplifications and get the most from your generational research.

Avoiding Pitfalls in Generational Research

Use these guidelines when designing generation-based studies to avoid oversimplifications and get the most from your generational research.

In life as in business, we’re constantly exposed to broad, sweeping statements about different groups. While it’s necessary for Insight professionals to look for patterns, it can be just as easy for the mind to overgeneralize. We’re especially susceptible to this trap when looking at generational groups, since we’re inundated with age-related stereotypes in our day-to-day lives.

Overgeneralization is unhelpful at best, as it gives us a false sense of ‘deep insight’ that drives crucial decisions, and makes for mediocre creative. At worst, it leads us down the path to diminished credibility and a brand that increasingly feels out of touch. Take for example the American Petroleum Institute’s recent Power Past Impossible Super Bowl ad campaign: a poorly veiled and ill-received concept centered around things all Millennials are thought to like: bright colors, bold type, creative expression, and Katniss Everdeen among them. Today’s consumer sees right through campaigns that speak too overtly to generational stereotypes.

At Kelton, our approach to generational research starts with avoiding the oversimplifications that can lead to bland, unhelpful insights and land brands in hot water. We live by three principles: think tendencies, not hard and fast rules; focus on values as well as behaviors; and think in terms of an on-going evolution instead of a moment in time.

Use the guidelines below when building a generation-focused study to avoid oversimplifications, go beyond static stereotypes, and get the most from your research:

1 – Widen Your Focus

Don’t study a generation in isolation. With so many outside factors contributing to generation-specific perceptions and needs, it’s important to always consider the larger contextual drivers at play when studying any group, including poltical and technological changes in the wider world. It can be helpful to compare and contrast with other generational groups to understand similarities and differences.

2 – Think In Subdivisions

Not all Millennials or Boomers are the same, so break the groups into sub-segments based on useful variables, like mindset, to understand the nuances contained within each generational cohort. And remember, it’s not all about life stages; a single, 30-year-old Bernie-bro in Brooklyn is likely to represent different values and behaviors than a 30-year-old married, politically conservative Mormon man in Utah.

3 – Look Beyond the Obvious

Be a good listener via multiple platforms, both online and in public. Leverage social listening to identify patterns in sentiment, while also exploring opinions and beliefs that contradict traditional stereotypes.

4 – Identify The “Why”  

Get the full picture: look at both behaviors and motivations within a generation. We’re often tasked with understanding how generations engage in key categories, but the magic involves looking at the motivations behind these generation-distinct behaviors.

5 – Get Hands On

Once significant differences are identified, use qualitative research to fine-tune sweeping generational insights. Don’t forget to meet consumers where they live. Speak to people in their living rooms or favorite bars to better understand them in an environment where they feel comfortable, and free to truly express themselves.

6 – Keep It Moving

Any robust research system needs to be consistently refreshed to stay relevant– make sure yours is always evolving. Set up ongoing insight processes to monitor changes as they occur, and avoid the pitfalls of ’checking the box’ or doing once-yearly surveys.

We recommend these approaches because we’ve seen them in action. When REI asked us to bridge the gap between Gen X customers and upcoming Gen Y customers, we went camping and shopping to better understand differences and similarities between the groups. We helped Bank of America better understand the Millennial mindset and emotional aspects of saving. And we helped Visa design an app that would appeal to both Gen X and Millennial cardholders.

By avoiding the oversimplification trap with the above guidelines, brands across industries are able to crack the generational research conundrum and foster authentic connections with consumers.

John Wise

Vice President, Cultural Insights & Brand Strategy

John leads the Cultural Insights team at Kelton, a Material Company, bringing a fresh and exploratory dimension to any project he...

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