Marketing to Gen Alpha. How Brands Can Reach the Most Digital Generation
How Americans shop has changed dramatically in the last decade. Current generations are experiencing the shift more naturally, but the next generation, already dubbed as “Alpha” by demographers, will grow up in a world that looks quite different. This will be a world where shopping on Amazon is as common as Googling a question, where you can shop via social media sites, and where dozens or hundreds of competing brands present as many options in a market oversaturated with choices. The simplicity of ordering a product online and having it arrive at your doorstep rather than scouring the aisles of Toys R’ Us or Target will be entirely normalized, as some would argue, it already has.
Generation Alpha (kids born between 2010 and 2025) is much too young to recognize that their future consumer identities are being shaped by the clothes, food, toddler toys, and gadgets purchased for them by the adults in their lives. Though they are still too young to be influenced greatly by social media’s marketing tactics that are becoming ubiquitous today, their parents are sure feeling the influence of these same tactics. One doesn’t have to look much further than the 9-year old star of “Ryan’s World” Ryan Kaji, who now hosts one of YouTube’s most lucrative channels.
Heather Dretsch, an assistant marketing professor at North Carolina State University notes that there is a market subset of moms (Millenials), whose primary focus in product acquisition for their babies and youngsters is to purchase only the very best products. These children will grow up with a similar consumerism instinct, going after the very best options available on the marketplace. Another challenging aspect for parents is that they are pressured in not only knowing what their kids need currently but things they will need in the future. In other words, these millennial parents are busy shopping for things that their kids will grow into, rather than what they can use in the immediate present.
As a relic of the trends from the 90s and early 2000s, traditional and new brands, have primarily used rainbow-colored packaging to appeal to youngsters (think Gushers and Kid Cuisine). However, that trend has largely started to be abandoned in favor of appealing to millennial parents. The brands now present themselves with cohesive color schemes and serif tones. This communicates to the millennial consumers through this subtle minimalist esthetic about the safety of the brand for the child, as well as its ethical standing and economic advantages.
Millenial Parents Influence
While this is not a direct form of Gen Alpha marketing, it certainly appeals to their millennial parents who are always seeking to figure out what their children need, as well as what they will need in the immediate future. This form of family marketing actually has an effect on both generations, millennial parents, and the Gen Alpha market. What the parents provide for their children is what influences those children’s future consumer habits. Much like the cultural trickle-down effect where working-class styles evolve according to the changes in the fashion of the upper class, children’s views are shaped largely by those of their parents.
In that sense, parents shape Gen Alpha’s consumer identities for their future. Of course, this up-and-coming shopper generation is far from the first to continue with the consumer influence of their parents or being targeted by mass media ads, but they are the first generation in a world of digital-first options. More importantly, the advertisers who will be marketing to Gen Alpha have years to prepare, so much so, in fact, that they have started the process through the influence of their parents.
Sara Peterson, who is in the process of authoring a book about motherhood and digital culture notes that the disparity in her own buying impulses has become evident to her in the span of just 7 years (between the birth of her first child and her latest one). While shopper in 2012 bought the same, clunky, flat-colored high chairs and playmats, the current purchasing impulses lean her toward neutral pastel shades, wood tones, and creamy accents. This is in no small part thanks to the influence of Instagram.
Peterson also notes that mothers, who have frequently been a high target demographic, ended up being pressured and subjected to a degree of consumerized conformity. There was simply a lack of brands that exciting, unique, individualistic brand choices that could cater to individual’s' particular eccentricities. Most people bought the same type of stuff and in the process, the consumer identity was flattened, rendered as unexciting, and became a broadly monolithic tune. Even influencer “mommy blogs” which came about in the 2000s all circled back around the idea centered largely around practicality rather than individualism.
Millennial mothers become viewed as caretakers fearful of toxins in childrens’ products and health-conscious caretakers who sought out to conform to the image of what everyone seems to generally perceive were the attributes of a “good” parent. With all that said, brand heads began to wonder who it is that the colorful packaging was really trying to attract. After all, it's unlikely that infants and toddlers care about the colorful packaging, and this was not a great selling point to parents either. The products and services themselves remained generally the same, so what was the point of changing up the appearance of its rendered presentation?
Online food companies seemed to pick up on this distinction quicker than longstanding industry giants. The pandemic pushed the economy even more to the online realm, so the strategies older companies were applying to the Gen Alpha market that involved package alteration and organic variants, noted that little difference in these changes was worthwhile. Simple appearance alterations would simply no longer be good enough. Parents are after products and tech that are both transparent and convenient.
In fact, online shopping has taken such a dominant position in current consumerism in terms of associating online shopping with feel better and safer about the world. The US has certainly been lackluster in its appeal to modern mothers. Unlike multiple other nations free preschool and extended paid leave are not (yet) present in US policy. Brands in the family marketing realm are not looking into posing solutions for the current economic and political deficiencies, but rather just to back what society views as “good” parenting. This is especially geared at families with two working parents who share the responsibility of childcare tasks. But as the appeal is directed mostly at the parents, their consumer decisions influence and shape the vision of their youngsters’’ futures and their tastes, however subtle that influence may be.
Brands recognized around the turn of the century that millennials would wield unprecedented power in the consumer market, and this held true regardless of the demographic breakdowns. This prompted the rise of generational labels that categorized people in similar age groups by a particular ideology of lifestyle.
This “online identity” began to shape entire generations with particular attributes. Baby boomers were viewed as self-concerned, wealthy older people who viewed their own financial standing as a comparative win toward the youth faced with a harder economic situation, though perceiving it as the opposite. Millennials are seen as ultra-liberal, student-loan indebted, Harry Potter-loving, avocado toast-eating youth, who regard their early years as being jaded. Gen-Z is seen as a culture without privacy filters, broadcasting their lives on social media.
However, many other factors outside of race define individual tastes outside of what age group consumers fall into, including (but not limited to) geography, social class, race, and religion. Advertisers, however, favored age as the demographic of marketing choice because they felt it allowed them to appeal to broad categories of consumers, delineated by a generational divide. Only a select few brands opted to drill down further into the demographic nuances.
The term “Gen Alpha” was coined by Mark McCrindle, an Australian consultant. In a recent interview with the New York Times, he noted that generations are “less a collection of individuals, than a commodity.” In other words, it's an easier grouping for products to be developed by companies and marketed to clients with. Therefore, when marketers define an upcoming generation of consumers and begin to associate them with attributes, they are effectively planning marketing strategies decades in advance.
But that is not as simple as it sounds when it comes to the Gen Alpha market or Gen Alpha trends. The members of this generation are far too young to be able to truly grasp and study the nuances of their consumerism. However, by focusing on the behaviors of their millennial parents, McCrindle posits, lends many clues to the consumer behaviors of Gen Alpha due to how they are raised. Of course, the concept of Gen Alpha has not gone unchallenged.
In a 2017 research paper, two Hungarian researchers sought to disprove the fact that there is yet evidence of a generation subsequent to Gen Z. They argued that in order for a collective to be defined as a generation, they have to have some shared experiences together, and contribute their own terminology to the social vocabulary or language. In an interview with Wired, these researchers argued that the upcoming generation is yet to have either of those things.
The general line of thinking is that parental influence on children is the predominant factor in what children will like. If a parent exposes a child to a particular product, the child is more likely to enjoy that product later in their life. It has also been argued that children can develop brand associations at as young of an age as 3, but on a far more subconscious, organic level.
All breakdowns and delineations based on age are certainly largely arbitrary in nature. Researchers find it to be more accurate to break consumer groups down based on their life events and milestones like getting married or starting families. With the Gen Alpha market, there is simply too little data to predict shopping behaviors or consumer patterns, but brands are using these to forecast some educated guesses anyhow. In a sense, they are shaping the future of their predictions with their future marketing plans.