Just when marketers were getting used to the fact that Gen-Xers have eclipsed Baby Boomers as the key parental demo, along comes another group to consider. Enter the Echo Boomers, aka GenY or the Millennials.
According to current stats from the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 57 million Gen-Xers and 51 million Echo Boomers, ranging in age from 16 to 28, in the U.S. Adult Echoes are still growing in number, as demographers have yet to set a cut off year for the demo. Certainly, the Echo Boom is not a new species to marketers – in fact its generational characteristics have been put under the marketing microscope over the past decade. However, few have taken the step of examining the next (and, in some cases, current) life stage for these young adults – parenthood.
So what does that seminal step in adulthood look like for this group? Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based research firm Yankelovich and Strottman International, Irvine, California’s youth-focused custom premium agency, have pooled their respective quantitative and qualitative research in a preliminary effort to find out.
To that end, in November and December 2007, Strottman conducted four in-home discussion groups using its proprietary Circle of Friends focus group methodology. The groups (totalling 22 moms) had a mix of Echo Boomer and Gen-Xers who knew each other as friends or acquaintances. Yankelovich, meanwhile, has compiled data sourced from its 2006 and 2007 Monitor studies among Echo Boomer and Xer parents** to complement the focus-group findings. In the pages that follow they note how Echoes differ from their predecessors, what they share and what marketers need to keep an eye out for in dealing with the newest parent demo.
One step beyond, Echo Boomers quest for self expression
In what is shaping up to be a major factor in Echoes’ burgeoning parenting style is a desire for self-expression – they’re parents who not only have a strong need to express themselves in what they do and buy, but also are likely encouraging their children to follow their lead. Echo Boomer parents tend to exhibit this desire in every facet of their behavior, taking their quest for individualism far beyond the Xer penchant for diversity.
Whether it’s taking great pride in their new iPhone, or their child’s performance in a poetry club, Echo Boomers strive to reveal their personalities to the world around them through their own appearance, and their child-rearing choices. So for many, it’s about fitting in by standing out. Two-thirds of this parent group believe they have a ‘unique sense of style’ (67% vs. 52% for Gen-X), and only 39% of Echo Boomer parents surveyed believe that ‘I follow the rules’ is an apt self-description, while 57% of Xer parents agreed with the statement.
And when it comes to parenting style driven by self expression, many Echoes make their own rules and question the advice of parenting experts. In fact, these young moms tend to see themselves as the experts, with 45% of those surveyed by Yankelovich saying it is very/somewhat important to be seen as someone who gives smart advice, compared with only 30% of the polled Gen-Xers sharing that view. Forty-year-old Denise puts it this way: ‘I have less of a desire to express myself, and am much more comfortable and confident about just ‘being.”
Another key aspect of Echo Boomer parents’ drive for authentic self-expression is that they crave access to both exclusive products and information – especially content and goods personalized just for them. Almost half of Echo Boomer parents (46% vs. 34% of Xers) agree they ‘like products that few people have and are not easy to get.’ Similarly, 34% of Echo Boomer parents consider ‘knowing things that few people know’ to be a sign of success and accomplishment. Only 22% of Xer parents felt that way.
Not surprisingly, the Echo penchant for self expression is filtering down to their children. And some toy companies have started adapting their output to meet this demand. Plush manufacturer Ganz, for example, turned the static market on its head by linking its product to a virtual world that revolves around customization. One of the best-selling toy brands of 2007, the purchase of a Webkinz plush provides an entrée into Webkinz world, where kids can shop endlessly for virtual outfits and room décor, and invite their friends’ virtual pets to their rooms to socialize.
For their part, the Echo moms seem to be aiding and abetting their kids’ Webkinz addictions and further instilling the drive for self-expression. Several of the Echo moms Strottman spoke to admited to logging onto their children’s Webkinz accounts after their kids went to bed to help them earn more virtual currency and give them more fuel to further customize their virtual pets’ rooms! That Webkinz have been sold primarily via specialty/niche retail and not at big-box mass merchandisers likely increases the appeal of the playthings for many Echo Boomer parents
Living for today affects tomorrow’s parenting
As this cohort is just entering the parenthood stage, it’s worthwhile examining its expectations for the future and how this may affect parenting style. (Getting a read on expectations often paints a picture of how a group views itself right now, and what steps it plans to take to achieve its aspirations.) Echo Boomer parents seem to be learning lessons similar to those of Gen-X – chiefly that the grass may be as green today as it will ever be. However, unlike Xers who have tried to plan to achieve their goals, Echo Boomers remain focused on the present as a means of coping with an uncertain future. In fact, more than half the Echo Boomer parents polled (53%) agreed with the phrase, ‘I deal with things as they happen’ as opposed to ‘I plan in advance,’ when asked about their future. (Only 40% of Xer parents made that selection.)
When asked why saving for retirement wasn’t a high priority, Cheryl, a 27-year-old mother of two, said ‘It will take care of itself; there are too many other day-to-day things to worry about right in front of you.’ Similarly, Echo mom Jamie declared, ‘I have no idea about my future. I don’t even think about what I’m going to do or where I’m going to live. It’s all about the children, and their activities.’ Her attitude toward investing may resonate with many in her generation, as 58% of Echo Boomer parents claim they have no retirement savings compared with 41% of Xer parents.
In contrast, Xer mom Denise reasoned, ‘The more we can secure ourselves for the future, the better off the kids will be. We contribute to a college fund for them, but I think it’s equally, if not more important, to prepare for our retirement so our kids are free from that.’
When it comes to parenting, this outlook on the present and future can also affect day-to-day decisions. In the Yankelovich study, for example, 57% of Echo Boomer parents agreed with the statement ‘I never stress out about what my child eats on a daily basis – it’s over the long run that counts.’ On the other hand, many Xer moms do get concerned about and monitor what their kids eat every day. ‘I do worry if my children haven’t eaten well each day,’ said 36-year-old Rosalee, a mother of two girls. ‘If they eat too many snacks…or too many sweets in one day, it makes me wince.’
This mindset also raises the question about whether or not Echo Boomer parents may be more interested in products and media for their children that’s classified as just fun rather than educational. The trends towards edutainment in both TV programming and toys may have gotten traction with Xer moms, but the question remains as to whether or not Echo moms may be more open to an ‘invisible learning’ model or products and content that are just plain fun and have no educational component at all. While Monitor doesn’t explicitly address this theory, Strottman queried moms on this topic.
Echo mom Cheryl doesn’t demand that TV have an educational purpose. ‘I let my kids watch for fun,’ she explained, ‘and I think that comes from my childhood. When I was growing up we had no fun television, so I want them to have that opportunity – I let them watch pretty much everything except violence.’ She added that she wasn’t confident in saying no to her kids, lest it hinder their free spirits. ‘I feel like I’m a pushover in a lot of ways and I don’t like that, but I go with my gut a lot and think ‘if they want that, give it to them.”
Despite the many differences between the demos and their parenting styles, two key areas of agreement have emerged to which kids marketers and product manufacturers must remain sensitive. Both sets of parents place a lot of importance on spending time with their children and have similar feelings towards advertising.
In a ranking exercise, Strottman had the groups’ participants independently score the importance of eight statements. ‘Spending time with my kids’ sat at number-one with all 22 participants. Yankelovich data also provides support for this, as both Echo and Xer parents rated ‘Play with your children’ as the top thing they like to do in their spare time for fun and enjoyment (77% for Echoes and 79% for Xers). Those marketing to both generational groups should remember this when establishing communications messaging and imagery. Fun activities that create or enhance interaction among family members, like board games or the even-hipper Nintendo Wii, are growing in popularity and are ripe for promoting family time.
And when it came to advertising and their kids’ exposure to it, moms involved in Strottman’s discussion groups had similar concerns, no matter their age. What kind of ads were they most worried about? Prescription drug spots that prompt kids to ask questions whose answers the moms feel they’re too young to understand, feature film trailers with R-rated violence, and clothing ads for lingerie or other skimpy garments.
Yankelovich also found that many parents, regardless of generation, are concerned about the sheer volume of marketing messages their children receive through advertisements. In fact, 73% of both Echo and Xer parents agreed that ‘I feel that society is working against me in trying to raise my children with good values.’ Similarly, many agreed ‘The amount of marketing and advertising today is out of control’ (44% of Echoes vs. 45% of Xers). On the positive side, many parents felt they could use the media, if not always advertisements, to their benefit, with a full 68% of Echo parents and 62% of Xer parents agreeing that ‘With the right parental supervision, TV can reinforce the values I’m teaching my children.’
**In this study Echo Boomer parents are considered to be between 16 and 28 years old with at least one child under age 10 (ages 16 to 27 in 2006 data) (n=427). Gen-X parents are between age 29 and 42 with at least one child under age 10 (ages 28 to 41 in 2006 data) (n=456). To reduce possible skews relating to the age of the parent/mom when they first had a child in the Yankelovich data, both generational groups were required to have become a parent before they reached age 25.
Brady Darvin is senior director of consumer insights at Strottman International Inc., a full-service agency specializing in the kids and family market that creates and manufactures in-pack premiums, toys, plush and other products for a variety of packaged goods, foodservice and retail clients. Contact him at 949-623-7929 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Page is research director at marketing consultancy firm Yankelovich, a leader in tracking consumer trends based on its Monitor and other syndicated research studies, and its database and segmentation solutions. Contact: 1-877-656-8600 or email@example.com.