Sharing vs. Storytelling: What Separates Consumer Generations and How to Connect Them

Posted by: Olivia Ledbetter

You’ve seen it at work: the Millennial hire is taking notes on their laptop, aggravating the paper-loving Baby Boomer CEO.  Later, the Millennial is frustrated when a Gen X co-worker replies to a minor question via email rather than just sending a quick text.

With these interactions in mind, is it possible that technology divides across generational lines rather than connects?

Forbes surveyed Fortune 500 executives and discovered that 80 percent of them feel that communication across generations is a challenging and sizeable problem. Communication issues across generation gaps are nothing new, but technology has made their existence even more apparent. One reason for this is that different generations have entirely separate and complex rules of etiquette for using technology and the internet.

For example, Gen Z views likes and comments as a type of social currency, validating their friendships and personal brands. On the other hand, Gen X uses the internet to learn and get things done such as paying bills. Due to different primary uses of technology, they have different perspectives on what is appropriate for various settings and social scenarios. It makes sense that Millennials want their co-workers to text them with small updates rather than wait for weekly meetings – they’re wired for efficiency, and they see these quick messages as a path to unlocking greater productivity. Rather than seeing these interactions as too casual or even rude, they are just trying to use their resources in the best way they know how. As such, cross-generational communication issues stem not from one generation being either “inefficient” or “lazy”, but from a fundamentally different understanding of what technology is meant to do.

If technology is dividing generations, what can be the link to help them connect?

Think back to some of your earliest memories. Chances are, regardless of your generational label, at least some of them are of you sitting on a parent’s lap, being read a story full of fantasy and excitement. Anthropologists have said that storytelling is central to human existence. It is the common thread across cultural, geographic and generational lines. The human brain is wired to find patterns, and in stories humans see recognizable patterns in which we find meaning. These stories are used to make sense of our world, share commonalities in belief and explore different perspectives. Stories are not just for escapism: narratives affect brain chemistry to actually cut through distraction. When surrounded by an increasing amount of digital noise, stories are the connecting key across generations. Since brains crave stories and remember them in ways they can’t remember facts, brands need to focus on the science behind them.

There are two important aspects for marketers to connect with different generations via storytelling: the brand story and the customer story.

To craft a story that deeply resonates, the brand story and consumer story need to both hit the mark. Space for consumer stories without a strong brand story can feel hollow, and a brand story without space for consumers to explore can feel narcissistic. A balance of both is the key to connecting generations and connecting with consumers regardless of their generational label.

Nike is a storytelling giant, focusing their commercials and content on feelings of success and style. They take their own brand story so seriously that they have a first day class for all new employees that focuses solely on the story of who Nike has been and is aimed to be. The strength of their brand story has connected a following of people who love the inspiring values Nike stands for. On the other hand, they also focus intensely on consumer stories through their belief that “if you have a body, you are an athlete.” This space for all consumers to identify as athletic lends itself to interpretations rich in individuality. Nike shoes can be found everywhere from street style blogs to Olympic fields, which creates a range of personal experiences and diverse identities all pointing to the same brand. Nike hits the mark by using both their brand story and individual consumer stories to craft a brand that equally aspirational and empowering.

The Resolution for Marketers

Stories are the true fuel for brand loyalty. Marketers that put more energy into the story than whatever medium they’re using will hit a deeper note across more diverse demographic and psychographic categories. Complex etiquette and usage differences across generations make the generation gap feel wide, but storytelling can endear your audience to the brand by helping to close the gap and connect different ages and life stages.

Remember: just adding a shallow message to a popular platform won’t make it stick. Infuse your brand with a tale of human truth, and you’re almost guaranteed a happy ending.

About Olivia Ledbetter

As the 2017 Editorial Intern for Barkley, Olivia understands that great thinking needs a groundwork of solid strategy before it can become truly visionary. Her background in copywriting and creative writing has cultivated her belief...See Olivia's full bio.