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Practice Management > Building Your Business

Talkin' about my generation? Using cultural references in marketing

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“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” I heard a marketing consultant say in a recent meeting. I knew he was quoting the scene from “The Wizard of Oz.” But judging by the puzzled looks on their faces, the 20-somethings in the meeting had no idea what he was talking about.

Situations like this don’t just make you feel your age; they painfully illustrate the fact that cultural points of reference are constantly shifting, and big gaps can exist between generations. If you’re marketing to a specific generation and using cultural references in your marketing campaign, your message misses the mark if you don’t get it exactly right. So what’s the right way to use cultural references in marketing? Here are four tips:

1. Know your client. Like all aspects of a smart marketing strategy, you have to start with the target audience. How old are the people who buy your products and services? What touchstones in their lives might have cultural references that relate to your product? Talk to them face to face to find out.

2. Don’t force it. Are you sure your creative approach should use a cultural reference? A forced cultural reference is guaranteed to backfire. If it’s not a natural fit, find a different creative strategy.

3. Get the little details right. If you do use a cultural reference to evoke a memory of a particular place and time in your marketing, the images, music, styles and other details must be completely accurate. See any episode of “Mad Men” for a master class on how to do this well.

4. Keep current, especially if your target audience is younger than you. The world of the college class of 2014 is vastly different from when you left for college. They’ve never written in cursive, for example, and with cell phones to tell them the time, there’s no need for a wrist watch.

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Jean M. Gianfagna is a marketing strategy expert and the founder and president of Gianfagna Strategic Marketing, which provides marketing strategy and creative services to business-to-business and consumer marketers. Gianfagna has been creating and implementing marketing communications plans and programs for more than 30 years. Read her blog for more marketing tips at


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