Effective Generational Marketing Is About Telling the Right Story

Use psychological insights to give your brand storytelling a strategic focus

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In 2023, there is no shortage of marketing messages. Truth be told, there’s a torrential flood. But if you’re savvy enough to tailor your storytelling to unique cohorts, your content strategy can soar above the rest.

The psychology behind marketing matters, and companies must move from telling to storytelling to put muscle behind their message.

Memorable storytelling helps a brand access more key regions of the human brain than simply presenting distilled information about a product. For master marketers like Nike, Kia, Apple and Dove, infusing persuasive psychology into the mix elevates consumers’ feelings of fondness, familiarity, recall and intent to purchase.

That said, not all content packs the same punch.

While some stories are universal and transcend time, messages don’t always resonate across cultures or demographics. As marketers, it’s our charge to understand why. How deep we dive—and how much we allow psychological insights to help shape stories—determines whether our messages are remembered for a lifetime or discarded as background noise in an information-saturated world.

Marketing through the ages

Broadly speaking, age differences among generational cohorts and their associated stages of life will steer how marketing and storytelling are perceived.

For example, studies suggest that emotional intelligence—the ability to identify, understand and manage emotions—tends to increase with age. Trends show older adults are more likely to prioritize positive narrative elements as way to regulate and uplift their emotional state. In contrast, younger adults tend to prioritize informational stories, which satisfies their elevated desire for knowledge in a digital and data-driven culture. Younger consumers also tend to be more distracted by negative information in marketing messages.

While negative impressions we’ve gleaned from stories across our lifetime become increasingly difficult to change as we age (the negativity effect), psychology’s Socioemotional Selectivity Theory demonstrates that our pursuit of meaningful goals increases. Likewise, so does our preference for more positive storytelling and disregard of messages with a negative slant (positivity bias). Other generational trend research suggests older adults are more attuned to the specifics of when a story occurred, while younger adults are more attuned to why a story took place.

You may be thinking, “Aren’t these minute details?” The answer is no—understanding generational diversity and how to uniquely tailor messages is key in marketing-based storytelling. Each major generation filters marketing messages differently, shedding light on how psychology drives impactful storytelling for each group.

Baby boomers

Baby boomers, born 1946-1964, are often associated with traditional media consumption and tend to value narratives that resonate with their personal experiences and provide a sense of nostalgia. Research suggests that this cohort responds to emotionally driven narratives that tap into their aspirations, ideals and core values.

Additionally, linear storytelling formats, like television shows or movies with clear plot lines, resonate with them. To enhance comprehension and recall, marketers targeting this cohort can incorporate familiar cultural and historical references and use clear, straightforward messaging techniques. Here’s a great example from Whole Foods.

Whole Foods

Storytelling tactics: Since baby boomers engage on mobile as well as print, TV and direct mail, how you frame information is more important than where. Having amassed wealth, they need messages that clarify the benefits their spending will provide. Value-based, easy-to-follow stories—with nods to cherished pastimes—are great for this group.

Gen X

Sandwiched between baby boomers and millennials, Generation X, born 1965-1980, is often drawn to messages that reflect their independence, resilience and skepticism toward invasive advertising techniques. As the smallest and oft-cited “forgotten” generation, marketers should avoid neglecting this cohort in favor of their generational neighbors; Gen Xers carry impressive buying power at about 31% of the country’s total income.

Companies should showcase personal growth, overcoming obstacles and the transformative power of their products and services—like how Target acknowledged Gen X and incorporated a touch of nostalgia in their Star Wars merchandise promo. Gen Xers also respond well to interactive content, utilizing digital platforms and social media to share experiences and connect with brands they trust.

Storytelling tactics: Keep it frank (no sales speak) and lean on real-world scenarios. Gen Xers may be busy juggling careers, children and caretaking of older family members, so brand content must be instantly recognizable and easily digestible: Consider creating snippets and combining audiovisuals to make your message accessible.

A recent Nielsen report shows both men and women of this age group are particularly motivated by TV ads that depict everyday domestic life, so video and streaming are prime channels to target. Since this generation straddles the line between pre- and post-digital worlds, consistency is vital, not only within your brand story but also across the platforms through which you convey it.


Born 1981-1996, millennials (aka Generation Y) came of age in a digitally interconnected world. They are highly receptive to narratives that reflect their values of inclusivity, social responsibility and authenticity. Consider the “We Are What We Do” campaign by socially conscious shoe brand Toms.


Millennials don’t necessarily move through life stages traditionally as previous generations have: They purchase fewer homes, start families later and may hold numerous jobs across their careers. Value-based storytelling that aligns with their individual lifestyles, passions and beliefs shows you truly understand them.

User-generated content (UGC), influencer collaborations and interactive elements trend strongly with this group; they can also be drawn to serialized narratives that unfold gradually across platforms, creating a sense of engagement and immersion. For example, brands like Nike, Denny’s and Kohl’s have debuted long-form video content on YouTube that extends each company’s online and mobile presence. 

Storytelling tactics: Your brand’s content must be optimized for mobile: Nine out of 10 millennials surf the web while watching TV, digesting an average of 5 hours and 39 minutes of online video per week. You’ll earn high scores with digestible video content and a strong YouTube, Instagram and Facebook presence. Millennials also appreciate two-way dialogue and join the conversation via UGC or by providing feedback. Storytelling is an opportunity to be transparent, personable and give your brand a human face.

Gen Z

Generation Z, born 1997-2012, the first true digital natives, seek personalization and experiences that align with their diverse and socially conscious values. Short-form content, such as videos, GIFs and micro-stories, are particularly effective in capturing Gen Z’s gaze. Marketers targeting this cohort should leverage social media platforms, influencers and UGC to craft relatable, shareable narratives tailored to individual preferences, such as Instagram’s “We Make Today” campaign.


According to research from McKinsey, the main driver for this generation is the search for truth. Similar to millennials, stories grow legs with Gen Z when they’re able to witness the people and values behind the brand. Don’t hesitate to elevate stories that emphasize your brand’s ethos while inviting this audience of content creators to participate in molding the narrative.

Storytelling tactics: While they appreciate short-form content platforms that cater to brief attention spans, Gen Z prefers companies that know how to use each social media platform uniquely, just as they do. Customize content that you share on TikTok with the platform’s audience in mind, then do the same for Snapchat (everyday moments), LinkedIn (career-centric), Instagram (aspirational), Twitter (news) and so on. Depicting authenticity with bloopers, behind-the-scenes videos or interviews with staff can showcase brand personality. And remember, influencers still hold sway: A recent report shows 24% of Gen Z women and 16% of men are guided by influencers when it comes to purchasing decisions.

Stories make the world go round, transcending time, place, and cultural and emotional boundaries. But executing the right story in a way that creates lasting impressions means understanding the psychological depth of your target audience.

No matter which generation consumers fall into, the average person is exposed to 4,000 to 10,000 advertisements per day. Recalibrating your storytelling, adapting messaging techniques and tapping into the psychological insights of each unique generation is how marketers cut through the clutter and punch above our weight.