Defining moments: Segmenting by cohorts
Charles D Schewe, Geoffrey E Meredith, Stephanie M Noble. Marketing Management. Chicago: Fall 2000. Vol. 9, Iss. 3; pg. 48, 6 pgs

Coming of age experiences influence values, attitudes, preferences, and buying behaviors for a lifetime.

Cohorts are highly influenced by the external events that were happening when they were "coming of age" (generally between the years 17-23). For example, those now in their late seventies and early eighties lived through the Great Depression while baby boomers witnessed the assassination of JFK, saw other political assassinations, shared the Vietnam War, and lived through the energy crisis. Such shared experiences distinguish one cohort from another.

Today, many call marketing to birth groups generational marketing. Generations differ from cohorts. Each generation is defined by its years of birth. For example, a generation is usually 20 to 25 years in length, or roughly the time it takes a person to grow up and have children. But a cohort can be as long or short as the external events that defines it. The cohort defined by World War II, for example, is only six years long.

Consider how different cohorts treat spending and saving. Today's Depression cohort, those ages 79 to 88 in 2000, began working during the Great Depression. Their conduct with respect to money is very conservative. Having experienced the worst of economic times, this age group values economic security and frugality. They still save for that "rainy day." Those, however, in the 55 to 78 age category today were influenced by the Depression, but also experienced the boom times of the Post-World War 11 period. This group has attitudes toward saving that are less conservative; they are more willing to spend than the older group. In sharp contrast to the "Depression-scarred" is the free-- wheeling generation that grew up during the "hippie revolution." Russell (1993) calls this birth group the "free agents," since its members defied the establishment, sought individualism, and were skeptical of everything. This cohort can be characterized as "buy now, pay later" and its members will carry this value into the century ahead as they journey through middle age and on into old age.

Cohort effects are life-long effects. They provide the communality for each cohort being targeted as a separate market segment. And since these cohorts can be described by the ages of their constituents, they offer an especially efficient vehicle for direct marketing campaigns.

Six American Cohorts

In 2000, American adults can be divided into six distinct cohorts, or market segments, ranging in age from the Depression cohort (age 79-88) to what many people are calling Generation X (age 24-34). This division is based on intensive content analysis of a wide range of publications and studies scanned over a 10-year period. The roughly 4 million people who are age 89 and older are not included for two reasons. First, this group is much smaller than other cohorts. Also, much of their consumption behavior is controlled by physical need. There also are more than 72 million persons under the age of 24. This newly emerging cohort can be referred to as the "N-Gen," since the impact of the internet revolution appears to be the key defining moment shaping this group's values. Yet it is too early to know their "defining moment-driven" values, preferences, and attitudes because external forces take some time to influence values. A brief description of each of the six cohorts follows.

The Depression Cohort

This group was born between 1912 and 1921, came of age from 1930 to 1939, and is age 79-88 today. Currently this cohort contains 13,054,000 people, or 7% of the adult U.S. population.

This cohort was defined by the Great Depression. Maturing, entering the workforce, trying to build and support families during the '30s had a profound influence on this cohort in so many areas, but most strongly in finances: money and savings. To many of today's business managers, the Depression seems like ancient history, almost apocryphal, like the Great Flood. Yet to this cohort, it was all too real. To put the Depression in perspective, the S&P 400 (the broadest measure of the economy as a whole available at that time) declined 69% between 1929 and 1932 in a relentless and agonizing fall. It wasn't until 1953-24 years and a World War later-before the S&P index got back to where it had been in 1929! People starting out in this environment were scarred in ways they carry with them today. In particular, financial security still rules their thinking as reflected in the following example.

A Depression Cohort Marketing Example. One savings and loan bank on the West Coast took a cohort perspective to boost deposits from this cohort. They used an icon familiar to this age group, George Feneman (Groucho Marx's television sidekick on You Bet Your Life), who assured this cohort of the safety of their money. He stressed that the financial institution uses their money for mortgages. "We build houses," he says, which is just what this cohort can relate to, since preserving their homes was central to the financial concerns of this age group.

The World War II Cohort

Born 1922-1927, this cohort came of age from 1940 to 1945. Its members are age 73-- 78 today. Currently 9,465,000 people, it represents 5% of our adult population.

World War II defined this cohort. Economically it was not a boom time (the S&P 500 gained 50% from 1940 to 1945, but it was still only half of what it had been in 1929), but unemployment was no longer a problem. This cohort was unified by a common enemy, shared experiences, and especially for the 16 million in the military, a sense of deferment and delayed gratification. In World War I, the average duration of service was less than 12 months; in World War II, the average was 33 months. Marriages, careers, and children were all put on hold until the war was over.

This sense of deferment made the World War II cohort an intensely romantic one. The yearning for loved ones left behind, and for those who left to fight is reflected in the music and literature and movies of the time (e.g., I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm, Homesick, That's All, 'Til Then, and You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To). And, while for many the war was an unpleasant experience, for many others it was the apex of their lives. They had a defined role (frequently more important in status than any other they would ever have), a measure of freedom from their particular social norms, and an opportunity to travel, some to exotic foreign shores, others just away from the towns and cornfields of their youth. The horrors and heroism experienced by our soldiers imbedded values that stay with them still. And this influence was clearly depicted in the award-winning and highly acclaimed movies of 1998: Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line.

A World War II Cohort Marketing Example. Using cohort words, symbols, and memories can bring substantial rewards for marketers. A direct marketing campaign designed for a cable television provider to increase subscriptions is just such an example. Postage stamp-sized pictures of Douglas McArthur were put on the comer of the envelope with the copy "If you remember V-J Day, we've got some new programs you're going to love." This attention-getter immediately communicated that the content is for members of the targeted cohort. When this approach was used, subscription response rates surged from 1.5% to more than 10%.

The Post-War Cohort

Members of this cohort were born from 1928 to 1945, came of age from 1946 to 1963, and are age 55 to 73 in 2000. Currently 42,484,000 people, 22.7% of the adult population are Post-Wars.

This cohort is a very long one-18 years span the youngest to the oldest members. They were the beneficiaries of a long period of economic growth and relative social tranquillity. Economically, the S&P 500, which had struggled until 1953 just to get back to where it had been before the Depression, then tripled over the next 10 years. There were dislocations during this time-the Korean War in the early '50s, Sputnik in 1957, the first stirrings of the civil rights movement, a brief recession in 1958-but by and large, at least on the surface, things were pretty quiet.

The tenor of the times was conservative, seeking the comfortable, the secure, and the familiar. It was a time that promoted conformity and shrank from individual expression, which is why the overt sexuality of Elvis and the rebellion of James Dean were at once popular and scandalous.

A Post-War Cohort Marketing Example. The Vermont Country Store, highly successful marketers of nostalgic products difficult to find, uses cohort images and memories to target market segments. To capture the attention of Post-War cohort customers, it peppers its catalog with pictures from the '50s and value-reflective copy along the outside of various pages such as:

"When I was young, I knew kids who were allowed in their living rooms only on special occasions -- and usually under adult supervision. Now, instead of a chilly room used only to entertain on holidays, we can really relax in our living rooms."

and "In high school, buying clothes was easy. The more we dressed according to the conventions of the day, the better. If we'd known then what we know now, we could have looked every bit as good and been a lot more comfortable. But then, that wasn't the point of being a teenager."

Boomers - I

The Baby Boom is usually defined as the 76 million people born between 1946 and 1964, since this is indeed when the annual birthrate bulged to more than 4 million per year. However there are two boomer cohorts. The first of these are the leadingedge boomers and they are 32,531,000 people strong, 17.4% of the adult population. They were born from 1946 to 1954, and came of age from 1963 to 1972. They are age 46 to 54 today.

Due to their numbers, the baby boomers as a whole have dominated marketing in America since they first appeared on the scene. When they were truly babies, they made Dr. Spock's Infant and Child Rearing the second best-selling book in the history of the world, after the Bible. As pre-teens, they dominated the media in shows like Leave It to Beaver and in merchandising with fads like Davy Crockett caps and Hula Hoops. As teens they propelled Coke, McDonald's, and Motown into corporate giants, and ensured the success of Clearasil.

The "Boomer I" cohort began coming of age in 1963, the start of a period of profound dislocations that still haunt our society today. It ended shortly after the last soldier died in Vietnam. The Kennedy presidency seemed like the natural extension of continued good times, of economic growth and domestic stability. It represented a liberated and early transfer of power from an older leader to a much younger one.

The Kennedy assassination, followed by that of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, signaled an end to the status quo and galvanized a very large boomer cohort just entering it's formative years. Suddenly the leadership (LBJ) was no longer 'theirs,' the war (Vietnam) was not their war, and authority and the establishment which had been the bedrock of earlier cohorts disintegrated in the melee of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

However, the Boomer I cohort continued to experience economic good times. Despite the social turmoil, the economy as a whole, as measured by the S&P 500, continued an upward climb. The Boomer I cohort wanted a lifestyle at least as good as they had experienced as children in the '50s, and with nearly 20 years of steady economic growth as history, they had no reason not to spend whatever they earned or could borrow to achieve it.

The Boomer I cohort still heavily values its individualism (remember, they were and are the "Me Generation,") indulgence of self, stimulation (a reflection of the drug culture they grew up with), and questioning nature. Marketing to this cohort demands attention to providing more information to back up product claims and to calm skeptical concerns. And these boomers prize holding on to their youth as the following example shows.

A Boomer I Cohort Marketing Example. The California Prune Board recommended to its plum producers that they plant many more trees, since large numbers of baby boomers were turning 50 and the 50+ age bracket (indeed, the 65+) was the heaviest consumer of prunes. However, boomers did not relate to prunes; they did not come of age with prunes as part of their consumption lives. Why, then, would they eat prunes in later life? In fact, prunes reflect cohort preferences of their parents- those same parents boomers did not want to trust ("Don't Trust Anyone Over 30").

Research into the chemical composition of prunes, however, found that they naturally stimulate the body's production of testosterone and estrogen...just the ingredients aging boomers desire to hold on to their sexual vitality and sense of youth. Clinical studies to provide advertising claim support for the estrogen and testosterone benefits were being undertaken. This approach could lead to, for example, a radio or television commercial featuring Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Eve requests some fruit for sustenance, since they have a big night ahead populating the earth. She is delighted to receive a platter including one lonely prune (no apples, please). Her comment as she gulps the prune: "Well, this should get us through Asia, at least!"

Boomers II

The trailing-edge boomers were born between 1956 and 1965, came of age from 1973 to 1983, and are age 35 to 45 today. Currently 46,794,000 people are Boomer H's, 26% of the adult population.

The external events that separate the Boomer I from the Boomer II cohort were less dramatic than The Depression or World War II, but were just as real. They were composed of the stop of the Vietnam War (it never really ended - just stopped), Watergate (the final nail in the coffin of institutions and the establishment), and the Arab Oil Embargo that ended the stream of economic gains that had continued largely uninterrupted since 1945.

By 1973, something had changed for a person coming of age in America. While faith in institutions had gone, so had the idealistic fervor that made the Boomer I cohort so cause-oriented. Instead, those in the Boomer II cohort exhibited a narcissistic preoccupation with themselves which manifested itself in everything from the self-help movement (I'm OK - You're OK, and various young and aging gurus imported from India) to self-deprecation (Saturday Night Live, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman).

The change in economic fortunes had a more profound effect than is commonly realized. Throughout their childhood and as they came of age, the Boomer I cohort members experienced good times; their expectations that these good times would continue were thus reinforced, and the cohort mindset formed at that time can be seen today in a persistent resistance to begin saving for retirement. Things had been good, and they were going to stay good-somehow.

For the Boomer II cohort, the money mindset was much different. The Oil Shock of 1973 sent the economy tumbling: the S&P 500 lost 30% of its value between 1973 and 1975! At the same time, inflation began to resemble that of a banana republic. During this period, the real interest rate (Prime minus the CPI) hit a record low of 4%. In those circumstances, debt as a means of maintaining a lifestyle makes great economic sense. And a cohort with a `debt imprint will never lose it. Boomers II are spenders just like the Boomer Is, but for a different reason. It's not because they expect good times, but because they assume they can always get a loan, take out a second mortgage on the house, get another credit card, and never have to "pay the piper."

A Boomer II Cohort Marketing Example. A major finance company is currently aggressively promoting home equity loans with radio advertising directly oriented toward this cohort mindset. The commercial in essence states "Everyone else has a BMW, or a new set of golf clubs, and they're not any better than you are. Even if you don't think you can afford them, you can have them, now-with a home equity loan from XYZ company. And, while you're at it, why not take the Hawaiian vacation, too-you deserve it!" The copy brings on severe anxiety attacks for the World War II and Depression cohorts, but it makes perfect sense to the Boomer IIs.

Generation X

Born 1966-1976, Gen Xers came of age from 1984 to 1994. They are age 24 to 34 today. Currently 41,119,000 people, they represent 21.9% of the adult population.

Much has been written about Generation X, most of it derogatory in tone: "Slackers" (from the movie of that name); "Whiners;" "a generation of aging Bart Simpsons,' "armed and possibly dangerous." That seems to be unfair. The generation of F. Scott Fitzgerald was widely characterized as "Lost," and that describes Generation X. This cohort has nothing to hang on to-- not the institutions of the Post-War cohort, not the Boomer I's idealism and causes and institutions to resist, not the narcissism of the Boomer Ils. These were the children of divorce and daycare, latch-key kids of the 1980s; no wonder they exhibit so little foundation. The fact that they are searching for anchors can be seen in their seemingly contradictory "retro" behavior-the resurgence of proms, coming-out parties, and fraternities that the Boomers rejected.

It can be seen in their political conservatism, which is also motivated by a "What's in it for me?" cynicism that repudiates liberal redistribution tendencies. And they feel alienated, reflected in the violence and brutal sex of their popular culture, and resigned to a world that seems to have little hope of offering them the lifestyles of their parents.

A Generation X Cohort Marketing Example. So how does a marketer reach a cohort with no defining moments? One way is with irreverent, rebellious, self-mocking, and sassy portrayals-- which helps explain the popularity of South Park, the Simpsons, and the infamous Married With Children. Commercials like Maybelline's ad for Expert Eyes Shadow with Christy Turlington also exemplifies this sassiness. The ad shows the stunning model with beautifully made-up eyes illuminated by moonlight. A voice-over says: "Was it a strange celestial event..that gave her such bewitching eyes?" Then Turlington, sitting on her living room sofa, laughs and says, "Get over it."

Managerial Implications

Cohort segmentation provides a most intriguing additional method for separating consumer markets. Age has long been a segmentation variable, but this innovative approach shows it is defining moments that shape mindsets and provide the true value of age targeting. While not a key behavior driver for all product categories, cohort segmentation is particularly appropriate for food, music, apparel, automotive, financial and insurance, as well as entertainment products. Product creation and management over its life cycle is clearly ripe for cohort implementation.

Cohort analysis can help in designing communication campaigns. Determining music, movie stars, or other icons that cohorts identified with in their past is an effective selling technique. These tactics work because they rely on nostalgia marketing, that is, tapping deep, pleasurable memories of what seemed simpler, better times. They also work by calling out the target in an implicit way. "This message is for you!" Many companies have already engaged in this tactic as evidenced by the growing number of songs, logos, and actual commercial footage from the past.

Additionally, the changing nature of values across cohorts has important implications for marketers. As new cohorts enter the marketplace, organizations need to keep apprised of their changing value structures. In particular, as the age distribution in the United States changes, so will consumers' wants and needs. A cohort analysis can help track and forecast these wants and needs. In the 1980s, for example, the age segment of 50-65 years was comprised mostly of Depression and World War II cohort consumers. Today, it is made up mostly of the Post-War cohort and in 2010 it will be all Boomers. The demographic age segmentation-age 50 to 65-is the same, but the composition of that segment is constantly changing. It's a moving target.

Final Thought

Cohort segmentation works in the United States. But what about outside of the United States? Would cohorts be the same as here? Our research has found cohort values derived from defining moments indeed do exist abroad. Germany, for example, witnessed no Depression as Hitler's war effort energized the economy. In Brazil, the 1970s found a dictatorship imposing severe censorship, which created the need for personal freedoms in individuals coming of age during that time. In Jordan, the Six-Day War in 1967 dramatically displaced Jordanians from their homeland and they now long for stability in maintaining a place to live. As these examples illustrate, cohort segmentation offers a rich opportunity here..and around the world.

Additional Reading

Meredith, Geoffrey and Charles D. Schewe (1994), "The Power of Cohorts," American Demographics, December, 22-31.
Rentz, Joseph 0. and Fred D. Reynolds (1991), "Forecasting the Effects of an Aging Population on Product Consumption: An Age-Period-Cohort Framework," Journal ofMarketing Research, 28, (3), 355-60.

-, -, and Roy G. Stout (1983), "Analyzing Changing Consumption Patterns With Cohort Analysis," Journal of Marketing Research, 20, 12-20.
Russell, Cheryl (1993), The Master Trend: How the Baby Boom Generation Is Remaking America, Plenum, New York.

Schewe, Charles D. and Stephanie M. Noble (forthcoming), "Market Segmentation by Cohorts: The Value and Validity of Cohorts in America and Abroad," Journal of Marketing Management (Scotland).
Schuman, Howard and Jacqueline Scott (1989), "Generations and Collective Memories," American Sociological Review, 54, (3), 359-381.

Smith, J. Walker and Ann Clurman (1997), Rocking the Ages, Harper Business, New York.
Strauss, William and Neil Howe (1997), The Fourth Turning, Broadway Books, New York.

[Author Affiliation]
Charles D. Schewe is professor of marketing at the University of Massachusetts and a principal in Lifestage Matrix Marketing. Focusing on the marketing implications of the aging process, Schewe has advised such companies as Coca-Cola, Kellogg's, Kraft General Foods, Time-Life, Lucky Stores, Grand Metropolitan, and K-Mart. He may be reached at

[Author Affiliation]
Geoffrey E. Meredith is president of Lifestage Matrix Marketing located in Lafayette, Calif. Formerly a senior vice president at Olgivy & Mather, Ketchum Communications, and Hal Riney and Partners, he also spent two years with Age Wave (see V1,N3 MM). He may be reached at

[Author Affiliation]
Stephanie M. Noble is a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts. She may be reached at

Indexing (document details)
Author(s): Charles D Schewe, Geoffrey E Meredith, Stephanie M Noble
Author Affiliation: Charles D. Schewe is professor of marketing at the University of Massachusetts and a principal in Lifestage Matrix Marketing. Focusing on the marketing implications of the aging process, Schewe has advised such companies as Coca-Cola, Kellogg's, Kraft General Foods, Time-Life, Lucky Stores, Grand Metropolitan, and K-Mart. He may be reached at

Geoffrey E. Meredith is president of Lifestage Matrix Marketing located in Lafayette, Calif. Formerly a senior vice president at Olgivy & Mather, Ketchum Communications, and Hal Riney and Partners, he also spent two years with Age Wave (see V1,N3 MM). He may be reached at

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