Modern Family: A Reality for Today’s Marketers

Marketing is all about evolution. And with so much hype around the progression of data and technology, it can be easy for marketers to overlook the transformations occurring at the very core of their relationship-driven craft: changes in people and their families.

While the picturesque mom-dad-and-two-kids unit isn’t extinct, more modern family configurations are taking form. In its “Marketing to the Modern Family” research, public relations firm Edelman reports that, according to 2010 U.S. Census data, only 4% of families align with how the U.S. Census defines a “traditional” family, consisting of a stay-at-home mom, working dad, and kids under the age of 18. In addition, in its “Marketing to the Modern Family” report, culture-tracking agency sparks & honey reveals that more than 12 million households are run by single parents, 25% of U.S. same-sex couples are parents, and one in eight Americans between the ages of 40 and 60 head a “sandwich family” household  (i.e. taking care of a child and a parent).

“There has to be an appreciation that the family unit has shifted,” says Terry Young, CEO of sparks & honey. “You have to accept, as a philosophy for your brand, that this shift has happened. You have to have products and design products that actually meet the shift. In your marketing and communications, you have to have imagery and copy that actually shows that you understand that the shift is here.”

While Young says the traditional family composition has been shifting for more than a decade, he claims that there has been a “rapid acceleration” of new family configurations within the past 24 to 36 months. Young primarily attributes this uptick to economic shifts and an increase in acceptance of non-traditional family units.

With strain from the recession and unemployment mounting, parents have had to turn to those outside of their immediate family to help make ends meet, such as relying more heavily on grandparents and professional aunts with no kids (or PANKS), Young says. In addition, many parents have abandoned traditional gender roles. According to Edelman’s research, 62% of moms and 54% of dads believe that parenting roles are shifting away from traditional mom and dad definitions, and 33% of dads claim to have adopted a “traditional mom” role. In fact, the U.S. Census estimated that there were 176,000 stay-at-home dads in 2011.

Procter & Gamble laundry detergent brand Tide targeted this daddy demographic in its 2011 TV commercials.

In addition to economic factors, Young says there has been an increase in “accepting things that had been typically seen as on the fringe,” such as new parenting roles and same-sex marriage, within the past 24 months. For example, according to a March 2013 poll by Pew Research Center, 49% of Americans surveyed support same-sex marriage, compared to 44% who are opposed. In 2001, 35% of U.S. respondents favored same-sex marriage and 57% were opposed.

While Young still encourages brands to market to traditional family configurations, he discourages marketers from solely targeting this audience. For example, according to Edelman’s research, 66% of gay dads admit to being more inclined to purchase from a brand whose ads reflect their sexuality.

“I think if you only [market to traditional families], you alienate other individuals, and I think that people have become much more mindful of that, and they’re seeking out brands that represent who they are,” Young says. “Sometimes you can get by with it. But if I find a brand that does talk to me, then it makes a difference. So, I think you miss an opportunity if you only focus on the traditional family unit as it’s been defined for the past couple of decades.”

Young says Nordstrom is one brand that models this acceptance philosophy particularly well, such as displayed in its The Ultimate Wedding Party video featuring a diverse group of wedding attendees.

“Instead of showing the white dress and the woman and the guy getting married, they show the wedding party, and it’s a mix of different types of backgrounds, ages, and sexuality. [It’s] saying that all types can be celebratory from a marriage standpoint,” Young says. “That’s a way of not alienating anyone and embracing a much broader segment.”

Nordstrom’s aim was simply to be representative if its customers. “While Nordstrom has shared our support of the idea that every person should have the freedom to marry, we weren’t using this video to make any sort of statement or underscore our position,” says Nordstrom spokesperson Kendall Ault. “We simply wanted to include a cross-section of people we thought best reflected the customers we serve, as well as our employees.”

Young says the modern family impacts most industries, but adds that targeting different family configurations particularly affects those in the consumer packaged goods, finance, toy, and automotive industries. However, Young acknowledges that not all customers may support a brand’s decision to target more modern families, especially when it comes to addressing sexual orientation.

“I think there are certain configurations that have been around long enough that it’s not controversial at all,” Young says. “When you bring sexuality into it, it becomes controversial because it gets tied back to religion. This is going to have to be something that every company decides for themselves.”

For example, Gap Inc. launched a 2012 “Love Comes in Every Shade” holiday campaign, featuring celebrities displaying various forms of love ranging from puppy love to sibling love to best friend love.

“This campaign features some well-known actors, musicians, and their loved ones, all wearing clothes from our new holiday collection,” said Seth Farbman, Gap’s Global CMO, in a press release. “Their personal relationships help remind us that every family is unique and often goes beyond just those we’re related to—it also includes the people we share our lives and deepest passions with. This campaign celebrates these diverse, optimistic views on family and the many forms love can take.”

In response, the public left a slew of positive and negative feedback on one of the campaign’s images posted on Facebook featuring married couple musician Rufus Wainwright & artistic director Jörn Weisbrodt.

Young says making the decision to respond to such feedback “really has to come down to the philosophy of the brand.” However, he encourages brands to be completely transparent with their customers when undergoing a modern family marketing shift. When forming a brand philosophy, Young advises companies to analyze demographic, transactional, and social data to better gauge customer sentiment and drive authenticity.

“You can’t create authentic content unless you understand the pulse of these different family configurations. The ability to monitor in a rapidly accelerating shift of social norms is really critical to a brand,” Young says. “If you seem like you’re doing it purely to drive profits, as opposed to profits plus having a higher purpose or higher set of values, that’s where you get into problems. The ability to listen and shape content is critical.”

In addition to family configurations evolving, Young says the way brands communicate with families has evolved, as well. According to sparks & honey’s research, today’s youth will spend 25% of their lives in front of a screen. With Millennial children being “mobile natives” it critical for marketers to provide forms of brand interaction outside of traditional channels, Young says.

“The modern dinner you used to think of was everyone getting together, eating together, and talking about their day. Now, the modern dinner includes maybe eating together and everyone doing different things on different channels in real time,” Young says. “If you want to fit into the schedules of the modern family and be able to connect with them, you have to have a much more robust and diverse channel mix.”

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