Toniq Trending: Semiotics through the Ages

The article is written by Cheryl Swanson, Principal at Toniq, USA

Here at Toniq, we are heavily rooted in the ongoing study of semiotics. Semiotics is a study of the elements of communication in our culture that we create, evolve and interact with on a daily basis. This includes symbols and signs, linguistics and semantics, and the effects of how these codes come to define trends and shape cultures.  With methodologies stemming from anthropology and social sciences, we are able to uncover the semiotics that defines current generational trends. Here are a few examples.

Silent Generation, Seniors, The Elderly (1925-1945)

This older generation is quickly growing in population. According to the most recent 2010 US Census Bureau report, there were over 40 million people over the age of 65, the most compared to any previous census in history. And not only are they growing in number, they are living longer than expected. Many are outliving their financial expectations and savings creating huge lifestyle shifts.

Home Alone

It’s evident as you drive through mature neighborhoods across America; elderly crossing signs are becoming more prominent. The National Transportation and Safety Board measures the walking speeds of older pedestrians to determine where and how many of these signs are necessary and how long cross walk signals need to stay active to allow seniors to cross streets safely. This also shows that more seniors are actively going to town and walking, with or without any assistance. Most of these seniors are also living at home rather than opting for retirement homes. The economy deepened the gap between their limited income and expense, making it difficult to afford senior living communities. Also, their home is their comfort zone. The number of nursing homes dropped 9 percent in 9 years, from 2000 to 2009 and again, because of the economy, nursing homes lost $6.3 billion in 2011 alone, according to The Fiscal Times and the Kaiser Family Foundation. In effect, companies that cater to seniors living at home are thriving. Life Alert, the personal emergency response system, handles over 2 million calls a year from registered users, roughly one every 26 minutes. The growing success of Life Alert and other similar products are making it possible for seniors to stay independent and stay at home longer.

Travel & Leisure

And if 80 is the new 70, they are proving it. There are an abundance of travel sites just for seniors. One of the favorites we have come across is Malt Shop Memories Cruise, a cruise specifically catering to seniors with live acts from Frankie Avalon to Chubby Checker and the Wildcats and of course many Elvis impersonators. These cruise and vacation packages accommodate for all senior needs, including medical resources, wheelchair and handicap accessibility, special dining menus for diet restrictions, to providing elder care specialists to ensure the safety and quality of their vacation.

Dating Dot-Com

And to top it all off, they aren’t going at it alone. There are tons of senior dating sites online. This signifies that not only are they actively looking to date and find a partner to share their life, they are also tech savvy. So whatever you do, don’t call them old. They are independent, active, tech savvy seniors who just want to live life to the fullest.

Baby Boomers(1946-1964) Generation Jones (1956-1964)

An aptly named generation, baby boomers are booming in population, wealth and spending. At 80 million strong and controlling 75% of America’s wealth, the baby boomers should be a marketer’s most coveted target.  According to eMarketer, boomers control $2 trillion in annual spending at brick and mortar and online, combined. Although cautious of their money, boomers are willing to pay for beauty, luxury and travel.

Mind & Body

Boomers are physically active and aim to preserve the youth of their body and mind. Yoga among boomers is constantly rising with studios dedicating classes to the 50+ age group. There are also fitness centers geared directly to this demographic. For example, Nifty After Fifty, a franchise of gyms for 50+ men and women has services which include clinically supervised full-body training, physical therapy, Prescribed Fitness programs, computer simulated driving skills, personal nutritional counseling, and social connections; and BrainAerobics, a specialized program that sharpens memory and improves the ability to retrieve and remember information. In 2011, Nifty After Fifty earned over $11 million operating in only four states in the US. A similar company is Silver Sneakers with nearly 23,000 Facebook followers. We foresee this trend growing as more fitness centers aim to target and capitalize on this generation.

Beauty—In the Eye of the Model

Boomer women and men are beauty focused but what they seek is different than that of a millennial. They are not looking for voluminous lashes, but more skincare and cosmetics with extra benefits such as anti-ageing, sun protection, and even skin boosting nutrients. Procter & Gamble’s Olay brand and L’Oréal’s namesake brand, L’Oreal, were the leading two players for boomers in beauty and personal care in the US in 2011. Why? Their advertising messages were relevant to boomers. They used spokes-models that are realistic in physical age, like Andie McDowell and Diane Keaton for L’Oreal and Kim Cattrall for Olay. For men, Dove Men Care uses boomer sports stars like Rex Ryan, John Elway, and Shaquille O’Neal. Ultimately, the message has to be relevant and the communication has to come from someone that boomers can relate to.

Driving The Car Market

People age 50 and older now buy more than 6 of every 10 new vehicles sold, that’s 62%, says a new study from J.D. Power and AARP. The big change has come from the days of buying new cars to leasing. Boomers are realizing the benefits of leasing which in turn brings them back to the dealership every few years for a new car. Boomers were aware of the impending recession and most were able to save some of their money and effectively it has earned them a nice disposable income affording them with luxury cars. According to a study, “top brands purchased by Baby Boomers are premium automakers known for high-end appointments, luxury and flashy appeal. First on the list of popular Baby Boomer brands is Mercedes-Benz, which sells 56 percent of its vehicles to Baby Boomers. Mercedes is closely followed by Jaguar and Porsche. Other high-end brands preferred by Baby Boomers include BMWLexus and Volvo.”

Renovate to Accommodate

Following in the footsteps of their parent’s generation, boomers too want to stay in their own homes as they age. This is driving a huge trend towards home renovations to suit their lifestyle and nest changes. A popular magazine, 50 Plus Builder, provides tips for active adults, assisted living and senior living communities. Many of the editorials focus on renovating with sustainability in mind as well as building smart houses and luxury remodeling.  Another company, Lennar provides a Next Gen housing service. Again, as the economy affected most people, many boomers are found having to take in their parents, children and grandchildren. This “sandwich generation” living is becoming more popular. Next Gen offers custom home building and renovations to accommodate these living situations. Moving forward, we will see more architects design homes with extended families in mind – all with luxury design aesthetic to suite boomer tastes.

Gen X, Slackers, Generation Flux (1965-1979)

Generation X is relatively small at 46 million compared to boomers and millennials.  They are known for their political apathy producing trends like grunge and punk rock, and have proven to be a generation that questions everything, including authority. Their rebellious rants are actually efforts to improve society, government and education. In reality, they are the ones that have pushed forth some of the biggest innovations and have bridged the gap of everyday life and technology.


Growing up as the first generation of latch-key kids and MTV, gen-x’ers have found a way to bring 8-tracks to MP3s to the cloud. As a generation that was forced to grow up quickly and take care of themselves, they became creators and inventors. Did you know that Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, as well as Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, and Flipboard co-founder Mike Mccue are all gen-x’ers? As their parent’s were at work, they were figuring out ways to take analog technology and 8-bit video game graphics to the next level. And through it all, they are still the pushers of technology. According to the Forrester report, 74% of online X’ers use online banking, 72% use it to research products or companies, and 81% have made purchases online. The average gen-x’er spends approximately $311 online every 3 months. All of these signs prove that this generation will continue to innovate in the world of technology and be early adaptors to integrate new technologies into their everyday lives.


Having been one of the largest demographic groups to be laid off during the recession, gen-x’ers can shed the label of slackers as they are also the fastest growing entrepreneurial demographic. They are making strides from their adversity creating new trends such as a food truck revolution, building DIY on and offline shops and creating new futures for themselves. produced a video interviewing NY and Portland food truck entrepreneurs, majority of which are all gen-x’ers. “The “why” almost universally seems to be “because I got laid off in the recession,” but the “how” is a little more interesting.” And the food truck trend is not slowing down by any means – every city in the nation is creating it’s own flavor on wheels and you can find them and follow them on Twitter and Facebook. For many of the same reasons as the food truck entrepreneurs, Etsy, a DIY online retail outlet, sells handmade goods from users. Etsy reports that for April 2012, $65.9 million of goods were sold representing over 3 million items. And who are the majority sellers on Etsy? Gen-x’ers. Based on Etsy’s own research, the average seller is a 35 years old woman and is often a married woman with (or about to have) young children, with a higher-than-average household income, and a good education. These are signs of gen-x’ers using technology and passion to fulfill their entrepreneurial dreams.

X-tra Credit

And for the first time in many years, gen-x’ers are the ones proving that the economy may be rebounding. According to Cardbeat, gen-x’ers now exceed boomers in credit card use, balance transfers, and premium card ownership. And from the Second Annual American Express Platinum Luxury Survey, for the first time ever, Generation X is spending substantially more on luxury purchases than their Baby Boomer counterparts by roughly 18% in luxury categories. A lot of this is in response to their age. Gen-x’ers are reaching the peak of their professional lives. They are also very thorough shoppers. As the first really “wired” generation, the ones who also helped create and shape the technology, they are avid online researchers who read product reviews and consumer reports. And because of this, it is key for companies that want to reach them to have a presence online. And remember, this is a small group that will quickly be pushed aside by millennials so all the marketing efforts used for gen-x will have to be bigger, better and faster for the next generation.

Gen Y, Millennials, Peter Pan Generation, Echo Boomers (1980-2000)

Millennials are a generational cohort that makes up one-third of the US population. They are the most culturally diverse and technologically connected generation in history. There’s a gazillion studies and trend reports of this vast and diverse group. But what happens when you have an office and personal life that integrates all of the generations mentioned here? We have deeper insights and understanding of not just the trends but how this generation is affecting brands, people and the world.

iMusic, iTime

We know that they are digitally connected, constantly. They wear headphones while they work like it’s a natural accessory for the office place. They tune into a free music site where they can also be social and see what their friends are listening too. Music is as much a part of their day as emails and texting. And with free music sharing sites, music is not something that has to be bought anymore. Music has become social and shared. In Spotify’s first year, US listeners played over 13 billion tracks and shared 27,834,742 songs between Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks and nearly 23.7 million hours have been logged discovering playlists, lyrics, concerts, and reviews. As for Pandora, they have over 80 million registered users and nearly 17 million unique monthly visitors. And MOG, the new competitor in the arena; their services have been purchased by Ford for it’s 2012 models as well as Beats headphone.  Napster was the first generation of shared music started by gen-x’ers. Now, millennials are the target behind figuring out how to make shared music work and profitable.

It is the millennials that have evolved our roman English language. Hashtags and acronyms are part of our everyday digital dialect. Sexting, retweeting, OMG, LOL, YOLO, dogfooding, inboxing are just a few new words that have been added to highly respected dictionaries. But if we don’t keep up with the millennial lexicon we may be left behind speaking an old digital language as they move ahead. Got to learn it now!#YOLO


We had reported a while back about Gen-Luxey, the millennial spending boom on luxury goods. This still holds true, but there is a bit more of a conscientious thought before purchases now. Brands with a philanthropic vision or a story to tell are becoming more important. Although not a new brand with a story, TOMS took off this past year with a heavy marketing campaign to millennials and it seems to have been very successful. TOMS was first accepted and bought mostly by women and the eco-conscious shopper. However, with a little marketing push, millennials feel empowered by TOMS. The story isn’t contrived or dictated to them. The story is heartfelt and authentic. Now TOMS even caters to their “luxe” buying habit. You can get $135 TOMS at Neiman Marcus. Now that’s shopping with luxey-conscience.


And we can’t ignore the trend that they are foodies. This is the generation that grew up with childhood obesity as such a big issue. Now, as they get older, they are more educated and aware of what they eat, where it comes from, and if it is good for you. Also, as a diverse generation, they are more inclined to try ethnic foods from around the world. According to Packaged Facts, “Collegiate Gen Y Eating: Culinary Trend Mapping Report”, Asian, Italian and Mexican top the list for ethnic meals. They also found that chickpeas are the go-to food on college campuses. More students are also aligning themselves along the less-meat to meatless spectrum, from “flexitarian” to vegetarian to vegan and even raw diets. Who knew? Chickpeas! If you are having some millennials over, grab some hummus or whip up a vegetarian stir fry.

About the Author

Ms. Swanson founded Toniq in 1999 after leading several design firms to world-class status with her emotions-based, visual approach to brand strategy development. At Toniq, she continues to evolve her strategic expertise by seeking new ways to connect with consumers.

Swanson’s years of trend tracking, design management and research have coalesced in a theory of “Brand Effervescence ™” an innovative approach to brand building. This image-based approach is a synthesis of cultural anthropology, consumer trends research, marketing and design, and a study of the psychology of symbolism and color.