What is a ‘modern family’ and why do brands want to appeal to them?

3901 2600 Never Quiet - Atomic London

I increasingly see briefs that state the need to appeal to ‘modern families’.

It’s a strange request when you think about it. The use of the word ‘modern’ is tautology. The only families we can appeal to today are modern families, and yet it’s a word that’s used again and again.

So I guess it’s worth exploring why.

To my mind, writing the words ‘modern families’ is a recognition that the notion of ‘family’ has changed dramatically in recent years, together with an acknowledgment that the writer doesn’t really know what that change means for brands trying to appeal to them.

It conjures up overused imagery of multi-racial families comprised of anything other than mum, dad and two kids, all in separate rooms, on separate devices, rarely coming together, other than when said brand is trotted out of course.

But is that really what we mean by ‘modern family’? Mere changes in the colour, size and activities of families today? Surely there must be something more fundamental at play.

My belief, is that at the heart of the notion of ‘modern family’ lies a fundamental shift in the construct as opposed to the composition of family life.

The traditional family construct was a hierarchy with breadwinning at the top, homemaking in the middle, and dependency at the bottom. By contrast, the modern family construct is a democracy. It’s circular, not triangular, with equal importance given to every function.

To my mind, four things have happened to create this fundamental shift.

The first is generational. Put simply, parents today are no longer Baby Boomers. They’re Gen X and Y, which means they grew up plugged in to popular culture. They followed fashions and trends, went to gigs, festivals, took drugs and so on.

Their view of the world was formed by their own mass media exposure to cultural movements and trends, and that feeling of wanting to be current and relevant to the wider world has never left them.

This means they don’t look down with bemusement and dismay on their own kids’ efforts to express their own sense of individuality and identity in the way their parents did to them.

My second point relates to the first and is that today’s parents believe (and there’s a growing body of evidence, such as the Harvard Grant Study, to suggest they’re right) that the best thing they can instil in their kids to ensure their future success, is the ability to think for themselves. To be freethinking, independently minded choice makers. They therefore actively encourage their kids to partake in household decisions, as opposed to simply telling them how it’s going to be.

The third point is technology based. One of the major implications of today’s universal access to information and content is young people nowadays have arguably greater exposure to, and better understanding of, many facets of life than their parents do.

There is no longer a naivety surrounding the young or any sense they need to be sheltered from the world by their older, more worldly-wise parents.

Fourthly and finally, changes in working structures have led to a greater sharing of the responsibility for running the household across all family members. With both parents working, and often working more flexibly, the old delineation of roles and responsibilities has gone.

All family members are now expected to pitch in and contribute to the successful functioning of the household. Especially given that many young people are faced with the prospect of living at home much longer. They both want, and are required to be active contributors to the household and family life.

Put together, these four observations create an image of modern family where the perspectives, attitudes and behaviours of the different family members have never been closer.

They may well spend less time in the same room together and more time on their devices but that’s not what defines them as modern. Families these days are increasingly egalitarian collectives, with increasingly similar views of the world.

If brands want to appeal to ‘modern families’, this is the truth they need to reflect.

Steve Hopkins is Head of Strategy at Atomic London.

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