The Ageing Consumer

As marketers and market researchers we often have an antiquated view of what consumers in their 50s, 60s, 70s and upwards are like. Many brands that invest in research to better understand their consumers often focus only on pre-50ies and as a result they do not have the information and knowledge to appropriately target an important part of the market.

I was pleasantly surprised to read in the news that Merrill Lynch has launched a New Retirement Planning App  designed to specifically target Baby Boomers. The Bank has clearly researched and bought into the new and multifaceted lifestyle that characterises today’s ageing consumer.

A while ago I attended an MRS Members Evening led by Tom Ellis from Brand Genetics, which I found particularly useful to pin down some key points that can help us better understand and capitalise on the ageing consumer.

In this blog I aim to summarise the key takeouts from the evening….

We are all getting older…

As some of you may know, we are currently experiencing an unprecedented demographic shift in human history. The UN reports that ‘In absolute terms, the number of older persons has tripled over the last 50 years and will more than triple again over the next 50 years’. As surprising as it may sound, Gerontology Experts also believe that this is not a phenomenon limited to developed countries, and that also developing countries like China and India are following this path. As Dr Sarah Harper puts it ‘it is unlikely that we will see a return in population structure s dominated by younger people.’

So, what does this means for brands? If we look at the UK specifically  the ’older consumer’ looks like a quite desirable one to have for brands – in the UK 80% of high end cars are bought by over fifties and these consumers represent  80% of disposable wealth. Although there are significant differences in wealth distribution and disposable income, as it was quite rightly pointed out during the group discussion, these are still a very desirable group to explore.

How we are missing out as an industry…

However, despite the opportunities presented by the ‘older consumer’, there is an indication that this group feels at best ignored by brands and at worst rejected! Although in the UK this group has a considerable income to spend ‘95% of marketing budgets are aimed at consumers under 55’. It was also pointed out that Marketing as an industry is very young and as such lacks empathy with the older consumer. It’s the reverse situation of your dad trying to be down with the kids; younger marketers coming up with comms strategies that they think will appeal to older buyers (it makes me cringe!). However, whilst we have all been young once, it’s harder to project ourselves into something we haven’t experienced and therefore we are even more likely to make blunt mistakes.

This is why it is important to advocate research amongst this category and get brands to hear the voice of the older consumer. Qualitative research carried out by Brand Genetics has identified that these consumers have reported two main feelings; that of being ignored; as if they are ‘past it’ and of being mistargeted; as if they have the same needs of consumers in their forties.

Most marketing portrays old age as something to resist and fight off. However, this is an age of opportunity. Consumers have understood this –  In groups when asked what older age women aspire to in terms of look the examples provided where those of celebrities like ‘Judi Dench’ and ‘Meryl Streep’ representing ‘sobriety & style’ while personalities chasing a lost youth were frowned upon. Popular culture is also ahead of the game – I don’t think I have seen as many positively portrayed ‘older’ stars at the cinema as in the last couple of years just think of ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ and ‘Skyfall’. It is time for marketers and market researchers to join in as well.

As an industry we are guilty of grouping all over fifties in one sidelined category, when like any other consumer group this is a diverse and multifaceted group. You would not target a 30 year old as if they were 19 in the same way you shouldn’t target a 70 year old as if they were 59.

Age is just a number…

Just with any other consumer group ‘the older age group’ would need to be segmented demographically and attitudinally. Segmentation which looks at technological adoption, level of activity and health can help in defining targetable groups.

The baby boomers…

A topic of particular interest that was touched was how the ‘baby boomer’ generation, those people born after the WWII that are now approaching their 50s-70s,  will force us to rethink what ageing is about.  This was the generation set to be the mover in the world and according to Tom it is unlikely that they will change this attitude as they age. As boomers retire there can be two main challenges faced: gained time and lost status, as work finishes and children have grown. To adjust to this new found freedom from responsibility these consumers are looking for new interests to pursue and are keen to reconnect to friends and family – they want to keep in touch! Therefore brands need to change their marketing strategies to ensure they maintain and grow their customer base. They need to get closer to the older consumer to avoid alienating and excluding this growing portion of their business. Whilst products and services should be made more accessible, for example through larger print and personal assistance in store, we must not forget that these consumers are looking for new hobbies and new things to try and like to take time to browse, compare and learn.

What can we do?

  • Recognise that they are not all the same
  • Walk with them; find out more about their lifestyle and needs
  • Work with them; product development workshops and hot-housing. Creativity is not only the domain of youth. There are theories on creativity and age that support the fact that people may actually tend to get MORE creative as they age.
  • Understand that the finances of older people will change considerably as they have to make decisions about living longer, working longer, funding children for longer and – increasingly – having to rely on pension funds instead of final salary pension schemes
  • Don’t assume they are entrenched in their brand choices (the old argument for not researching older people)
  • Challenge our clients’ briefs and help them to see the opportunities of the golden age.
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Laura Spooner
01962 842211
Article date - 23/05/2014
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