Winning baby boomers: the golden consumers

From modified Harley-Davidsons to reformed mobile phones, marketers are getting creative as the numbers and buying power of the over-50 bracket increases.

An earnest, 20-something American woman leans into the camera, saying she made her parents sign up for Facebook accounts because she read an article suggesting that older adults often become "anti-social”. The camera cuts away to show a Toyota Venza speeding through the countryside with mountain bikes on the roof and an older couple laughing and chatting. As the young woman disdainfully notes that her parents have only 19 Facebook friends, the couple lift the bikes down and speed through the woods with another couple. "I have 637 friends,” the woman tells the camera. "This is living.”

Dick Stroud, founder of 20Plus30, a consultancy specialising in marketing to the over-50s, says the ad, which contrasts the active, engaged older couples with their disconnected daughter behind her laptop, encapsulates today’s greatest marketing challenge: how to sell to older adults, whose numbers are increasing while younger age groups contract.

The difficulty for many goods producers, Stroud says, is that older consumers do not wish to be reminded of their age. The Toyota Venza ad is effective because it associates those who buy the car with a vigorous lifestyle, regardless of age. "For most products, trying to position it as ‘an older person’s product’ is pretty much hopeless,” he says.

For example, Katharina, a mobile phone developed by German company Fitage, which was marketed to older users and featured big keys and simple signage, was a flop. The manufacturer became insolvent in 2010.

Norbert Meiners, a visiting research fellow at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing and a specialist in older audiences, notes that the advertising industry has been slow to recognise that it needs to adapt to demographic changes, particularly in Germany, where the median age is already above 45. In contrast, "the average age of staff at ad agencies is 33 years,” he says, and only 5 per cent of ad agency staff are over 50.

Germany is hardly unique. In the US, the number of households headed by a person aged 55 and over more than doubled between 1970 and 2009 to 4.47 million, while the total number of households rose by just 17 per cent. In the UK, the percentage of households headed by a person aged 55 or over rose from roughly 38 per cent in 1986 to 43 per cent at the last census.

Product design matters as much as the marketing

Ageing bodies are different from everyone else’s, says Dick Stroud, founder of 20plus30, a marketing consultancy focused on older adults.

But because a marketing pitch that screams "designed for the old and frail” is a losing one, consumer goods makers need other strategies to highlight the way their products compensate for the physical deterioration of old age.

One way to do this, according to Norbert Meiners, a professor specialising in marketing to older adults, is to focus on the packaging. German seniors are prepared to buy pured baby food, for example, but not in larger jars because that would draw attention to the fact that these are adult-sized portions.

Successful products send subtle signals. The food supplement Ensure, for example, with its easy-to-grip cap and indentation for a thumb rest on the bottle, indicates it is a product that even those who have lost muscle can open.

Another success is a mobile phone named Raku Raku from NTT DoCoMo, which has been a big success in Germany. An attractive feature for older users is the facility to slow down the rate of speech coming through the speakers.

And, Stroud notes, the Apple iPhone’s background noise suppression technology is very popular with the hard of hearing.

Moreover, median ages in the developed world are rising; UN data shows that median age in the US rose to 39.3 from 35.5 between 2000 and 2010. In Europe, it rose from 37.5 to 39 years over the same period and by 2050 it is expected to rise to 49.5.

Even more importantly, older adults are often wealthier than their youthful counterparts. People aged 50 to 55 headed 10 per cent of UK households in 2011, but accounted for 15 per cent of those in the highest income decile, with at least 1,405 per week.

Similarly, US census data for 2009 show that households headed by those aged 55 to 64 have a median income of $56,973, more than that of households headed by 25 to 34 year olds. In Germany, households headed by people aged 55 to 64 have average net income of €2357 per month, well above the national average of €2125.

In Japan, where the median age is already 45 and the trend of falling fertility and rising longevity began much earlier, goods producers have long been aware of the need to tailor products for older adults, says Stroud. Companies such as NTT DoCoMo have been building age-friendly features such as louder, clearer call volume into their mobile phones for a while in order to get an edge in key markets.

Companies in western markets are starting to do the same. Tom Morton, chief strategy officer for Havas Worldwide New York, the ad agency, says his company began studying what older consumers wanted after spotting the demographic trend. Havas conducted a survey of more than 7,000 older people worldwide and concluded that the "youth obsession” of previous generations no longer had the same tug.

"Rather than shying away from growing old, more people are embracing their later years and the unique satisfactions they’ll bring,” the study concludes, noting that physical beauty is less important for the age group than it once was and that loss of autonomy is a much bigger fear.

Social isolation also ranks high among fears, according to the study, a point Prof Meiners says German advertisers have taken on board. "You never show an ad with an old person on their own,” he said. Ads with older adults, such as the one for Toyota’s Venza, try to feature them in groups, having fun.

The study also debunked the notion, long held by ad agencies, that older consumers are a hard sell because of their long-held preferences for products that are hard to change.

Ken Gronbach, a Connecticut-based ad professional specialising in demographic change, says some products are more difficult to sell to the elderly. Ads have focused on 18 to 34-year-olds because they buy disproportionately. "As soon as these kids have money, they spend it on cars and clothing,” he says. "It’s plumage. That’s how they find a mate.”

Gronbach adds that the motorcycle industry is a good example of one that has adapted to demographic change. In 2010 the average age of a US motorcycle rider was 49, up from 40 in 2001, according to automotive researchers JD Power. Younger buyers began to fall away in the mid-1980s; by the early 1990s most Japanese motorcycle dealerships in the northeastern US had closed shop; the generation coming of age then was 9 million smaller than the Baby Boom generation, Gronbach says.

But manufacturers are adapting by making their products – often too expensive for younger people – easy for older people to use. According to Harley-Davidson UK, many models have heated saddles and handlebars, and a gear shift that can be moved with one’s foot, meaning a riding position that does not require bent knees, ideal for those with stiff joints.

"This is going to be the youngest generation of old people ever,” Gronbach predicts.

Prof Meiners’ research also suggests people see themselves as 10 to 15 years younger than their age. "If you are selling to a 60-year-old, you have an ad with a 45-year-old,” he says.

Hamish Pringle, strategic adviser to 23red, a marketing company, says beauty product companies such as L’Oral have successfully taken the approach of featuring older actresses such as Jane Fonda.

The Havas study found that "looking one’s best” is no longer defined as hiding one’s true age but as accentuating natural beauty and vigour. "Being fit and strong and radiant is the goal, not looking like a fossilised Barbie doll,” it noted.

Morton says advertisers’ biggest mistake can be focusing too much on demographics and ignoring the fact that products deemed appealing to a youth market can be equally so to older adults. Apple's iPad and iPhone, with their intuitive, easy to use technology, are quickly making inroads into older markets, with internet usage among older adults among the fastest-growing.

And marketers need those older consumers, Gronbach says. Not only are there relatively fewer young people in the core consumer age bracket, they are poorer. "They can’t get a job out of college,” he said.

Copyright the Financial Times 2013.

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