The Light at the End of the Tunnel: Marketing to Seniors
This piece was originally published by the Journal of Business Strategy.
For two decades, periodic updates on aging trends in the developed world would elicit spasms of superficial coverage about a surge in trout fishing or recipes for more easily chewable foods. Suddenly, however, it appears that the “silver tsunami” has finally arrived. The news that in 2022 deaths in China exceeded births for the first time since the famine years of Mao has the media breathlessly scouring the world for stories about abandoned Italian villages, humanoid robots caring for the aged in Japan and New York office buildings being refitted for communal living. And since journalists are getting older, too, we are now seeing stories about the wisdom of the elderly and how aging demographics will help us fight climate change. Unfortunately, this newfound sensitivity does not yet appear to have had much impact on the way in which people in their “out years” are being portrayed in advertising, which currently occupies two ends of the spectrum and not much in between. Depending on the products being marketed, older people are either seated helplessly in giant armchairs looking frail or surfing on tall waves under an endlessly blue sky. It is long past time to reimagine how we market to seniors in ways that are, if not condescending, then at least more reflective of the true diversity of this growing demographic.
If nothing else, the consumer and financial data on older people should certainly be compelling to marketers. There are already more people in the world over 60 than under 5 and sexagenarians and beyond will form 16% of the population by 2030. According to a report by the Brookings Institution, seniors are already the wealthiest age cohort, projected to be spending $15tn per annum within the next 10 years. In response to significant labor shortages in the USA, the population of older individuals in the workforce continues to grow. Even as the overall US labor force shrinks by 7.5% between 2020 and 2030, the participation of the over 75-year-olds will grow by almost 100%. In terms of wealth accumulation, Baby Boomers control average wealth of $834,000, double that of Generation X and far more than Millennials with an average of just $68,871 per person. By 2060, one in three people in China (487 million) will be over 60. And yet industry statistics suggest that today only 5% of advertising is aimed at people over 50.
Part of the reason for this is the longstanding obsession of advertisers with younger demographics based in part on the understandable desire to ensure that newer consumers become brand advocates as older buyers drop out of the market. Some opinion research also suggests that younger buyers are more enthusiastic about trying new brands but research shows that older consumers are often better brand ambassadors. In one study, 68% of respondents said that when they have a good experience with a brand, they share that experience with other people. Another factor may be the almost universal habit of dividing generations into age-specific cohorts, as if there were overarching similarities in the habits and opinions of Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z, neatly divided into those born, respectively, between 1946–1964, 1965–1980, 1981–1996 and 1997–2012. In this cliched construct, Baby Boomers are reluctant to try new brands, wary of technology and are increasingly sedentary, staying close to home and the tried and true. The meme, “OK, Boomer” perfectly captures the opinion, allegedly expressed by Gen Zers, that Baby Boomers are not only tiresome but irrelevant.
In reality, this kind of superficial categorization was never particularly useful and recent research has deftly demonstrated this. In developing the “Group Cohesion Score,” BBH Labs has shown that there are significantly more shared opinions within different communities than there are within the generational cohorts. Our passions, habits and temperaments unite us far more than generational groupings. In one example, they demonstrate that crossword fans have a group cohesion score of þ3, whereas Gen Z has a score of only þ0.2. Tellingly, as it relates to the uniformity of commercial communications to seniors, the marketing industry has a score of þ5.8 against farmers (þ4.1) and construction workers (þ2.2). It is perhaps no coincidence that there has been so little diversity in advertising to this segment. In addition, more than 60% of employees in the ad industry are aged 25–44, compared to only 50% of all US workers. Just 5% of ad agency employees are over 50, and most are not in the creative department, according to Forbes.
The problem starts with the terminology itself. A survey by the Journalistic Exchange on Aging asked American journalists who write about retirement which names they used for people over 65. The top choice was “older” followed by “seniors.” “Senior Citizen” was on the list of “mostly disliked” terms and “elderly” was the one that grated most. “Boomers” was acceptable but not “Baby Boomers.” The use of this kind of terminology subconsciously pigeonholes all older people into a netherworld of agedness in which the only device is a non-slip bathmat. In fact, seniors are far more active in the use of digital tools than stereotypes would suggest. Marketing research firm, Age of Majority has identified more than 75 million Americans as “Active Agers” 92% of whom bank online, 91% own a smartphone and 84% regularly post on social media. More than 52% said they were open to switching brands and trying new things.
Unfortunately, insights from these data points have mostly failed to penetrate the jungle of age-ist caricatures in advertising. In a particularly egregious example, a financial services firm showed buffoonish older adults forced to work dead end jobs because they had failed to save enough for their retirement. Another commercial for a laundry soap, in which a multigenerational family under one roof discusses their laundry needs, ends with a befuddled grandfather entering the scene wearing his boxers and looking for his trousers. When old people are not portrayed as pathetic, they are depicted as cranky, often literally as in a Medicare commercial featuring a character called “Cranky Martha.” Advertisements for fitness, nutrition and pharmaceutical products do increasingly feature older people, usually preposterously trim. It has become almost obligatory to show older women practicing yoga in these commercials. What has not happened is the regular appearance of older people in connection with technology, automobiles, mattresses or any other products that are relevant across generations.
It is now well past the time for marketers to catch up with the reality of today’s purchasing public. Simply seeing more older people, individuals as well as couples, interacting with every day products is certainly a good place to start. Beyond that, conventional wisdom about effective marketing to an older public ranges widely, suggesting that they are both more responsive to emotional stimuli but, at the same time, simply want the facts. They are described both as price sensitive and spendthrift. They either are or are not affected by appeals to social status. The truth is that almost all the same rules apply to marketing to seniors as to any population segment which means understanding the true diversity of human needs. The stereotypical 65-year-old may be retired and in a heterosexual marriage with adult children and grandchildren. However, there are now millions of older people in new relationships, with gay or inter-racial partners who have just started a new business. Because people of all ages are drawn to products used by people like them it behooves marketers to ensure that their advertising to seniors depicts the same diversity of lived experiences.
At the same time, many decades spent in consumer society interacting with products and services of differing quality and effectiveness mean older people are perhaps more skeptical of things that sound too good to be true. Long experience with products that do not function “as advertised” means that they value good customer service. Conversely, for reasons to do with exactly the same experience, they are pleased when products and services are better than expected and are more likely to share their pleasant surprise with family and friends. There is also a deeper understanding that life contains many things beyond the individual’s control, that fate or accidental events play a larger role in their lives than their ability to influence them. This means that messages about “control” can be effective if handled delicately.
Finally, it is worth reflecting on whether it still makes sense to be mesmerized by the alleged preference of Gen Z for purpose-driven brands. We suspect that people over 65 who are spending more time than their juniors pondering what they themselves have contributed to the world might very well be equally attracted to companies dedicated to positive change beyond the interests of their shareholders. To the extent that their interests have widened to include more participation in philanthropic activities, they may be more attuned to corporations that are focused on whatever aspect of the public welfare is appropriate to their products or services. Both of these possibilities may in fact turn out to be backed by evidence. Somebody just needs to ask.