In a recent Subaru TV spot, a gray-haired flower child rides around Woodstock with her family, telling stories of zip-lining and skinny-dipping while looking for the tree “where I met your Grandpa.” As the family hugs the tree, the voiceover intones: “Some things are worth holding on to.”
It’s a lesson marketers have just begun applying to the Baby Boomer generation, who were born between 1946 and 1964. As the youngest Boomers wrap up the year of turning 50, marketers are starting to awaken to the realization that writing off this generation is not good business.
“We live in the age of aging, and there is no greater consumer-driven opportunity in terms of its underdevelopment,” said Peter Hubbell, founder and CEO of BoomAgers, an agency specializing in Boomer marketing. This year has been a tipping point, with the last of the Boomers turning 50 and the first of the Gen Xers aging out of the prized 18-to-49 demographic, he said.
Research on trends and attitudes shows Boomers will be more active and involved in their senior years than the Greatest Generation before them. In short, they will continue to be consumers for another two decades. By 2017, Nielsen forecasts that 50 percent of the U.S. population will be 50 years of age and older, and that group will control 70 percent of the country’s disposable income. Boomers stand to inherit $15 trillion in the next 20 years.
“Brands are leaving money on the table. Marketing to Boomers needs to change,” said Will Palley, trends strategist at JWT, in an interview with CMO.com. Palley recently completed a study about new demographic trends that zeroed in on new perspectives in aging, such as the rise of “silver households” where newly divorced Boomers are building nontraditional families, and remaining quite relevant in the job and dating scenes. (Palley noted the over 50-set is one of the largest growing demographics in online dating.)
This is hardly a U.S.-centric phenomenon, said Hubbell, author of “The Old Rush: Marketing in the Age of Aging.” He noted that by 2015, more than a quarter of China’s population will be over 65—more people than the entire population of Russia.
“We’re talking some big numbers worldwide,” he told CMO.com. “2014 is the year we can no longer ignore because the demographics have tilted.”
Overshadowed By Millennials
Baby Boomers were the darlings of the marketing game throughout most of the ’80s, ’90s, and the turn of the century, but their star faded over the past decade as marketers shifted their attention to the Millennial cohort (those born after 1980 and before 2000). Following the housing market crash, the media were filled with stories of Boomers watching their nest eggs go bust. Many marketers assumed their discretionary spending had vanished, while the Millennials were said to be heading into their prime earning years.
But, as the U.S. climbs out of the recession, the reality has turned out differently. While many Millennials struggle to find jobs, Boomers still make up 31 percent of the workforce and control significant consumer spending. In a recent Gallup poll, 44 percent said they are spending more in 2014 than they were a year ago, roughly on par with the national average. They are thriftier than younger consumers—using coupons, shopping around and buying generic more often—but Boomers spend significantly more on certain categories, such as health care, home improvement and household goods.
Perhaps the barriers stopping marketers from exploiting the potential of the Boomer demographic have more to do with attitude than data, experts said. The majority of agency staff is made up of young people in their twenties, and there’s no street cred attached to becoming an expert in the over-50 set. Misconceptions about the value—and values—of the Boomer demographic endure, insiders said.
But while many marketers are single-mindedly pursuing the Millennial “echo boom” demographic, some are beginning to look again at Boomers, noticing their earning and spending patterns are holding as they reach retirement age, and they remain vital consumers, said Mark Bradbury, senior director of insights and marketing for AARP Media Sales.
Bradbury noted his organization is seeing a “huge increase” in requests to understand the Boomer market, and he forecast we should see an increased investment coming on to understand and reach the 50-plus consumer. AARP has restructured positions internally to respond to that need for information, he said in an interview with CMO.com.
“It’s really important to understand the aging consumer, and the average age of an agency employee is 27,” BoomAgers’ Hubbell added. “There’s a bias in the industry that the older consumer is a less valuable consumer, and a creative bias that an older consumer portrayal is not as aspirational.”
The A&E cable network stepped into the debate in September, when it announced it was canceling its second highest-rated program, the drama “Longmire,” because its audience, with a median age of 60, was too old. While the network’s executives said the network’s lack of an ownership stake in the show was a factor, too, they defended their pursuit of younger demographics. That set off a hearty debate among cultural critics and marketing mavens that had the TV executives taking back some of their earlier comments before the furor died down.
That raises another important point: As the programmers of A&E may have noticed, Boomers are big consumers of media—including digital media. “No one texts more and is more addicted to Facebook than my 70-year-old father,” said Millennial expert Lindsay Pollack.
In fact, Millennials and Boomers have a lot of common attitudes regarding media and brands, said several experts at the recent Financial Times Future of Marketing Summit. They have more attitudes in common than either group has with the Generation X cohort in between them, they said during a panel on Millennials.
“There is a myth than Millennials and Boomers don’t get along,” said Pollack, author of “Becoming the Boss: Rules for the Next Generation of Leaders” (HarperCollins).
Savvy marketers are starting to bring both generations together in advertising, JWT’s Palley said. Advertisers have added older models in ads targeting younger demographics because Millennials see Boomers are sophisticated and savvier, he said.
“I argue quite vociferously every chance I get: It’s not either/or,” Hubbell said. “You simply can’t write Boomers off the script because they aged out of some arbitrary demographic.”
Indeed, the increased focus on data-based insights works to the Boomers’ advantage, experts said. Consumer data clears up a lot of the misconceptions and makes the case for targeting these still quite vital consumers based on their values, and not their age, Hubbell said.
Most experts said creative that targets Boomers doesn’t need to focus on the fountain of youth; Boomers know they’re aging, but want to age in the best way possible, they said. Messages need to avoid stereotypical portrayals of aging, and instead focus on the realities of the Boomer generation, which is redefining aging as it redefined many other life stages before, insiders said.
“A 55-year-old does not want to be a 32-year-old. They’re very happy being 55. What they want is quality of life,” Hubbell said. Palley called it a “stage of reinvention” for individuals, while the AARP’s Bradbury joked about “puberty 2.0” reshaping their lives.
“When you turn 50 you realize you’re still young, but your time is not limitless,” Bradbury said. “There’s a multitude of changes that happen that Boomers don’t expect. ... It can leave you exhausted and exhilarated. What you’re looking for is a marketer who understands that.”
Some marketers who focus their messages on the benefits of their product features can reach Boomers very effectively without necessarily singling out the demographic. For example, Bradbury noted Apple’s marketing focus on features is very effective, and the larger-screen iPhone 6 is a good product for the older consumers, without necessarily being targeted to them.
“Marketers are going to need to move away from the old stereotypes of how older consumers are leading their lives,” Palley said. “It’s just increasingly important that marketers come to grips with this new reality. They need to shift their messaging; they need to update the products and services they are creating for this demographic. It can’t be about Life Alert and insurance anymore.”