How to market to aging populations with nuance and respect

Boomers are condescended to in modern marketing, and this needs to change.

I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about Baby Boomers lately. While they represent a huge swath of the consumer economy, amongst advertisers they are one of the most critically underserved, under-represented, and plain old condescended to.

Part of the reason for that is our collective obsession with millennials. Their preferences, consumption habits, and taste for experiences rather than possessions are the tropes that fill brand strategy slideshows. If you took a census of all marketing you’d think no one over 45 buys anything except pharmaceuticals. But of course that’s not true. The people with the cash are older consumers. "The Boston Consulting Group projects that by 2030, the U.S. 55-plus population will have accounted for half of all domestic consumer spending growth since the Great Recession, a number that rises to 67% in Japan and 86% in Germany."

Why is this interesting?

There are two big trends to pull apart here. On one hand, people are living longer, healthier lives, leading them to act younger than they really are. From FT columnist Merryn Somerset Webb:

"Older people are in remarkably good shape. It is beginning to look as if ageing is "malleable’ says Professor Laura L Carstensen, founding director of the Stanford Centre on Longevity. Some 50 percent of 85-year-olds say they are able to work. The incidence of dementia in the US is actually falling. And, as research from Enders Analysis notes, the over-50s — the "new old" — no longer act their age. They are apparently "down-ageing: acting younger and spending much more than they ever did before". It is not old age that is getting longer. It is middle age."

On the other hand, the marketing industry is far from figuring this out. As Jeff Beer from Fast Company rightfully called out recently: "…the most creative, high-production campaigns tend to focus on the youngest consumers, while marketing aimed at older groups follows mindless formulas and plays into time-worn stereotypes about older people as needy and helpless."

Japan, with its deep respect for its elders and aging population, offers a blueprint US brands could follow. A lot of the advertising there has found the right tone — subtle, respectful — while being understanding of new need states and cases. Japanese cosmetics brand Shiseido offers an interesting example: "sales of Shiseido’s Prior range of cosmetics aimed at those over 50, with simple packaging and instructions on how to use the products in a large font, have risen by 120% per year in the two years since its launch in 2015." Subtlety and respect are the name of the game. Another example from Japan is the neighborhood retailers that focus on the in-store experience: "Lawson is rolling out stocks of books in some shops while it and other convenience-store chains (so ubiquitous that older people can often walk to them) are competing with supermarkets by stocking more food, cleaning products and over-the-counter medicines." These stores are satisfying a commerce urge, but offer a bit of community and fresh air as well. Much more satisfying than an online click, especially for folks who didn’t grow up with the web.

And these older consumers are spending in just about every imaginable category: ranging from automotive, travel, finance, and the DTC brands we all see in every Instagram ad. Turns out everyone needs an affordable piece of luggage that doesn’t look like a disaster. Or that no matter your age you want to look elegant and stylish, something the clothing brand Eileen Fisher does beautifully, eschewing the typical models in their advertising, frequently featuring older women among their mix. The advertising industry is currently trying to right a lot of wrongs when it comes to diversity and inclusion, and that’s a good thing. But age needs a closer look in order to appropriately and thoughtfully communicate to an important part of the population.

Colin Nagy is the head of strategy at FFNY.

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