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Marketing to Today's 65-plus Consumers

Stick around for seven or more decades and you're apt to become the focal point of some stereotypes before you're done. In the case of today's 65-and-older consumers, though, the problem is that the stereotypes of frail-and-lonely ancients are more creaky than the people to whom they're applied. And it doesn't help matters that baby boomers talk loudly about being poised to transform the nature of old age, as if it has heretofore been unchanged dating back to the Stone Age. Looking at some survey data on 65-plusers, and hearing from people professionally engaged in understanding and marketing to this cohort, we get a clearer picture of how older Americans see themselves and the advertising that's aimed (or, often, misaimed) at them.

For starters, people whose chronological age would seem to put them squarely in the "old" category often don't see themselves in that light. In a Pew Research Center Social & Demographic Trends survey released last month, 60 percent of respondents age 65-plus said they feel younger than their actual age—in many cases much younger. "Among respondents ages 65 to 74, a third say they feel 10 to 19 years younger than their age, and one in six say they feel at least 20 years younger than their actual age," according to the report. Even more telling, when asked flat out whether they "feel old," 78 percent of the 65-74s and 61 percent of the 75-plusers said "no."

Needless to say, this sort of complication is apt to give gray hairs to marketers—or would, if many marketers weren't oblivious to such nuances. Thanks to advances in health and longevity, people in what's sometimes called the Silent Generation (which accounts for the bulk of the current 65-plus cohort, including those born from 1925 to 1942) are already pioneering a change in what this life stage means. "They're having a second middle age before becoming elderly," says Ann Fishman, president of Generational Targeted Marketing, a New York-based marketing firm. "And they're making it up as they go along, because it's never been done before."

So, how do you address people who are old, by conventional measures, but whose self-perception and physical condition doesn't match up with the standard understanding of what "old" means? On the simplest level, what sort of people do you show in ads aimed at this audience? "There are several schools of thought on the issue of chronological vs. cognitive age in advertising," says Jim Gilmartin, president of Wheaton, Ill.-based Coming of Age, a marketing firm that targets boomers and seniors. "One school of thought promotes using images that reflect the target market's age less 10 to 12 years. Another is to not be concerned about the ages of the target populations—practice 'ageless' marketing—being sure the ad reflects your understanding of the values and stage of life of the targeted populations and how the product and service meets needs. Our recommendation is the latter or a combination when appropriate."

Kurt Medina, president of Medina Associates in Rose Valley, Pa., emphasizes what the people in the ad are doing more than the age they happen to be. "The old adage is that you should always use models in ads who are 10 to 15 years younger than your 65-plus target market," he notes. "This isn't actually correct. Instead, you should choose models and situations that show the individuals to be active and involved." While agreeing that the age "should not reflect anything older than your true target," he stresses that "vibrancy is the key. Don't worry about graying hair or a wrinkle line if it's on a truly involved individual." But the ad shouldn't go overboard, literally. Medina adds that when an ad shows older folks waterskiing or otherwise behaving as "superjocks," the images "are viewed as silly."

For Sandra Timmermann, executive director of the MetLife Mature Market Institute, it's a question of authenticity. "I think some of the images in ads are not very authentic—like that affluent couple you always see walking hand in hand on the beach, perfectly coiffed," Timmermann says. And if the people in the ad look too young, the audience won't relate to it, she says. "At some point, how much denial can you be in?" For the advertisers, it's "a delicate balancing act," she adds. Echoing Medina's advice, she suggests that "maybe the answer to the dilemma is showing people the right age but actively engaged in doing something." That's in sync with the thinking of Todd Harff, president of a Woodbridge, Va.-based agency called Creating Results. "They could care less whether the person in the photo has gray hair or even is bald," he says of older consumers. "They want to see the person being vital and active—doing something that is relevant to their life, not necessarily to their age."

Of course, an emphasis on physical vitality can and does generate clichés of its own. Seniors happily bicycling are a case in point. "Sure, 65-plusers do indeed ride bicycles," says Medina. "But why are they always shown as happy couples on bikes? That gets very tired very fast."

One stereotype about seniors is perfectly accurate, judging by polling data and the views of people involved in marketing to that cohort: the role of grandparent is a big, big deal for many older consumers. In the Pew poll, a question asked the 65-plusers to cite the one thing they value most about getting older. The top two answers were "having more time with family" (28 percent) and "spending time with grandchildren" (25 percent). And it's not just a matter of dandling a kid on a well-worn knee from time to time. A Census Bureau bulletin issued earlier this month noted that, as of 2007, 2.5 million grandparents were "responsible for most of the basic needs (i.e., food, shelter, clothing) of one or more of the grandchildren who lived with them."

Even when grandparents aren't in this essentially parental role, they often provide financial assistance to their grandchildren. A survey this May for the MetLife Mature Market Institute found 63 percent of grandparents saying they provided "financial assistance or monetary gifts" to grandchildren in the past five years. Among those giving such help, 46 percent said they're contributing to a fund for a grandchild's college education; 26 percent are now paying, or planning to pay, part of the kid's cost for earlier stages of schooling. (Note that this poll included grandparents as young as age 45 who have grandchildren as old as age 24.)

Given the importance of grandparenting for all concerned, it's not surprising that the Pew survey thought to ask respondents how they would "rate the job you have done or are doing as a grandparent." The answers make it clear that the role is a source of much satisfaction for those who are in it. Among the survey's 65-74-year-old grandparents, 30 percent rated their performance as "excellent," 34 percent as "very good" and 28 percent as "good." Among those 75 and older, the figures were 22 percent "excellent," 32 percent "very good" and 29 percent "good." Few in either group graded themselves as "only fair" (7 percent of the 65-74s, 8 percent of the 75-plusers) or "poor (1 percent of the 65-74s, 2 percent of the 75-plusers). Timmermann mentions that the presence of Michelle Obama's mother in the White House, where she helps out with the Obama kids, may bring even more visibility to the importance of grandparenting.

However averse they may be to some of the ways ads treat them, few grandparents are predisposed to react negatively when marketers depict and address them in this role. "'Grandparenting' is an almost universally accepted—and even enthusiastically accepted—theme for everyone from age 50 on," says Medina, who goes on to describe it as "a warm platform that can embrace almost any product or category." Marketers who think solely of toys and clothing are ignoring the breadth of the opportunity they have to reach grandparents. Fishman mentions the emergence of a "grandtravel" category in which grandparents take their grandchildren on trips, without the kids' parent(s). "They skip the middle generation," she says. (If "grandtravel" sounds to you like an unlikely phenomenon, plug the term into a Google search and you'll get nearly 50,000 hits.)

More broadly, getting extended family together is an important matter for people in the Silent Generation age cohort. "This is the generation that brought back family reunions," notes Fishman. "They don't want their grandchildren to grow up thinking the world they see is the world that always was." And, she says, the grandchildren themselves are eager for that multigenerational connection, and will put aside their MP3 players for awhile to hear a grandparent tell tales of the family's history.

Of course, societal forces have been working for decades to weaken the extended-family ties that were once a nearly universal norm. With divorce fragmenting some families and migration patterns dispersing others to distant regions, the multiple-generation Sunday dinner isn't a reality for lots of grandparents. But that doesn't mean a lapse in the emotional connection of grandparents to grandchildren. "You've got more long-distance grandparenting," says Timmermann, "but there's still that bond. They'll do it in other ways."

Harff emphasizes that the desire for connectedness remains strong, even if it takes different forms these days. "The definition of family has definitely changed," he says, but older people now "create their own families, their own groups." He remarks that this is part of the appeal of tour-group travel for seniors, which can include the notion that you'll be joining a collectivity of people who might remain in touch even after the trip is over. The Pew survey notes the important presence of non-family ties for many 65-plusers. For example, 83 percent of respondents age 65-74 and 80 percent of those 75-plus said there are people other than family members on whom they can rely "for social activities and companionship." Along the same lines, 66 percent of the 65-74s and 63 percent of those 75-plus said they're "very satisfied" with the number of friends they have.

Harff has seen that older people's "deep-seated longing for connectedness" carries over to the way they respond to the imagery in advertising. His agency conducted research last year on what older people liked or didn't like about photography in print ads. Among the findings: "All the ads that scored well showed connectedness," with people in the photos interacting with one another. "People would much rather see a group of people than a single person or a couple," he adds. The photo of a single person can have an aura of isolation, he notes, while the image of a couple can be problematic for an audience that includes so many people who used to be part of a couple but have been widowed.

Indeed, this is another instance of the care advertisers must take to make sure older consumers don't feel they're being misrepresented, ignored and/or patronized. An ad that presents connectedness in an overbearing way will rub people the wrong way. If an ad seems to say, "'You must be lonely, and we can help you,' that's going to be insulting," says Harff. It will also be out of sync with the way most 65-plusers view their own circumstances. Sure, there are lonely seniors, but the Pew research found loneliness in this age cohort to be more the exception than the rule. Just 15 percent of the 65-74s and 18 percent of the 75-plusers said loneliness is a problem for them.

Even accurate observations about older people can sometimes lead advertisers astray. It's true, for instance, that seniors have more free time than people who are in the middle of their careers and engaged in raising children. And it's also true that, compared to younger people, 65-plusers are a generation of readers. (In the Pew study, 81 percent of 65-74s and 86 percent of those 75-plus said they'd read a book, magazine or newspaper within the 24 hours before being queried.) But this doesn't necessarily mean they're eager to plow through long-copy advertising. Harff suggests that the perception of seniors as avid readers "does more harm than good," particularly when it leads an advertiser to think, "Oh, I can put in all my features in an ad!" The fact that older people have more free time doesn't mean they've ceased to value their time. "They've got more time than someone who's in the middle of a career, but they've got pretty full lives," says Harff. "They're not anxious to be wasting time. Some marketers treat them as if they need to be rescued from a life of boredom"—scarcely the way this audience feels about itself.

As Gilmartin puts it, "Including 10 pounds of copy in a five-pound ad will not attract readers," in contrast to "a great image that reflects their values or desired experiences." Harff agrees on the importance of including images as a prominent part of the mix in addressing older consumers: "Yes, they'll read more, but an image is extremely important with this group. In direct mail, if you combine an image with a narrative that uses emotional themes, it can be very effective"—unlike, say, an ad that reads "as if it were written by an engineer."

Medina similarly suggests that longer copy can work with this audience, but only if it's the right sort of copy. "You need to engage them on an holistic or overall-concept basis before you start spouting facts and figures," he says. "It's benefits rather than features that will engage, and you can only get to the details when they are on board with you."

Whatever the length of the copy, it had better be grammatically correct. "This generation knows good grammar," notes Fishman. She also warns against adopting an overly familiar (let alone a vulgar) tone. "A certain respect is due," she says, adding a warning to younger creatives: "You're not talking to your peers." She mentions being immediately put off when a telemarketer addresses her by her first name without having been invited to do so. Her advice certainly dovetails with one of the Pew findings. When that survey's respondents were asked to identify some of the good things they experience in growing older, "getting more respect" was cited by 56 percent of the 65-74s and 62 percent of the 75-plusers. As such, it also stands to reason that older consumers don't like being pushed around by ads. As Medina says, "This market reacts badly to hype and hustle. Saying 'last chance, hurry, hurry, rush today' will almost always have the opposite effect." On the other hand, says Medina, "personal testimonials from real customers are worth their weight in gold here."

Finally, the recession has created its own challenges in marketing to older consumers, just as it has for marketing in general. Though no age cohort has been unscathed by the downturn, the 65-plusers may be better positioned than other age cohorts to cope with it. "It's the only generation that's prepared for what we're in the middle of," says Fishman. "They aren't recession-proof, but they're better prepared than any other generation. They're the only ones who have money to spend." But will they spend it?

While agreeing that 65-plusers have been hit less hard than others by the recession, Medina points to a factor that makes them careful about their spending at a time like this. "Most of today's 65-plusers either grew up with the Depression or more likely had the lessons of the Depression taught them hard by their parents. Today they are cautious. So you need to prove that there's a need for something new, rather than just winning by saying it is new. They are looking for real need."

Then again, there are needs that aren't strictly utilitarian. Fishman emphasizes that people in the Silent Generation have a sense of having been overshadowed throughout their lives—growing up in the shadow of the generation that endured the Depression and won a world war, and then being eclipsed by the baby boomers. She suggests that this has left them with a deep desire to get some enjoyment out of life before they're done. "They're never going to be the hedonistic spenders that the baby boomers are," she says. "But they want some adventure in their lives." Marketers who wouldn't have thought to associate "adventure" with 65-plusers would do well to take note.

--Nielsen Business Media