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 / Spring 2009 / Issue 54(originally published by Booz & Company)


50-plus: A Market That Marketers Still Miss

Baby boomers are responsible for more than 40 percent of retail spending in the U.S. and western Europe, but many companies still focus on youth and young families.

The World War II generation started to turn 50 in the late 1970s. In the developed world, this was generally a newly prosperous group with rising wages, real pensions, and home values that their parents could only dream about. Even back then, experts warned marketers against ignoring this rich vein of aging consumers. Yet, save for a few exceptions, companies failed to act on this valuable advice, and they have continued on the same course for 30 years. Marketers focus their products and advertising on youth and young families, treating middle-aged and older consumers as an afterthought. That’s still true today, when the 50-plus generation is the heralded baby boomers — responsible for more than 40 percent of retail spending in the U.S. and western Europe. It appears that companies have still not learned the lesson. Why have marketers failed to seize this opportunity?

Marketing assumptions are part of the problem. Marketers are convinced that mature consumers are brand loyal and stuck in their ways. They grasp that boomers have money to spend, but do not understand the impact of longevity on spending. In fact, at 50 or 60, with 20 to 30 years of good health ahead, boomers represent a renewed chance at “lifetime customer value” — round two for marketers to engage these consumers. With children grown, debts cleared, inheritances collected, and their professional maturity achieved, this audience is ready for new experiences and solutions. The boom­ers are prepared to explore brands and products, old and new, that can help them live better in new circumstances.

But marketers’ seeming inabil­ity to understand the impact of longevity on spending is only part of the story. Perhaps more importantly, the 50-plus market requires a unique type of marketing that most organizations are not prepared to offer. In large measure, companies lack the mature employees, depth, and expertise to successfully target products at graying demographics — those that are as different from the youthful set as opera is from hip-hop. (And in some cases, the older demographic groups are radically different from each other.) Here are some of the recent findings about the characteristics peculiar to today’s mature consumer:

• As people age, they need products that help them stay engaged. That is, they want antiwrinkle creams, lighter do-it-yourself household tools, easy-to-prepare meals for two, and vacations packaged around volunteer work. The products should be simple, but quality is critical, as mature consumers are often keen judges. Moreover, many in this generation want to leave the world a better place and are willing to pay a little more to improve the planet for their children and grandchildren.

Middle-aged and older people need customized communications. Changes in eyesight call for plainer typefaces, higher-contrast colors, and bigger fonts. Personal contact and the ability to moderate information flow are important to this group, as are compelling, substantive rationales for why a product is better than its competitors. Age breeds cynicism, at least about marketing messages.

Mature consumers demand brands that fit, rather than define, their personalities. With age, self-perceptions are fully formed; most 50-plus people accept who they are. And they want brands that match their perceptions. (By contrast, younger consumers often use brands to define the groups they hope to become a part of and to shape their image.)

Health, wealth, and lifestyles diverge with age. A 60-year-old may be part of a large family and working full-time, retired and traveling the world, or holding down a part-time job while caring for an ill partner or parent. Marketers would do well to target these disparate aspects of life and the transitions — empty-nest years, retirement, par­ental or spousal illness — that this age group is experiencing.

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