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


50-plus: A Market That Marketers Still Miss

•    They may all be aging, but their attitudes are defined in part by their generations. Too often lumped together as merely “mature consumers,” those who make up to­day’s 50-plus market lived through radically different formative years. The World War II generation (born 1925 to 1945) saw the end of a global war and flourished during strong postwar economic times. The first wave of baby boomers (born 1946 to 1955) witnessed the boundless promise of technology and social change with the first man on the moon and the new freedoms of the 1960s. But they were molded by the worst that politics can produce with the mismanagement and tragedies of the Vietnam War and the assassinations of political leaders and activists. This generation broke more sharply in values, attitudes, and habits from their parents and grandparents than any before or since. What could be termed the crisis generation (born between 1955 to 1965) came of age during an era of energy crises, high unemployment, and soaring inflation. Smart marketers pay attention to how history shapes preferences.

Companies successfully adapting these insights to their marketing campaigns are so rare that they stand out. Fidelity Investments has attracted a growing number of boomer accounts with life-affirming messages from generational icon Paul McCartney. L’Oreal SA’s Plenitude line was initially aimed at women in their 30s, promising to “take care of your skin for the future.” A decade later, the audience had aged — and so had the brand’s offerings. The Plenitude line began offering products that “take care to prevent signs of aging today” — and its promotional efforts were increasingly linked with issues that concern women more as they get older, such as breast cancer.

And to reach the prime Porsche Carrera buyer — average age, 49 — the automaker spends the lion’s share of its marketing dollars on “Porsche weekends” of test driving and adventure tours. The goal is to let mature, quality-conscious consumers experience the value of the car firsthand and for a longer time than they could with a short road run at the dealership. In addition, Porsche hopes to develop personal relationships and trust with these potential customers, who can help build a word-of-mouth network even if they don’t buy a car.

For most companies confused about how to reach older consumers, a good place to start is a cultural shake-up of the marketing organization, which should include the addition of an entirely new set of skills. Typically, marketers learn their trade in their 20s, manage brands in their 30s, and move to general management in their 40s. Companies must slow this turnover and allow marketers to age with their customer base, following consumers like their brands through life stages and changing the message as their customers age so that the products reflect the fundamental values of the older generation. In short, more gray hairs are needed among brand managers and external collaborators such as agencies, re­search firms, and media planning organizations.

To achieve this organizational change, some companies will have to carve out distinct mature marketing teams to maintain a laser-like focus on the 50-plus market and continue to develop new findings and ideas about how to attract these consumers. Or a company may need new marketing partners who have expertise in this area and the confidence to buck conventional wisdom.

Companies like Nike, Coca-Cola, and Apple shape the marketing profession because their iconic, youth-oriented brands attract the best talent; for any marketer, it’s enthralling to pitch cutting-edge, sexy products. Because of this understandable marketing myopia, companies hoping to target mature consumers must offer a creative, open environment with innovative brands and unshackled promotional campaigns. The audience may be aging, but the workplace doesn’t have to feel like it is as well.

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