Wang Deshun, the age-defying Chinese catwalk model, has made a huge splash across international media over the last year. Aged 80, the new face of Reebok has appeared in some of the world’s top catwalk shows.
‘Age disruption’, led by the fashion industry, challenges our traditional notions of age and shows that ageing doesn’t need to compromise lifestyle and vitality. More tangibly, it is driven by a strong commercial purpose given the wealth tied up in the older third of our society now and going forward. The McKinsey Global Institute has forecast that 51 percent of urban consumer growth to 2030 will come from the 60 plus market.
So why is it that much of mass marketing is stuck in its focus on the young?
Party drinks and first home mortgages are understandable, but what about mass marketing products consumed by all ages? Do marketers believe that older consumers are already ‘in the bag’ so don't warrant a focus or are younger decision makers somehow lacking a connection with a generation generalised as self-orientated and self-indulgent?
Dr Ken Dychtwald, one of the world’s leading thought leaders on longevity, states that longevity should be the number one issue on the minds of all marketers but that there are three main reasons why only a small percentage of marketing budgets are focused on the 50 plus market.
Firstly, innovators tend to be young so do not necessarily understand the issues older people face. People in their 30s, for instance, find it easier to design for twenty-somethings than for people whose age they have never experienced.
Secondly, it is accepted but misguided wisdom that older people are frugal and conservative and there is no real money to be gleaned from older consumers.
Thirdly, and probably the strongest reason, is the belief that stems from the advent of modern marketing in the 1950s that people form their identity and brand preferences between the ages of 15 and 25. Most people in business know this isn’t actually true but it’s a deeply held unconscious bias that is difficult to shift.
Dr. Kate Jones, lecturer in marketing communications, digital and social media at Auckand University of Technology, says there is evidence to show that the so-called older consumers (60 plus) will change their brand preferences and purchasing behaviour if a long-term brand disappoints them or stops meeting their needs.
"People have quite complex relationships with consumer brands, especially for higher-involvement products and services such as technology, travel, or cars, and they will dump these relationships if they feel that “their” brand is treating them badly.”
Jones says that reasons for dropping a brand from someone’s consideration set can be as simple as brand communications ignoring insights about how older consumers perceive themselves.
As older consumers represent 32 percent of the New Zealand population and control an estimated 65 percent of disposable income, Dr Jones says businesses should be targeting some of this wealth but because many media agencies and marketing roles are still dominated by people under 40, the mindset that dismisses the older age group as uncool still seems to be entrenched.
If you believe that your organisation needs to turn its attention to the opportunities of longevity, then how do we challenge such deeply ingrained mentality?
Taking steps to understand the complexity and granularity of this unpredictable generation would be a good start.
This year, we set out to understand how New Zealand’s baby boomers are dealing with their longevity, working in conjunction with Bupa, Cigna and Nestlé to map how it affects lifestyle, consumption and spending habits. We conducted in-home interviews with more than 60 adults aged between 55-70 and compared their attitudes and behaviour with that of other age groups in an online survey of 1,363 people.
One of the most consistent findings across the study was baby boomers felt younger than their years, even when suffering from ill health or physical deterioration. This is a group that has a strong disconnect between inner vitality and physical ageing. Age-related communication is strongly demotivating to this group.
Their reaction to Wang Deshun? He was described as ‘pretentious’ and ‘conceited’ and his age-defying achievements were seen as immaterial. ‘Good for age’ can be irrelevant to people who are disconnected from the advancement of years.
As Geoff Pearman, a New Zealand-based thought leader in age and work, says people say 60 is the new 50.
"It isn’t. 60 is the new 60. We are being challenged to reimagine this stage of life. Longevity means that at 60 we may only be two-thirds of the way through. We are still discovering what this emerging and expanded life stage means.”
Age, generally, is something that boomers do not want to focus on or define themselves by. It is a complex and sensitive topic and one that marketers need to be acutely aware of if they want to build sales with this growing audience. There are instances of ‘permission marketing’ where brave souls can step through the landmines, but these were far and few between.
The boomers in our study claimed to be less brand loyal to FMCG products than their younger counterparts and their perception of advertising might partly explain this. A total of 65 percent of 55-70-year-olds believed most ads aimed at their age group were related to sickness and death; 54 percent believed that most ads were aimed at young people and 51 percent felt that ads showing people having fun were aimed mainly at young people.
Two other themes that emerged were the lack of financial planning and a strong desire to control health and wellbeing. Baby boomers want to ‘press pause’. They are enjoying this stage of life and don’t want to be younger, with all the stress that entails or confront the deterioration and decline associated with old age.
Unfortunately, this means they can be poor at financial planning with only 30 percent taking any financial advice on funding their retirement and a third feeling unconfident about their retirement.
Geoff Pearman goes as far as to suggest that in 20 years’ time we will look back and see the whole notion of retirement as a lovely 20th-century idea that is no longer relevant. We are already constructing this period in our lives quite differently.
Cigna’s chief marketing officer, Suzanne de Geus, says baby boomers are the connective tissue between generations and influencers in their own right.
“Baby boomers don’t consider themselves 'old'. However, the result of feeling perpetually young is that we don’t prepare for retirement. But if Kiwis want to keep on spending time with their families and enjoying a great quality of life we need to prioritise health and financial arrangements and get the necessary plans and protection in place for greater peace of mind,” says de Geus.
Bupa’s customer insights executive, Deborah Paget, says caring for elderly family members had made baby boomers appreciate their health and wellbeing.
“Because many baby boomers are caring for elderly family members they often feel younger than they are and associate ageing with people older than themselves. Although they do worry about Alzheimer's, especially those who have looked after family members with the disease, overall they believe age is a state of mind and are determined to live life to the full. They feel positive about ageing and are focused on how to maintain quality of life as they age, with good health as a priority."
Around the world, customer-facing companies are starting to adapt and change according to the demands of their populations.
Tesco, the largest UK grocery retailer, has experimented with ‘age friendly’ stores. Barclays Bank has focused on technology education for older adults, while L’Oreal and Dove feature models of all ages in their advertising. In addition to the more established players, a host of new start-ups are shifting their attention from cash-strapped millennials to the tide of older consumers dominating disposable spending.
It is telling that Nestlé, the world’s largest food and beverage company, is starting to shift its focus to longevity. New Zealand’s insights and planning manager, Vanessa Clark, explained that Nestlé participated in the HT Group study to better understand how the baby boomer generation was navigating life as they got older; the implications that had for their food choices; and how Nestlé brands can remain relevant to them.
“The research findings show that the baby boomer generation is going to continue to influence and change the consumer landscape in large numbers, so it’s vital that we take this into consideration when setting our future marketing strategies,” says Clark.
This demographic change has been slowly creeping up on us, but the time has come for marketers and employers to understand how older consumers are changing and ensure they feel included in any campaigns. This large and diverse group is navigating their longevity in ways never seen before, presenting a huge opportunity for New Zealand businesses.
It’s a big ask for younger people to take this on as a challenge so it could be time for chief executives, many of whom may be closer to the baby boomer age group, to take the lead and reap the benefits these changes present for their organisations.
Clare Hall-Taylor is a director of HT Group Ltd, an Auckland based consultancy that helps organisations adapt to social change.