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How to marketing to the over 50’s

How to marketing to the over 50’s

By Tod Norman of WPN 

A news piece on breakfast TV news caught my eye this morning. A 70-year-old fitness instructor was fighting the decision by a local authority to terminate her contract on the basis of her age.

As she made her case to the interviewers, it was clear that she was articulate, passionate about what she does, and could run me into the ground even if I was riding my motorcycle. And as the coffee kick started my brain, I realised yet again that marketing to ‘the over fifties’ was an absurdity.

The issue of how to communicate with the over 50 audience has probably been around since the very first use of age segmentation. Surveys come out every other year or so that tell us that people in this age bracket feel companies don’t aim their advertisements at them.

Seminars and conferences are held time and again trying to get the children of this market to value and empathise with them, using data that indicates they own the world. Specialist agencies claiming unique insights into the over fifty audience arise - and often fall. But nothing seems to change. Why?

Partially, it’s because the concept of ‘over 50’s’ is a hangover from prehistoric times.  In these times, most people died at 60 – so there was some commonality among the segment since most people in it were only separated by a decade or so.

Today, with average age of death climbing into the eighties, there’s a much larger group, which includes two  or even three generations. I’m 50, and my Mom is 83 – do you really think we are the same?

Partly it’s because in those prehistoric times, people who lived longer tended to have greater infirmities than today. Their ability to do things – regardless of their income – was likely to be curtailed by their health.

Advances in health care mean that is less likely to be the case now. Being 50 – or 60, or 70, or even 80 – doesn’t mean being incapacitated. Older people can – and do – a lot more ‘youthful’ things these days.

And partly, it’s because in this long ago times, people were assumed to live clean, linear lives; school, job, marriage, kids, retire, grand kids, cruise, death.  This simply isn’t the world we live in today; most of us will know – from our own experience or that of our parents – people who have grown up children and even grandchildren, but who also have children under 10; often from second marriages.

And what is retirement these days? Its one thing to start drawing a pension, but its another to stop working completely; my experience from research is that a vast number of ‘retired’ people are still working in one form or another; part time jobs, volunteer work, or – as in our industry – occasional jobs as consultants, free lancers, or advisors.

Some years ago I ran into the work of an American research firm called Yankelovich, who claim to have invented the term ‘Baby Boomer’ in the late 1960’s. In 1997 they published a seminal book called ‘Rocking the Ages: The Yankelovich Report on Generational Marketing’ in which they articulated their theory about the importance of societal norms in influencing different groups

They showed how ‘Baby boomers’ had very different values, beliefs, and attitudes towards life, society, and institutions than the Matures – born prior to 1946 – and the ‘Centurions’ who were born before the Great Depression.

It was, they argued, these Generational cohorts that could be used to break down the over fifty market into cohesive segments.  There was not one segment over 50, but three.

And for at least a decade, I and many other people in the UK have used the principles of generational cohort thinking to influence both our work and our pontificating. The first presentation I gave entitled ‘There is no such thing as the over fifty market’ was in the last century – literally.

I still use this thinking, and believe it is highly useful in many areas – fundraising for charities, for example, or service brands. But, as the fitness trainer demonstrated this morning, I’m beginning to see that it too is flawed.

The problem is that the generational cohort theory argues that an individual’s value system is fundamentally static; formed in their developing years, it stays the same throughout their life.  On an emotional level, I’ve always felt uncomfortable with this; it smacks of determinism, of a lack of free will, of an inability to grow.

But on a logical level, it fails to accept that while all situations a person finds himself in will be assessed by their previous, ‘formative’ experiences, each new experience – even if not in their formative young years - modifies those assessment criteria.

And given the dramatic changes in life after fifty as noted above, the value systems of individuals in each cohort are evolving in less than consistent ways.

The trainer on TV had the biological age of a Mature, but was attitudinally a Baby Boomer – and she’s not alone.

So the ‘fifty plus market’ is an absurdity, since it combines more than one generation. The ‘life stage’ or ‘life event’ based segmentation is unsound because we no longer live linear lives.  And the cohort theory – while still useful – is also flawed because the world we live in today is changing the way we see tomorrow.

So how do you market to the over fifties?  The same way you market to the under fifties: by finding the key relevant, driving insights for your brand in your market sector that will influence your prospects; a segment which in most cases should not be defined solely – or even primarily – by age.

Treat age as you would any other filter, like socio demographics or TV region: a useful piece of information, but not the end all – be all that determines the appeal of a brand, product, or advertising execution.

Forget the idea that there is some ‘magic bullet’ solution, some ultimate technique that will suddenly inspire millions of people who happen to have had their birth day before 1957, and get back to the basics of good marketing.

And please, please stop calling it ‘the over fifties market’.  Now that I’m in it, I hate the phrase even more.

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