When Madonna went on stage recently at an awards show, her acceptance speech became another on-trend statement by the music icon. She openly complained about ageism, saying “to age is a sin” in the media and entertainment industry.
Other, lower-profile Baby Boomers have been making the same point recently. A number of studies have pointed out that in their haste to connect with Millennial consumers, marketers are neglecting the 50+ market, which still claims significant numbers in both population and spending power.
A recent Nielsen study estimated consumers in that age group will make up 50 percent of the U.S. population and control 70 percent of the country’s disposable income in 2017.
This “pig in the python” generation will triple in size in the next half-century, according to Nielsen. And yet, at conferences and in awards competitions, the spotlight is firmly on the Millennial generation while the older cohort goes unnoticed.
“Call it the Ponce de León Effect — the obsessive search for a fountain of youthful consumers,” said Karen Strauss, Partner, Chief Strategy and Creativity Officer at Ketchum. “Companies have data proving that its customer base is older but they are worried that targeting that market will make its brand look old. We are a youth- and beauty-focused culture and we culturally brainwash ourselves.”
The trend is especially noticeable among women consumers, even though they can expect to live longer than men. The demise of More magazine, which had struggled despite having an audience of high-income older women, closed down one of the few upscale publications aimed at that segment.
In late 2016, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign brought up many discussions on ageism and how it combines with sexism, leading to many discussions about implicit bias against older people, and older women in particular.
The blogosphere, empowered by the availability of open-source publishing tools, has reacted by filling the vacuum. Sites by and for women of a certain age—with names such as BetterAfter50, FabOver50, The Feisty Side of 50 and Midlife Boulevard—have mushroomed. Meanwhile, marketers lag.
Futurist Daniel Burrus chided a group of marketers during a recent conference, noting how rarely they look across demographic groups in their efforts. Addressing a room of youthful-looking marketing professionals, he jokingly asked why hotel toiletries have writing so small Baby Boomers need glasses to read it: “Don’t they know their market?”
Several recent books and studies are warning marketers against that oversight. A recent report by Ketchum found Boomers are more active, social and in better health than 50+ consumers of past generations—or than marketers expect. They are also more open to new experiences and less brand-loyal, which sets up a new challenge for marketers.
The Ketchum study, which dubbed this generation “ReMovers,” said they are not on marketing’s radar for a variety of reasons, including ageism, faulty assumptions about their brand loyalty and a youth cult among marketers who are largely Millennials themselves. Agencies don’t hold on to their older talent, said Strauss.
“There’s a commonly held conception that to be a creative, you need to be young and hip,” she said. “Through the lens of youth, older people are simply not interesting marketing targets.”
Nielsen’s study showed less then five percent of ad dollars target adults 35 to 64, said Strauss, and cited 49 as the cut-off age when marketers stop targeting consumers. As boomers reach middle age, marketers conclude they aren’t relevant; she noted nearly two-thirds of companies lack plans for targeting 50-plus consumers.
That is shortsighted, warn some industry insiders. Not only are they still active consumers, but their loyalty is not a given, running at about the same rates as that of the Millennials. Meanwhile, Millennials are still cash-strapped from their student loans and the expenses of forming households. Boomers simply have more disposable cash—and less brand ties than commonly thought.
Millennials are delaying having families and having homes, the sequence of consumers getting into the target funnel, explained Peter Hubbell, CEO of Boomagers, a marketing agency focused on Boomers. “They don’t even care about owning things… They buy what they need, not what they want,” he said, noting that only 52 percent aspire to own a home, according to some polls.
“Millennials represent the future. We get that. But the future isn’t here yet,” he said. “What are you going to do for the next 5 to 15 years?”
Agencies are unlikely to abandon the cult of youth, especially as economic conditions put the squeeze on their budget.
“The only way to keep the doors open is to hire cheaper people,” said Hubbell. So new operational model demands younger staff. “They don’t even have the people to put in the room to look credible,” he said.
Within marketing departments and agencies, the creative process of dealing with business disruption benefits from having a mix of younger and older people involved, said Burrus, founder of consultancy Burrus Research and author of Technotrends.
“We have to learn to work together in new ways,” he said.
Marketers today seem to suddenly have a renewed sense of seriousness in focusing on boomers, said Hubbell. “Having spent the last 2-3 years getting excited about Millennials, putting their eggs in one basket and now finding there is no there there,” he said.
Some brands have adapted to push messages that appeal to active 50+ consumers, and avoid clichés about doddering elders. Hubbell singled out New York’s NYU Langone Medical Center TV spots showing active elders and L’Oréal Paris’ use of over-50 actresses such as Helen Mirren and Susan Sarandon in ads.
Strauss said Ketchum has collected examples such as fashion brands Celine using 80-year old writer Joan Didion as its model, Yves St. Laurent using 71-year-old singer Joni Mitchell and jeweler Alexis Bittar featuring 93-year-old fashion icon Iris Apfel in ads.
Hubbell recommended treating Millennials as an emerging market and allocate resources as Wall Street banks do when investing. Diversify marketing investment and hedge the portfolio by focusing on the older generation as well, he said.
“They go to work on a Monday and somebody shows them the average age of their customer… their first reaction is: ‘Hurry up, we have to get young,’” said Hubbell. That is a mistake, he added: “It’s a balancing act.”