By Brian Goslow
Sharon Sultan Cutler, 66, of Chicago, considers herself as vibrant and eager to go on vacation and buy the same new products as those half her age.
Her only problem? She feels that most advertisers don’t speak to her and other members of the baby boomer generation.
“Most boomer (and older) marketing seems to be aimed at those with illnesses — walking canes, for instance,” said Cutler, who added that many in her age group “are as active, or maybe more active, than any other generation I know.”
She’s eagerly awaiting sales pitches in consumer areas that particularly interest her and her generational counterparts — educational opportunities, travel and flashy fun items that fully embrace new technology.
“If you get my interest, my credit card might come out,” Cutler wrote in response to a recent article in the New York Times titled, “Why Don’t Advertisers Care About Me Anymore?”
The piece suggested most advertisers believe that boomers are set in their ways, both in the programs they watch and the products they buy, and as such, don’t feel the need to chase after them, as opposed to younger audiences with short attention spans that make them more eager to trying new things and therefore better targets for advertising.
That’s a big mistake, Cutler said during a recent interview, especially with people living longer, healthier lives than their predecessors. Older folks also want to feel invited to the party.
“We want to be included, not excluded,” Cutler said. “We want to be relevant. We don’t want just to be known as sitting in a wheelchair and getting Medicare. Show me dancing at the local dance hall and I’ll certainly consider it (a product). But if you show 20-somethings, and only 20-somethings, I don’t fit in.”
That Cutler and her cohorts aren’t included is no accident. A newly released report stated that typically once a group of consumers reaches the “cut-off” age of 49 they are no longer part of the desirable target demographic that includes those 18- to 49-years old.
The study, produced by Nielsen & BoomAgers, said that tradition of focusing efforts on a younger audience, which began in the 1950s, is a fatal marketing move; there are nearly 100 million people in the 50+ segment of the United States consumer market, a number the study predicts will grow 34 percent by 2030. By 2050, they’ll be 161 million 50+ consumers.
So why are boomers being ignored?
“Most marketing departments and advertising agencies are populated by younger GenX (the 32-48 age bracket) and Millennial (ages 18-31) employees,” said Chuck Underwood, founder/principal of The Generational Imperative, Inc., an Ohio-based generational consulting firm, and host of PBS’ American Generations with Chuck Underwood.
“They don’t know what it’s like to be age 49 to 67, so their best attempts to create advertising for older people often rely upon stereotypes that boomers are rendering obsolete and methodically erasing from American life,” he said.
As they have at every previous stage of their lives, boomers will continue to profoundly change the lifestyle, consumer and career models from what they had been before, Underwood said. “Some marketers simply lack the generational training — and frankly, the talent — to stay abreast of this rapid change,”
Nielsen & BoomAgers’ “Introducing Boomers: Marketing’s Most Valuable Generations” study agrees, blaming “the tyranny of youth” in declaring, “Madison Avenue has always worshipped at youth’s altar and most marketers today are not boomers.” It noted that U.S. Census data reveals that 80 percent of workers in the professional and business services sector are below age 55. “If marketing is about discovering insights that inspire great ideas, then we must understand why people behave the way they do by seeing the world as they see it.”
While it’s well established that boomers have the most money to spend, the study noted there is a continued advertiser bias that believes that older people spend less of what they have on consumer products.
“While this may have been true of past generations, it simply does not apply to this generation,” the study noted. “The majority (63 percent) of boomers still have at least one person in the household working full time. Boomers make the most money and they spend what they make.”
“Boomers represent the greatest revenue tsunami in American history for marketers of products and services for the aging for two primary reasons,” Underwood said. “Their generation controls a disproportionate percentage of our country’s wealth and they are massive in number.” While older consumers receive plenty of attention from advertisers when it comes to pharmaceutical, retirement living and financial services, according to the study’s authors, what boomer consumers are saying is “Put me in your message and your media.” And by media, boomers mean the same outlets being used to reach teenagers, 20-somethings, Millennials and Generation Xers.
This desire may be most evident when it comes to technology.
Boomers not only have the ability and propensity to buy technology products and services, they are also embracing technology as a way to defy growing old, the study reported. “Today’s constant stream of new technologies is a virtual fountain of youth for boomers. From a practical standpoint, new technology helps them stay socially and intellectually connected with their contemporary world. Psychologically, it helps them to validate their self-image of being experimental, progressive and perpetually youthful,” it noted.
Nielsen & BoomAgers researchers found that boomers represent one-third of all online and social media users. Close to another third of them — 29 million — say they are heavy users of the Internet with over 8 million of them spending 20 or more hours a week online.
They are also prolific online shoppers. “A third of them shop online and the 50+ segment spends almost $7 billion when there,” the report said. “The Internet is also their primary source of intelligence when comparison-shopping for major purchases such as cars or home furnishings.” Forty-two percent of all travel is purchased online, and boomers represent upwards of 80 percent of all premium travel.
It’s also how boomer consumers are sharing information about purchases they’ve made, especially when it comes to travel. This generates — or dissuades — new customers for companies, intentionally or not. Whether it’s on business websites or social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, 50+ers respond to word-of-mouth recommendations, referrals and endorsements from other people.
Boomers, Underwood said, have never been, and never will be, blindly loyal to a brand. “If they’ve purchased five Toyotas in a row over the years but Chevrolet builds a new model they like better, boomers will abandon Toyota in a nanosecond,” he said. “This means their generation — and younger GenX and the Millennials will be the same — will remain “in play” in the marketplace; that is, they can be persuaded by advertising to try a new product or service.”
Some marketers have already gotten the message. “The financial-services industry now understands that boomers love to work and will never fully retire, so the word ‘retirement’ — which has always been the cornerstone of this industry’s message — is being removed from its advertising,” Underwood said. “Instead of ‘let us help you prepare for retirement,’ the message is ‘let us help you prepare for what’s next.’ ”
He pointed out that adult diapers for incontinence have been re-designed to be more fashionable and are now marketed as “underwear” instead of diapers, which he called “very much a boomer-targeted change in product development and marketing.”
We are in the early years of “a golden era in anti-aging science and medicine,” Underwood said, in part because the massive boomer generation possesses a powerful core value of staying “forever young” and is willing to pay big dollars to remain physically, mentally and emotionally well.
“As new anti-aging and ‘forever young’ products — plastic surgery, Viagra, Cialis, nutritional supplements, retirement-home safety products and others — pour into the American marketplace, we’ll see more and more advertising of these products,” Underwood said.
Two years ago, Nurse Next Door, a nationally-franchised private duty home care provider, decided to reinvent itself to stand out in “a cluttered industry” by targeting the senior demographic in a lively and fun way — just as those in their target market see themselves.
“We decided to ‘ditch the denture cream” and take a radically different approach that has had a significant impact on our business,” said Jaclyn Krucik, Nurse Next Door’s PR coordinator. “Instead of using stale, clinical images to communicate our healthcare services, we showed seniors living life and ultimately celebrating aging.”
Since taking that tack, the company has seen a 20 percent growth in sales and 25 percent growth in its newer markets over the past year.
Regardless of the product, the keys to successfully reaching this demographic are building trust and providing service, according to Donald P. Roy, a marketing professor at Tennessee State University. “The 50+ market grew up accustomed to a higher level of customer service than is the norm today. Companies that invest in customer service and support can position themselves to meet the needs of this demographic.”
Cutler, who previously had run 40- and 50-plus expos on Long Island as well as a senior help hotline and lifestyle magazine, has “reinvented” herself as an author. Her first book, Once Upon Our Times (Because Life Isn’t a Fairytale): 65 Years Growing Up Baby Boomer, co-written with longtime friend Cookie Tischler, is due later this year.
The book sets out to disprove the belief that boomers are “out of time, out of touch and past their prime” and instead portrays them as a resilient active generation with money to spend.
“If you want us to like you and build trust with us, then you’ve got to learn the correct ways to pitch us in an honest way,” Cutler said. “If you come up with a blatant “we’re the best, you don’t need anyone else but us” pitch that you don’t base on some facts, some statistics and some relation to us, you lose us. So pitch to us, but back it up.”