I am asked from time-to-time about what I mean by “ageless marketing” and how is ageless marketing different from boomer marketing, senior marketing, or as the Japanese often refer to marketing to older people, “Silver marketing.”
A speech by CBS Executive Vice President Dave Poltrack is a good place to start talking about what ageless is. He enlightened his audience about the origins of age-based marketing:
In the early years of television, Nielson just provided household ratings without reference to age. Then, encouraged by ABC, a struggling young network at that time that had a smaller but younger audience than its two established competitors, Nielson added the Adult 18-49 demographic to its regular reports.
So, there we have it. Age-based advertising, which is often counterproductive in today’s marketplace, was created to give an also ran network in the early 1960s that had the youngest audience a perceived advantage over its competitors. ABC’s main pitch was “Get them young and before some other brand gets them.”
The only problem with that pitch is that age correlates poorly with customer loyalty. In fact, the young are notorious for their fickleness. Nevertheless, ABC’s pitch worked and Madison Avenue invented age-based marketing.
The emergence of what I call the New Customer Majority has left Madison Avenue up marketing’s creek without a paddle to steer back into today’s mainstream consumer population. Since 1989 people aged 40 and older have been the adult majority. The current media age of adults is now 47.
That presented marketers a big challenge. Everything they had learned about consumer behavior was learned when the young ruled the marketplace. Their behavior is much different from that of older consumers who now are the adult majority.
While relatively few consumers make a brand selection at 18 that they are still living with at 49, products do get age stigmatized – associated with a specific age cohort. Cadillac is a good example of a brand that was age stigmatized years ago and despite heavy-lifting efforts in recent years to bring the average age of its owners down hasn’t had a lot of success.
Remember the much lampooned, ill-fated attempts of Oldsmobile to lower the average age of its buyers: “It isn’t your father’s Oldsmobile?”
The problem with age-based marketing is its exclusivity. Older people don’t want a brand that reflects immaturity (Pepsi) and young people don’t want a brand that reflects maturity (Buick – although Buick has made some gains recently in bringing down the average age of its customer base).
Thanks to Madison Avenue’s success in connecting brands with age cohorts, people are generally sensitive to what a brand says about them in terms of age. But matters of age in the marketplace could be different.
The alternative to age-based is ageless marketing – marketing based not on age but on values and universal desires that appeal to people across generational divides. Age-based marketing reduces the reach of brands because of its exclusionary nature. In contrast ageless marketing extends the reach of brands because of its inclusionary focus.
To avoid any misunderstanding, I need to say that targeting specific age groups remains a valid marketing gambit. One of the nation’s most successful ageless marketers, New Balance, does not ignore age. While the core values it reflects in its general marketing are ageless, it targets specific age groups through media selection, content in selected messaging, and in how it manages its channel relationships.
New Balance stocks its retailers with a keen eye on the core age group served by a specific retailer. However, by practicing the art of ageless marketing with the refined skills of a neurosurgeon maneuvering probes through a patient’s brain, New Balance has outpaced its competition – including powerful Nike – in annual sales growth of athletic shoes since the mid-1990s. Its competitors continue to restrict the reach of their brands by sticking with age-based marketing.
Companies with a portfolio of products that are suitable across a wide age spectrum and that are stuck in the age-based marketing mindset of the 1960s need to broaden their reach by transitioning to ageless marketing. Why? Because the country will continue getting older for the next 15 years or so. The New customer Majority is where both the demographics and the affluence is.
Many companies should evaluate a compromise between age-based marketing and ageless marketing: life stage marketing.
Generically, life stage marketing is not a new idea. But when marketers talk about life stage they virtually always mean social stage, examples of which include school graduation, starting a career, setting up a household, marriage, children, last child moving out and retirement. Life stage in the context I use it refers to psychological developmental stage.
Developmental stage marketing combines the inclusionary objectives of ageless marketing with the exclusionary boundaries of age-based marketing.
For example, invoking a company’s genuine concern for the environment is a value that speaks to people of all ages – including children who bring home what they have learned about the environment at school. They can be very influential on Mom’s buying decisions in certain categories. When that same company presents its message with strong, dramatic graphics – a message that shouts at you – it will be targeting adolescents and twentysomethings. A message that reflects on future generations will likely be targeting middle age and older people.
Developmental marketing looks at the marketplace in terms of four seasons of life. Each season has its own set of needs that may be somewhat unique to that season. Empty nesters in Fall usually aren’t looking forward to the next PTA meeting. Young parents enjoy getting involved in their children’s lives. Retirees aren’t usually into job retraining.
Each season of life has its own developmental objectives. Time spent in the childhood and adolescents years (Spring) is focused on preparation for adulthood. Fantasy and play are the narrative themes of Spring and have a large role in defining the needs and desires of children and adolescents.
The young adulthood years (Summer) are concerned with social and vocational development. Most approach these years with a heady appetite for adventure and project a strong sense of the romantic and heroic. Again, the life stage characteristics of this season predispose the nature of a person’s needs.
Midlife (Fall) is about refining and developing the inner self with a major question being, “What is the purpose of my life). People begin looking less to material accoutrements for life’s pleasure and more to experiential pursuits. They also begin thinking in terms of “giving back.”
Finally, the lions and lionesses of Winter look to continue the simplification of life that they began in Fall and coming to terms with what faces them in the last quarter of life. They also expand the spectrum of experiences to which they look for enhancement of life satisfaction. Interestingly, research has shown that concerns about aging, health and one’s mortality tends to be greater for people in their 40s and 50s than for people in their 60s and 70s.
At the end of the day, the marketing approach needs to be guided by the nature of the brand and the market. Not news, by any means, but so often ignored. Some brands are best developed in the market’s mind within the context of universal values. Hallmark does a great job at this. It sells love, certainly a universal value.
The images of other brands are best those associated with specific developmental stages. Toyota is good at this. Then there are those brands that are best marketed to social stage. Sears does a credible job here. Rarely is it best to build a brand’s image in the marketplace around age. Pepsi is one of the most notable practitioners of this approach – everyone associates the Pepsi Generation with youthhood.