Let’s get this straight. Unless you’re extremely unusual, you think
older people are boring. They’re set in their ways, you might say. They
never spend any money.
In an industry obsessed with youth - probably more than any other
industry outside childcare - you are in a minority if you consider the
over-50s interesting. But the time may have come for you to think again.
Many wise heads in the industry have concluded that the grey market
deserves serious attention.
Take Dr Wayne Fletcher at Carat Insight, who recently put together new
research on the sector. Fletcher says: ’The over-55s were once regarded
as a group of has-beens, but enlightened marketers realise they should
court these consumers with as much vigour and zest as affluent
The prize to gain from a comprehensive understanding of older consumers
is guaranteed custom and revenue from what may be the most loyal sector
of the population.’
The sector is also sizeable. According to Fletcher’s figures, the number
of over-55s in the UK will double in the next 30 years, from 15 million
to 30 million. This group, which holds between 70 and 80 per cent of
Britain’s wealth, already accounts for more than 40 per cent of consumer
spending. So get ready for a powerful shift in spending power.
Moreover, today’s over-55s tend to be fit and healthy. Unlike their
predecessors, these aged baby boomers are highly likely to travel the
world, compete in tennis matches or dine at new restaurants.
So it seems strange that they continue to be ignored by youth-obsessed
advertisers, marketers and the media. Both Levi’s and Nike have recently
gone to some lengths to inject a hip new tone to their advertising and
marketing messages, precisely because younger consumers might otherwise
reject their goods. For companies such as these, the most feared message
from consumers is: ’But my dad wears those!’
But that approach is shortsighted, according to Andrew Cracknell, the
former chairman of Ammirati Puris Lintas. ’Levi’s is desperately trying
to chase the youth market. But it could be that the older people who
want their jeans are the very people who have the money to spend. The
world has changed. It seems to me that Levi’s marketing department
hasn’t grasped that yet.’
The pursuit of youth by fashion brands is perhaps understandable. But
what about other sectors? An astonishing 65 per cent of all new car
purchases in the UK are made by the over-50s. But car ads still show
romping young couples, boy racers and a stripping Claudia Schiffer. Ray
Starkey, creative partner of the grey consultancy, Prime, says: ’Citroen
has made some wonderful ads, but the Schiffer execution is really
tacky.’ (It didn’t go down well with the grey market. Only 1 per cent of
the over-55s questioned by Carat said they felt comfortable with sexy
When senior citizens do make it into commercials they are often
stereotypical grandparents or figures of fun. But just occasionally,
Starkey says, advertising manages to incorporate the older generation
successfully. He picks out a piece of work by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO.
’The Yellow Pages advertising has an appeal right across the spectrum.
AMV has done some wonderful advertising that is not consciously
age-specific and which attracts a broad range of the audience.’
Sadly, a handful of exceptions is not enough. Carat Insight’s research
shows that older people return the indifference of advertisers. Instead
of being influenced by ads, older consumers, Fletcher says, will more
frequently rely on recommendations from family and friends or
endorsements from TV programmes such as Watchdog or consumer interest
publications like Which?.
Older consumers retain loyalty to brands such as Heinz, Marks & Spencer
and B&Q, which work hard to build consistency and familiarity.
But that doesn’t mean older consumers are set in their ways. Carat’s
research shows that they have embraced technological developments such
as computers and the internet.
But is advertising exclusively to blame? What about the media in
general? Away from the specifically grey magazines, Saga Magazine,
Mature Tymes, Choice and Yours, older consumers seem happy with a wide
range of others, such as Reader’s Digest, Which?, Good Housekeeping and
TV listings titles.
On TV, programmes that attract large numbers of older consumers also
bring in younger viewers. Thus Yorkshire Tea, sponsor of Heartbeat,
reaches its traditional audience while also opening itself up to large
numbers of potential new consumers. Similarly, Who Wants to Be a
captured 2.8 million over-45s in January. Even Men Behaving Badly, which
you might assume would appeal to the young, managed to attract 2.3
million older viewers. On the radio, Classic FM attracts large numbers
of over-45s without jeopardising its younger audience.
But the vast majority in the media continue to act on the principle that
older consumers should be ignored or even hidden. Radio stations,
including Radio 2, Radio 4 and Magic have done their utmost to attract
younger listeners and, in the process, upset sizeable portions of their
established, older audience.
Newspapers have done much the same. Sales are dropping, the argument
goes, and older readers won’t live for ever. To lure a younger
readership, editors have risked alienating vast swathes of their
markets. In this context, it is traditional to cite The Express, but the
problem applies across the board.
Martin Smith, director of the specialist over-50s agency, Millennium
Direct, says: ’Papers tend to shy away from what proportion of their
circulation is over 50. We want to target that market but the media
packs don’t provide that information. Instead, they make a great fanfare
about the younger market.’
But could it be changing? At a recent conference of regional newspaper
editors, David Gledhill, editor of the Bath Chronicle, warned the
industry about its youth bias with these words: ’Abandon the holy grail
They are an ungrateful bunch who will drink your free beer, dance on
your free club tickets then vomit behind your sofa before abandoning you
without a word of thanks.’