Japan: A yen for Japan's mature market

Ageing is no longer ignored in Japan and advertisers have found a new target market in retired baby boomers with cash to spend.

In Japan nowadays, the guy queueing for a Nintendo Wii is less and less likely to be a spotty teen with a space-age haircut. Chances are he's older than your dad.

The over-fifties are now the majority in Japan, and their cultural influence and buying power have forced brands to snap out of a chronic fixation with youth.

Nintendo designed the Wii with Japan's older generation in mind, recreating games such as tennis or golf for the living room.

At the Tokyo Motor Show, Nissan unveiled a concept car made for "the Dankai generation" (baby boomers). The Intima saloon will have sliding doors and a roomy interior.

The latest models of the ubiquitous ketai (mobile phone) now come with larger buttons and clearer displays.

Even MTV, that stalwart of the 18- to 34-year-old demographic, is gunning for grey. Kazuhiro Shimada, the head of strategy at MTV Networks Japan, is seriously thinking of screening more Beatles than Backstreet Boys to woo oldies and bigger-spending advertisers. "We are looking at introducing a nostalgic weekend segment for dads. We have Honda as an advertiser. But Toyota would be nice, too," he says.

Could this have the same effect as Jeremy Clarkson did for Levi's 501 jeans? "Yes, there is a risk that we could alienate our younger viewers," Shimada concedes. "But we can't afford to ignore the fast-growing older audience."

Just as Japanese brands are rethinking their approach to older folk, so the elderly are rethinking what it means to be entering the twilight of their lives.

Ageing is no longer politely ignored in Japan, Dave McCaughan, McCann WorldGroup's Asia-Pacific strategic planning director, observes. Nor is it resisted. "Old age has, believe it or not, become desirable," he says.

According to McCaughan's new research ("Getting old isn't that bad"), the most attractive age for Japanese men is 37. For women, it is 31. "The 'Christmas cake syndrome', when a woman's appeal is said to deteriorate at 25 (like a Christmas cake on 25 December) is dying off," he says.

The age of Japan's most popular celebrities has increased by five years over the past decade, reveals the report. The most popular, the comedian Sanma Akashiya, is 51. No longer seen as doddery wrinklies, ageing men are said to acquire a "masculine grace" and women a "dignified glow".

"Japan is shifting from a culture which values newness and youth to one in which people and things are valued more with the advancement of time," McCaughan says.

This has not gone unnoticed by advertisers. Unilever is careful to avoid lingering on the age-slowing properties of its Dove Pro-age skin care range in its advertising. The latest campaign features the 60-year-old singer and actress Ryoko Moriyama.

"The message isn't about giving women beautiful skin per se. And Ryoko is not considered a particularly beautiful woman," Naoko Ito, the associate planning director at Dove's agency, Ogilvy & Mather Japan, explains. "She is famed for her spirituality and strength of character. We want Dove to be a celebration of inner beauty first, outer beauty second."

Moriyama falls neatly into the Dankai bracket. Born between 1947 and 1949, Japan's baby boomers have started to retire, hitting the mandatory retirement age of 60. About 3.6 million more salaried workers will have retired by 2009.

However, most are not destined to be penny-pinching pensioners. From the age of 50, until they retire, salaries tend to grow quickly as a reward for company loyalty. At retirement, a bonus of about three times the final annual salary is paid in a lump sum. Then a steady pension kicks in.

But the Japanese are reluctant retirees. According to Japan's Institute for Labour Policy and Training, 61 per cent want to continue working after they hit 60. Many find other jobs. Very few don slippers and put their feet up.

"The baby boomers were part of Japan's economic miracle - the hardworking salarymen who made the country what it is today," McCaughan notes. "They were the first to taste Western popular culture. They were Japan's original rock 'n' rollers. And after going undercover for 30 years, they are re-releasing themselves."

The big difference with Dankai is that, because Japan's sense of family is eroding, this is the first generation not considered selfish for choosing not to leave everything to their children. "Retirement used to be a euphemism for waiting for death," McCaughan adds. "Now it's about getting ready for the third stage of life."

Last year, McCann ran a campaign for Cathay Pacific to lure lone, ageing Japanese to Hong Kong as a reward for hard work and to find their "real selves". TBWA is doing something similar for Nissan's Teana, the saloon on which the Intima is based, and the Tiida, a small car for older people, big on luxury and spaciousness.

But Japan's affluent seniors aren't the types to splash cash. A recent Japan Times report argues that baby boomers do not covet luxury. Only 4 per cent of older readers said they wanted a top-end compact car (like the Teana). But more than one-tenth wanted a camper van (to go travelling), while one-quarter fancied an eco-friendly hybrid.

"Sustainability is important. And besides good healthcare, they want nostalgia, art or a rewarding holiday; meaningful things," Chris Beaumont, the president and chief executive of Grey Japan, says. "This generation has known destitution. Why would they blow it on extravagances after a lifetime spent saving?"

Advertising to older consumers is rarely done well, Beaumont says - in Japan or in the west. "Historically, seniors have only been marketed to by emphasising their age, if at all. Promising to recapture youth or apply the brakes to ageing is the wrong thing to do. The key is to think ageless," he says.

Agencies that specialise in marketing to the aged have been popping up in Japan (there is only one of these in the UK: Millennium). But this model is "strategically erroneous", Beaumont reckons. As is the notion that creatives are better at writing ads for people of a similar age. "We have an outstanding creative who works on a youth brand who's 61."

McCaughan, who has a planner researching the post-retirement market who has just turned 30, would agree. "For the past 40 years ... the answer has always been to target the teen," he says. "In a sense, this shouldn't change. We need to start targeting the teen within everybody, regardless of age."


- Of Japan's population of 127 million, 21 per cent are over the age of 65. By 2025, one in three Japanese will be over 65. The average age will be 50.

- People in Japan say they feel eight years younger than their physical age, according to research from Grey.

- Life expectancy in Japan is 82 years old, the highest in the world. In the UK, it is 78.

- The average Japanese man is 42 years old. The average Japanese woman is 45. The average age for British men and women is 38 and 40, respectively.

- Thirty-five per cent of Japanese men aged over 65 still work, compared with 10 per cent in Europe.

- Japan's baby boomers were born when GDP per person was lower than in the Philippines. They now hold financial assets worth £650 billion - 10 per cent of Japan's overall assets.

- The typical Japanese baby boomer: wears a Uniqlo blazer and trousers, plays golf at the weekends, drives a Nissan GTR for pleasure, a Lexus to work, enjoys The Beatles, gardening and building model planes, and is trying to cut down on beer, whisky and sake, according to a report by Nikkei Business.