MARKETING FOCUS: Baby-boomers: a generation vexed - They’re wealthy, they’re powerful but baby-boomers are tough to target and even tougher to persuade. Jane Bainbridge identifies the difficulties and the tactics that have overcome them

The post-war baby-boomers grew up singing ’Hope I die before I get old’ but now, as they rapidly approach 50, they are finding a second wind.

The post-war baby-boomers grew up singing ’Hope I die before I get

old’ but now, as they rapidly approach 50, they are finding a second


More importantly, this generation - who were teenagers in the

peace-loving hippy 60s era - now constitute the wealthiest age group

this century.

Despite their high-spending capabilities, marketers find boomers

difficult to target. Current renewed efforts to reach them highlight the

division among marketers about the best approach to take.

One problem is that despite their income, boomers are the first

generation to suffer the dual drain of supporting children as well as

ageing parents.

Add to this the realisation that the Welfare State they assumed would

support them in their old age is withering away, and the problems facing

the boomers are a million miles away from those that were envisaged in

the heyday of Flower Power. According to Age Concern, the baby-boomers

will be the grey boomers of tomorrow; a third of the population will be

aged over 60 by 2026.

It is clearly a market worth reaching. According to Research

International’s (RI) consumer study ’Connecting with Baby-boomers’,

45- to 55-year-olds account for 13.73% of the UK population and 23% of

all household expenditure.

Households headed by 45- to 55-year-olds spend just under a third more

on goods and services than others. In some categories, such as leisure,

they spend half as much again as other households.

Another reason boomers can be tricky to target is that they can be at

very different life stages: from single, married with young children,

empty-nesters (married with grown-up children who’ve left home), to a

combination of both if they are starting a second family. But one thing

they all share is common experiences and a fear of the future.

Jane Gwilliam, RI’s managing director, says that boomers are not only

cohesive and communal, but they present real potential for advertisers

because they are among the most receptive of audiences to advertising

messages. They see advertising as a form of communication, not

persuasion, albeit dependent on the tone of the ads.

While she argues advertising aimed at boomers must be honest and not

dwell on problems, the trend that is emerging in what little boomer

advertising there is, is the sense of do it now before its too late. The

message is blunt: life is too short to keep putting things off.

One brand that has used this message to the full is Harley-Davidson.

At Partners BDDH, the ad agency which created its pan-European

advertising, business development director Robert Smith says: ’It’s

about time and the fragility of life; if it’s your one and only chance

to buy a Harley don’t let rational thought get in the way.’

The average purchaser in the UK is about 40, so the company focused on

two target groups: the active bikers who are working their way up to a

Harley, and those who have a licence but haven’t owned a bike since they

were young. ’There are more people in the UK with a bike licence not

riding a bike, than are,’ says Smith.

’People keep making excuses - ’I’ll do it one day, but not today’ - so

they need a further nudge. We’re saying bring it forward, don’t put it

off. If in 20 years you’re still saying it, it’ll be too late.’

Road age

While motorbikes may hold a specific fascination with boomers, tapping

into an age-defying feeling of escape and freedom, cars are very


’Cars are the icon of the era, young people didn’t have cars before

that,’ says Gwilliam. Boomers have grown up with cars, making them an

indispensable item. This may be why car manufacturers are one of the few

industries that are good at targeting boomers. Paul Edwards, chief

executive at the Henley Centre, believes boomers link status with badges

and outer display, and have a strong love affair with cars.

Almost every car brand has models and advertising aimed at boomers and

while the recent fad for people movers may well appeal to a slightly

younger group, it also fits the boomer with a young family.

Mercedes, BMW and Volvo are all brands aimed at this group and have the

potential to appeal to boomers as they are brands that have been proven

over the years. Boomers like brands that are trustworthy, and while,

unlike younger generations, they are not defined by brands, their

relationships with them are based on their intrinsic worth and


But here, too, the motor marketers have started to employ a touch of the

fear factor to tempt sales. Toyota launched its small recreational

vehicle, RAV4, in August last year. Its ad campaign, created by Saatchi

& Saatchi, used among its lines ’Let your hair down, while you’ve still

got it’, and was aimed squarely at the 35- to 50-year-old market. The

message read loud and clear: make the most of it before you’re really


While some industry observers think the travel and leisure sector has

been bad at targeting baby-boomers, there are some indications that this

is changing. Thomson adopted the fear tactic for its CityBreaks


One ad featured an image of an old and bored-with-life couple beside the

caption ’Do you remember that time we nearly went to Istanbul for the


Peter Clay, deputy managing director and board account director at BMP,

who worked on the campaign, says: ’We were dealing with a product which

tends to be more of an impulse buy than a conventional holiday. It’s

lower in cost and often involves couples and shorter distances. It’s

using the idea of spontaneity, which is easy to do and the money for

many people is not a significant barrier. We thought there are so many

wasted opportunities in life and for a very small cost and a tiny bit of

effort you can be in the sunshine somewhere.’

The campaign was aimed at the 35-plus age group and employed the common

’do it now’ theme.

But if boomers are already feeling so insecure and let down by society,

is this style of marketing going to deliver the goods? Gwilliam thinks

it depends on what type of boomer you’re targeting. She identified two

clear groups in the survey, which she called ’ants’ and


Ants focus on husbanding their resources because they fear for the

future, while grasshoppers adopt a live-for-today attitude and are part

of the credit culture. So the trend in ’seize the day’ marketing is

aimed firmly at the grasshopper boomers.

That’s not to say some companies aren’t rooting out the ants. Financial

services may well be the least trusted by boomers, but this sector is

the best at targeting them.

From RI’s survey, campaigns that were liked by boomers included Allied

Dunbar’s ’There may be trouble ahead’ (especially the one where the

older father discovers his wife is pregnant again) and the more upbeat

Midland Bank campaign ’The best is yet to come’.

Both target boomers, although the Midland ad was particularly aimed at

empty-nesters and researched well because of its Beach Boys’ The Sloop

John B soundtrack, and its positive outlook.

Financial targets

While some of the other financial services ads are not aimed

specifically at boomers, campaigns such as Barclaycard’s ’Don’t put it

off, put it on’ appeal to the grasshopper.

Although examples can be found in certain sectors, the consensus seems

to be that boomers are largely untapped in marketing terms. Why is


Edwards argues that they are being targeted, but if it is done well, you

don’t notice. ’Good advertising doesn’t need to show the users, it’s

about having a positive imagination. It’s better to say ’that’s for me’

rather than ’I recognise that that is me’,’ he says.

This is certainly backed by Smith at Partners BDDH, which created a

number of executions for the Harley-Davidson campaign. One used a young

child, another a very old man. However, the one featuring a man in his

40s didn’t research well and was dropped for the final campaign.

’Showing 40-year-olds was too close to home. It’s OK to allude to

things, but not to hold a mirror up. People don’t mind seeing what they

were like or what they will be like, but if you show them what they are

really like, they don’t like it and they feel threatened,’ says


Of the brands cited by boomers as being trusted and liked, few would

automatically be associated with them. Clarks, Gillette, Chanel, Oxo and

Kodak are all favoured. However, boomers’ relationships with brands are

very different to those of younger generations. For boomers the brand is

subservient to the product. But once a brand has proven itself, boomers

stay loyal, regardless of shifting fashions.

However, Edwards thinks marketing is now picking up on the opportunities

boomers offer, not least because many of the chief executives of the

biggest ad agencies are part of that generation.

’They’re also editors, making films and heading departments at the BBC;

they are setting the cultural agenda,’ he says.

Baby-boomers may be in positions of power but they are still largely an

unnoticed group and one that many marketers can’t agree on. This

disagreement could be one reason why the advertising targeting them is

limited. For while Edwards professes a more optimistic impression of

boomers, insisting they are the first ’young forever’ generation,

Gwilliam is more pessimistic.

’Against all their expectations they believe they will have to provide

for their own welfare in old age. This means boomers are facing a second

betrayal in terms of an unsure future, after the first betrayal of

post-Second World War uncertainty,’ she says.

She believes marketers should appear to be more on the boomers’


’There are marketing opportunities in a new life-after-children stance.

It is a potential time for renewal of homes, travel, culture, clothing

and personal care. There should certainly be mileage in the ’You’ve

earned it approach’,’ she says.


- Classified as 45- to 55-year-olds.

- Wealthiest generation this century.

- Share common experiences in terms of battling for personal freedom and

economic improvement in their youth.

- ’Sandwich generation’ - responsible for children and ageing parents.

- Opt for brands they can trust.

- TV is prime means of communicating and they are still a reading


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