'One wrong word and you lose them': the perils of marketing to mature consumers

Brands are missing a trick when it comes to marketing to the over-50s, in no small part because of the 'over-50s' categorisation itself, which belies the reality of a richly diverse audience, according to a panel of marketers.

Old people and technology: not as technophobic as you might think
Old people and technology: not as technophobic as you might think

The panellists were speaking at Marketing's ’Older, Richer, Wiser’ conference today (22 May) about marketing to the over-50s, where they talked about the misapprehensions plaguing ads targeting the older marketplace.

Myth busting

"Typically it’s the organisations that target a wide range of ages that tend to get it most wrong," said Michael Cutbill, marketing director of the AA. "They’ll have a view often that the over-50s can be exploited more easily than any other groups. But the fact is that they are very demanding and discriminating."

Martin Troughton, marketing director of Anglian Home Improvements said that older people’s troubled relationship with technology was a common misconception. "That they’re not tech-savvy. We have a call centre and a website and 5% of our business [over half of which is generated from the over-55s] when we looked at it we said ‘old people don’t use the internet’.

"But when we dug deeper, we saw that they were doing analysis on us online. They didn’t feel comfortable committing to us online [and were more likely to phone to make a purchase], but that’s where they did their research."

Dark times

But Katherine Rose, marketing director of retirement homes company Audley Retirement, argued that the tone commonly adopted by ads aimed at older consumers missed a crucial point. "The biggest myth is that it’s the darkest time of life," she said. She referenced research which found that people’s contentment levels rise after 50 and again after turning 70, in no small part due to less pressure from jobs, children and financially.

"It’s a lot more of a liberating age as you get past those pressures," she explained. "And part of the reason that advertisers ignore older people is that people are afraid of begging old. And that’s not the true picture of old people. So we don’t segment by age."

Getting it wrong

Troughton, marketing director and former adman, cited a trackside poster ad his agency ran for M&G Investments that used 600 words of copy, and suggested that consumers waiting for a train could go and buy a cappuccino before reading the ad. "One word lost them," he said. "Cappuccino. One word can lose them. So we changed it to tea."

Cutbill, who was previously at Saga, added: "A lot of people in this age group are more literal. We researched an ad for car insurance and there was a straightforward image of a Ford coming around a corner, and a guy said he didn’t like it, ‘it’s not for me, because I own a Vauxhall’. Sometimes subtle brand messages resonate with a younger audience; and you’re better off being more literal."

Meanwhile, Rose questioned the ‘over-50s’ categorisation itself.

"When talking about this group, it makes me quite edgy," she said. "It’s patronising to consider it as one group. Marketing to the over-50s is the same as any other marketing - to understand the consumer you have to understand their behaviour and attitudes."

Troughton agreed. "Age doesn’t define people - it’s the lowest common denominator," he said. "Nobody thinks they’re old any more. My parents are 84 and they talk about the ‘old people down the road’. People don’t define themselves as old."

Rose added. "We’re talking about baby-boomers with the values of baby boomers who grew up in the 60s," she said. "I grew up listening to punk music. These are the values that people are bringing with them."

Getting it right

Cutbill cited research which showed that young people are more likely to have blind faith in brands, whereas over-50s are more discerning. "You need to look at people based on their needs."

"The over-50s is becoming a much more important and powerful group of people and ignore them at your peril," said Troughton.

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