Target group definitions are shifting away from Boomers

About 25 years ago, when I was a media planner working on the Thrifty's Jeans account, I spent an inordinate amount of time helping to redefine the client's target group. Thrifty management wanted to keep their store's youthful image but also wanted to expand their customer base beyond the teen segment that accounted for their initial retail success.

About 25 years ago, when I was a media planner working on the Thrifty’s Jeans account, I spent an inordinate amount of time helping to redefine the client’s target group. Thrifty management wanted to keep their store’s youthful image but also wanted to expand their customer base beyond the teen segment that accounted for their initial retail success.

I remember calculating population per year of age in the Toronto market and found, at least back then, that the 15- to 30-year-old age segment had more population per year than any other group. The recommendation, to widen the target definition to include 25- to 34-year-olds, raised some eyebrows but was accepted – because it was hard to ignore the absolute size of the segment.

In the years following my first adventure in target-land, this age group acquired a label – ‘baby boomers’ and became more formally defined as those born between the years 1946 and 1964. David Foot, a professor of economics at the University of Toronto, has heightened his profile by appreciating the boomer dynamic and harnessing the predictive power of demographics.

In the ’70s and ’80s marketers focused on the challenges of keeping this bubble of consumerism in sight as it rose, year by year, through life. Media measurement firms have accommodated the aging boomers by constantly updating their published age breaks: 18-to-34 became 18-to-49 which was revised to 25-to-54 and then adjusted to 35-to-64.

Today, boomers are 38-to-56 years of age and marketers have been questioning the wisdom of simply tacking one more year to the upper reaches of their consumer target definition. They’re coming to think that perhaps shifting marketing focusing away from the 40+ current customers to an 18-to-34 emerging customer base will stimulate growth.

This ongoing tug-of-war between young versus old targeting had, until recently, been contained within advertiser and agency boardrooms. But this spring, the debate burst onto the public stage.

The trigger was David Letterman who is about as old as you can get and still qualify as a boomer. Letterman issued a hollow threat to move his smaller but younger audience from CBS to ABC, a move that would have replaced Ted Koppel and his larger but older audience. Newspaper columnists, most of whom are boomers themselves, learned to their horror that smaller/younger might be in and larger/older might be on the way out.

In March of this year, soon after Letterman’s salary boosting strategy was executed, columnists went on the war path. Simon Houpt, David Bond and David Macfarlane were outraged that their beloved ‘boomers’ might be taking a backseat to younger, emerging target groups. David Foot, sensing a re-emergence in interest in his favourite subject, appeared recently in print wondering why ‘life ends at 30 for advertisers’ (June 14 Globe and Mail, John Heinzl).

Throughout the spring and summer of this year, CBC Radio has made announcement after announcement concerning its intention to make programming changes that should result in the addition of younger hours of tuning. No other radio station captures boomers the way CBC radio does. Almost 40% of the 12+ tuning to Radio One are 35-to-54. We can all hear the rising ballyhoo from the fourth estate as CBC teases back the curtain covering their full programming vision – nimble, accessible and (shudder) contemporary. Hell hath no fury like a boomer newspaper writer scorned.

There is a simple, logical line of debate on this issue that’s hard to ignore and it favours the move to more youthful targeting. There isn’t a lot of marketing money to go around in this country. Few brands can afford to go after more than one target with one message. Brand managers can’t allow new, emerging 18-to-34 year old consumers to be captured by the competition. Youth must be addressed. As a consequence, the older boomer target will become increasingly secondary.

But perhaps, in the end, the explanation behind the shift in marketing emphasis towards poorer, smaller but up-and-coming youthful segments is simple – brand managers want to be included in their target group definitions. You know, thinking back to when I was a 27-year-old media planner, that’s probably the real reason why I recommended the 25-to-34 age target for Thrifty’s.

Rob Young is a founding partner and SVP, planning and research, at Toronto-based Harrison, Young, Pesonen & Newell. He can be reached at ryoung@hypn.com.