Don’t ignore boomers: experts

While scenes of stylish twentysomethings speeding along to uppity tunes the likes of Days Go By by Dirty Vegas (see Boards Screening Room might persuade those in the 18 to 34 age group to positively associate with Mitsubishi, experts suggest commercials like this overlook, and in some instances snub, one of the most affluent demographics in history - baby boomers.

While scenes of stylish twentysomethings speeding along to uppity tunes the likes of Days Go By by Dirty Vegas (see Boards Screening Room might persuade those in the 18 to 34 age group to positively associate with Mitsubishi, experts suggest commercials like this overlook, and in some instances snub, one of the most affluent demographics in history – baby boomers.

Certainly in Canada, the population is graying, with more citizens falling into the boomer (aged roughly 37 to 56) category; the latest census data reports that in May 2001, the median age of Canadians reached an all-time high of 37.6 years, a jump of 2.3 years from 1996. In addition, the total number of consumers in the 45 to 64 segment ballooned 36% to 7.3 million between 1991 and 2001, while only 26% of the population were 19 or under, down from 28% in the same period.

The aging trend won’t wane any time soon in this country either, according to David Wolfe, principal of Reston, Va.-based Wolfe Resources Group, and author of the book Serving the Ageless Market, who reports that the 20 to 39 segment will shrink from 9.91 million consumers to 9.076 million by 2010, while the 40 to 59 demo will grow by 1.2 million to approximately 10 million strong. Wolfe says this latter consumer group represents a ‘sweet spot’ for marketers, who should be addressing them.

Jane Bradley, director of sales and marketing for Toronto-based 50Plus magazine and, concurs it’s wise to court boomers; she points out that they have 80% of the wealth in Canada.

‘Boomers account for 68% of luxury travel expenditures, they purchased 41% of all new cars last year, mainly in the luxury category, and yet less than 5% to 10% of all advertising is geared to them.’ Wallets are expected to bulge further too, as ‘the me generation’ receives the largest inheritance in history; according to the Canadian Financial Publishing Group, they are expected to become heirs to $1 trillion in Canada alone.

While these numbers should leave most marketers salivating, Bradley suggests many either neglect older consumers altogether with young and hip imagery, or fail to speak to them poignantly.

‘You can’t stigmatize or stereotype them,’ she says, pointing to a commercial for Energizer, from TBWA ChiatDay in Los Angeles, where a senior is mocked while playing video games with his grandson. ‘You still need to sell to them in a sexy way, but not in the way you would to a teenager.’ When it comes to car advertising, for instance, boomers are inspired by ‘styling, glamour and elegance. They are not looking for speed.’

So why are marketers missing the boat? One fallacy is that if a company cultivates the youth market, those consumers will stay loyal all their lives. But this ‘grab em while they’re young’ philosophy is now obsolete, explains Ken Wong, a marketing professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. The comfortable mobility consumers have adopted in regard to their careers has spilled over into their brand purchasing habits, he says.

According to a 2002 survey conducted by AARP (formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons), a nonprofit membership organization dedicated to addressing the needs and interests of persons 50 and older, Americans aged 45-plus are no more brand loyal than younger people in most categories. For instance, they are as likely as those under 45 to agree with the statement, ‘in today’s marketplace, it doesn’t pay to be loyal to one brand’ (55% of those aged 45-plus; 58% of those younger).

Adds Wong: ‘There was a time where if you bought a Pontiac, you stayed with them forever. That doesn’t happen anymore. People will switch suppliers in a heartbeat if they’re not targeted directly.’

The creative community is partly to blame for the current obsession with youth, says Wong, because advertising to older generations is considered not so exciting. ‘Let’s face it, boomers tend to be less diverse and spontaneous and they are still a little more price sensitive. [And] boomers tend to buy at the higher end of the price and quality spectrum. That’s been a smaller market historically than value or mass, so it becomes harder to justify spending mass media dollars against that market.’

But Wolfe, who thinks agencies have difficulty connecting with boomers because the average age of staff in their creative departments is only 25, suggests a cure-all – ‘ageless marketing,’ which he defines as ‘an approach where you project values that resonate across many age groups.’

Wolfe cites Gap as currently employing this procedure well; its ‘For Every Generation’ ads include celebs of various ages and backgrounds, like old-and-young crooners Willie Nelson and Ryan Adams in a celebration of individuality. The result? So far so good: Gap recently reported its first year-to-year quarterly profit in 23 months.

Another example is ‘Achieve New Balance’ from Boston-based sneaker manufacturer New Balance. While the rest of the athletic shoe industry has been flat since the mid-’90s, Wolfe points out that New Balance has been growing at a healthy rate of 25% or more for the last five years. The creative works because it is inspirational, and reflects ‘mid-life values,’ without turning off younger shoppers. One print ad, for instance, portrays a man jogging up a mountain and states: ‘All that waits atop the hill is the top of the hill.’

Mid-last month Ford Canada unveiled an ‘ageless’ advertising effort of its own, starring Canadian icon Wayne Gretzky. The former hockey legend takes the viewer through scenes depicting what it means to be Canadian, from a little girl making a snow angel to hockey fans passionately cheering on their national team.

Explains Dean Tesser, Ford’s Oakville, Ont.-based marketing communications director: ‘Gretzky’s the most recognizable sports figure in every province, every demographic and every psychographic. What was so perfect about using him is that he cuts across [them all].’

In an attempt to kickstart sales, a promotion has been tied into the program at the dealer level, offering 99 days without payment – to coincide with Gretzky’s jersey number – as well as a free collectible photo of the Great One in his Edmonton Oilers uniform.

Wolfe, however, points out that no matter how popular a spokesperson may be, they don’t usually do it for older folk. ‘Generally speaking, just because some guy is famous and loved, doesn’t mean it will accomplish what you want. Older people know they’re being paid, so they will take it with three grains of salt.’ Instead, he advises employing a regular joe with whom consumers can identify; someone with middle-class sensibilities is normally a good bet.

Humour can also be an efficient tool for spanning age groups, but boomers, particularly older ones, are sometimes offended by ‘put-down’ comedy, where people are ridiculed in advertising, says Wolfe, who adds that incorporating ‘family’ or sitcom-type wit is a better plan.

Indeed so-called ‘sitcom humour’ appears to work for Listerine, whose quirky superhero has performed admirably for parent group Pfizer Canada. The spots, from Toronto-based agency J. Walter Thompson, star an everyday, somewhat geeky, middle-aged guy dressed in a giant Listerine bottle; his nemesis is Gingivitis. According to Graham Robertson, category manager for Pfizer, this particular style of ‘sitcom humour’ cuts across all age groups, although it is geared at 25 to 50s.

The Listerine superhero was born almost three years ago; at that time, Listerine was viewed as old and stodgy, with consumers comparing the brand to Margaret Thatcher in company research. ‘Because [oral care] is a serious subject, the ads became lecturing and people tuned them out,’ explains Robertson. ‘But now, by having fun with the superhero, the spots are breaking through.’ For instance, Listerine’s image rating has increased from 40% to 85% and it has enjoyed double-digit growth in all three years.

Another brand that has tasted sweet success via an ageless marketing drive is Diet Pepsi. When ‘Forever Young’ first broke in 1999, the brand, which was The Grand Prix Winner of the recent Cassies awards for results-driven campaigns, had nabbed only 72% of Diet Coke’s marketshare. Now the two competitors are neck and neck.

Jeff O’Neill, president of Toronto-based Pepsi Cola Canada, credits this to ‘the real magic of ‘Forever Young,’ [which] is that it managed to capture the ‘young at heart’ spirit. That’s not just unique to people under 25, it’s over 35 and over 40 [too].’

Produced by Toronto agency BBDO, the creative is aimed at consumers 25-plus who are considering a switch from their regular cola to a diet option.

While earlier spots utilized celebs like Ray Charles and Michael J. Fox and pushed Diet Pepsi’s great taste, the purpose of ‘Forever Young’ is to convey to boomers that they ‘can still have the Pepsi spirit,’ says O’Neill. ‘People like to recapture those fun moments from their youth, which are embellished over time. That’s what the campaign came out of.’

This strategy also overcame a major business challenge, which was it needed to appeal to an older cola drinker while still respecting the youthful parent brand Pepsi, explains Gerry Frascione, president and CEO of BBDO. ‘[We looked] to an insight that is broad and elastic enough [that] all stakeholders of the brand can relate to [it].’

Despite all the ‘ageless’ hyperbole, not all companies are taking the broad route. General Motors has decided to exclusively pursue the 50-plus demographic for its Chevy Impala brand, which was reintroduced to Canadians in 1999.

The Oshawa, Ont.-based auto manufacturer discovered through research that there was a sense of nostalgia associated with the vehicle; thus, the advertising, from Toronto agency MacLaren McCann, uses imagery from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, as well as the present.

‘We did try to stir up some of the emotion and romance of those three other decades through the use of icons,’ explains Jennifer Dawkins, director of advertising and communications for GM. ‘The demographic is absolutely highly desirable and very affluent. What we’re promoting is the very attractive styling, comfort and roominess, which is desirable for that [consumer.]‘ Dawkins concedes that the campaign is distinct in an industry that tends to ‘chase the younger demographic.’

‘I think it takes a bit of courage to be that specific. It allowed us to do a lot of targeting with media as well, [such as] with daypart programming versus primetime. The more specific you can be with the target, the more focused you are in other elements of your communications plan.’

How has the Impala performed? According to Dawkins, a third shift of production has been added to GM’s Oshawa plant in order to keep up with demand for the Impala. Furthermore, last year in Canada, sales were up by 24% over 2000. It just proves that advertising to older folk can be exciting after all – at least when it comes down to the bottom line.