‘The ageless consumer’

Burned by aiming too young, marketers such as Mitsubishi capture both boomers and youth by focusing on mind-set

Thanks to longer life expectancies and boomers who refuse to grow up, Canada’s parents are acting younger, while youth act more responsibly. Automotive and packaged goods marketers such as Suzuki Canada, Toyota, Mitsubishi, Nissan and Soyaworld are responding with executions that incorporate both teens and parents – and deliver against both targets.

There’s a reason why the parents on The O.C. are cooler than nerdy Jim and dowdy Cindy from Beverly Hills 90210, and why the content of the new teen melodrama is as much about the folks as it is the kids.

It reflects the advent of the ‘ageless consumer,’ which was born out of the reality that consumers no longer act their age. Boomers for instance, act younger than their predecessors, while their kids are more mature – just like the characters on the show.

What this means to marketers is that there are now similarities between the two groups, enabling them to be targeted within the same campaign, a situation that wasn’t common in the past, where parents were more likely to be the butt of a joke. Further, marketers who have clued into the trend – mainly in the automotive and packaged goods categories – are beginning to realize that consumers can no longer be defined by demographics, but that psychographics have more resonance as old stereotypes no longer hold.

Maddy Dychtwald, SVP of San Francisco-based thinktank Agewave, and author of the book Cycles: How We Live, Work and Buy, suggests there are three factors propelling the trend: Life expectancy has increased to 78 years; boomers now represent the majority of consumers, making their traits more mainstream; and there is more crossover between age groups due to increased access to information.

All this has created ‘a society where age no longer defines who we are,’ she says.

There’s another interesting societal shift going on as well: whereas the boomers and Generation Xers didn’t always get on with mom and dad, today’s youth not only have positive relationships but share commonalities with their boomer folks. They listen to the same music, watch the same TV shows and sometimes even wear the same clothes.

Proof of this closer relationship can be seen in the ‘boomerang effect,’ says Dychtwald, which has seen boomers encourage their kids to return home after college.

As a result, ‘the marketplace ought to be considered an ageless one,’ she says. ‘The whole concept of segmenting the markets by age is passé. Marketers should go after life stages instead.’

This can be achieved by pinpointing similar habits between different segments, she says, pointing to exercise as an example. A lot of boomers and their kids hit the gym regularly, so why not portray them working out side by side in advertising?

Another thing kids do with their parents is drive. Toronto-based Suzuki Canada seems to have glommed onto this fact, as seen in a new ad for its 2004 Suzuki Swift Plus. Created by Toronto-based Grey Worldwide, the spot features a ‘yummy mummy’ behind the wheel with her teenage son as passenger. She points out landmarks as she speeds along – where she had her first kiss, where she met her husband, etc. In the end, the surprise twist is that it’s his car, not hers.

Mike Kurnik, Suzuki’s national manager, corporate and consumer communications, says the Swift is actually aimed at young adults, but that parents likely have some say, not to mention financial investment, in the choice of their kid’s first vehicle, which is why mom was addressed as well. He admits that in the past this execution wasn’t as likely to fly.

But now ‘kids are listening to boomer music and following what their parents did and boomers are trying to stay young – we thought this was a neat way to [reflect] it,’ he says, adding that while the campaign’s primary target is youth, it’s really geared at a ‘mind-set.’ In other words, the Swift is appealing to empty nesters who want to feel ‘young and hip’ as well. ‘I’d say we’re looking for a smart buyer who is looking for reliability and value, but also a trendy car.’

This notion of reaching out to young and old (or at least middle-aged) appears to be more common in the auto industry, as other automakers are also showing interest in the ‘ageless consumer.’ Chris Travell, VP of the automotive group at Toronto-based Maritz Research, suggests some players are trying to strike a middle ground with their advertising. He points to a Toyota Camry commercial, where a dad turns up the volume on his teenage daughter’s punk rock CD – much to her surprise – as an example.

‘There has been a trend to go after younger consumers, and even though that’s a worthwhile objective, it has to be recognized that older Canadians spend more money,’ he says. ‘There has to be an appreciation of the existing customer base, as well as new customers and what can be done to bring them to the brand.’

The experience of Mitsubishi Motors of America is a perfect example of what can happen when there’s too much attention placed on youth. In July the company announced a projected half-year loss of US$683 million due to its 0-0-0 financing program. The problem was that many of its young customers weren’t able to keep up with payments once they kicked in.

‘The new tagline is ‘young at heart,’ and there is an effort to reposition the brand to be more inclusive,’ says Travell.

Certainly, Cypress, Calif.-based Ian Beavis, SVP marketing for Mitsubishi, admits it was a mistake to deliver its message exclusively to young consumers with its edgy, music-centric TV spots. Recently, the positioning has evolved into ‘spirited cars for spirited people.’

‘You’ll see as we go on, whereas before we targeted under 30, we’ll talk to those people but we’ll also talk to people who are 40, 50 and 60,’ he says. ‘[This is possible] because consumers are attitudinally younger – a 50-year-old in this day and age is like a 40-year-old was 10 years ago.

‘If you find the common threads in terms of values and attitudes and you make sure you’re paying attention to life stages, you can cross a lot of age groups.’

A recent Lancer spot, by L.A.-based Deutsch, is a case in point. The ad opens with a neon-bright yellow car that one would assume belongs to a young guy. When it pulls up to a group of teens, the viewer finds out it’s actually a middle-aged couple asking for directions.

‘It gives a wink to the younger culture and also delivers for the older consumer. It is a vehicle that is purchased by consumers both young and old, so we chose actors who are friendly in the middle so people could put themselves in that situation.’

Beavis says the Lancer ad was a transitional one between the old campaign and the automaker’s new direction, which concentrates more heavily on product characteristics. ‘You can avoid dangers [of alienation] when communication is more about product and what the product delivers,’ he says.

But it isn’t just automakers that are responding to the ageless consumer movement. Vancouver-based Soyaworld has launched a new campaign for its So Good soy milk under the tag ‘So good for life.’ The message, according to director of sales and marketing Diane Tollefsen, is ‘keep playing’ and the implication is that So Good can help consumers maintain a youthful lifestyle.

‘Our primary audience is women, many of whom are health savvy and want to make smart food and lifestyle choices for themselves and their families,’ she explains.

Here too, moms are depicted as young at heart – in fact, almost immature. One of the TV ads, created by Saatchi & Saatchi Drum in Vancouver, stars an angry little girl who bursts into her parents’ room, catching them in mid-pillow fight and admonishing them for making a racket (see cover). A second spot has a mom climbing a tree.

While So Good is the country’s number one-selling soy milk brand – last year Canadians drank 40 million litres of soy milk and it continues to be one of the fastest-growing beverage segments – Soyaworld still sees ‘room for growth.’

Says Tollefsen: ‘Our goal is to appeal to a mainstream consumer market – and introduce more and more consumers to the benefits of So Good soy milk. Telling a fun, positive story is one of the ways of achieving that goal.’ Plus, the middle-aged actors ‘represent a good mid-point of our consumer spectrum.’

Similarly, Bradenton, Fla.-based Tropicana has moms behaving like kids – and kids behaving like moms – in ads for its Tropicana Twister beverage. Advertising from Chicago-based Element 79 Partners depicts women having a slumber party in a tent, skateboarding and jamming in rock bands. The tagline is ‘That’s twisted.’

According to brand manager Elizabeth Marshall, Twister was reintroduced last year after a decade without any ad support. Research found that its attributes were ‘refreshingly different’ and ‘a break from the ordinary.’ This was due to its bold flavours, such as Tropical Strawberry Kiwi Spark and, emotionally, the company is trying to get across the brand’s ‘irreverent and twisted personality,’ she says, adding that the ads scored well with moms in testing because ‘it gives them credit for being fun-loving.’

‘It’s definitely more psychographic than age-driven,’ says Marshall. ‘I think the best way to describe the target is that it’s somebody who wants to eat a burrito instead of a sandwich. The advertising is not supposed to be so edgy that it becomes unapproachable – it’s just a playful twist on the ordinary.’

Reaching ‘the sexy mom’

Even when zeroing in on parents directly, marketers are learning that it’s a good idea to stay away from stereotypes that may remind the target of their age. Certainly Mississauga, Ont.-based Nissan discovered this was the case, which is why the automaker refrained from using ‘soccer mom’ imagery in marketing its Quest minivan.

‘We nicknamed the target ‘sexy mom,” says director of marketing Ian Forsyth. ‘She’s a modern woman who has a career and wants to be seen as a person and not as a chauffeur of a mini school bus. When we talked to women, that’s what we found out – they wanted to be treated with respect and they wanted to be recognized as people that have a sense of style.’

Thus, last August Nissan debuted a minivan that looks less traditional; short overheads and a long wheelbase make it more like a sports car. Further, the TV ads, by TBWAToronto, portray moms as being more than moms. One ad has a woman enjoying a girls’ night out while dad is at home with the kids; a second shows mom in a romantic situation and yet another stars a female character with a Pilates ball. The positioning is ‘Moms have changed. Shouldn’t minivans?’ The company expects to sell between 8,000 and 10,000 units per year with this approach.