For almost a quarter of a century we’ve advocated the wisdom of David B. Wolfe, author of Serving the Ageless Market, Ageless Marketing, Firms of Endearment and Brave New Worldview. In June I published the first of a series of articles reflecting David’s thinking and on August 4 the second. This is the third and last article.
So What is Ageless Marketing?
By David B. Wolfe
I am asked from time-to-time about what I mean by “ageless marketing” and how is ageless marketing different from boomer marketing, senior marketing, or as the Japanese often refer to marketing to older people, “Silver marketing.”
In the early years of television, Nielson just provided household ratings without reference to age. Then, encouraged by ABC, a struggling young network at that time that had a smaller but younger audience than its two established competitors, Nielson added the Adult 18-49 demographic to its regular reports.
So, there we have it. Age-based advertising, which is often counterproductive in today’s marketplace, was created to give an also ran network in the early 1960s that had the youngest audience a perceived advantage over its competitors. ABC’s main pitch was “Get them young and before some other brand gets them.”
The only problem with that pitch is that age correlates poorly with customer loyalty. In fact, the young are notorious for their fickleness. Nevertheless, ABC’s pitch worked and Madison Avenue invented age-based marketing.
The emergence of what I call the New Customer Majority has left Madison Avenue up marketing’s creek without a paddle to steer back into today’s mainstream consumer population. That presented marketers a big challenge. Everything they had learned about consumer behavior was learned when the young ruled the marketplace. Their behavior is much different from that of older consumers who now are the adult majority.
The problem with age-based marketing is its exclusivity. Older people don’t want a brand that reflects immaturity (Pepsi) and young people don’t want a brand that reflects maturity (Buick – although Buick has made some gains recently in bringing down the average age of its customer base).
The alternative to age-based is ageless marketing – marketing based not on age but on values and universal desires that appeal to people across generational divides. Age-based marketing reduces the reach of brands because of its exclusionary nature. In contrast ageless marketing extends the reach of brands because of its inclusionary focus.
To avoid any misunderstanding, I need to say that targeting specific age groups remains a valid marketing gambit. One of the nation’s most successful ageless marketers, New Balance, does not ignore age. While the core values it reflects in its general marketing are ageless, it targets specific age groups through media selection, content in selected messaging, and in how it manages its channel relationships.
Companies with a portfolio of products that are suitable across a wide age spectrum and that are stuck in the age-based marketing mindset of the 1960s need to broaden their reach by transitioning to ageless marketing. Why? Because the country will continue getting older for the next 15 years or so. The New Customer Majority is where both the demographics and the affluence is.
Many companies should evaluate a compromise between age-based marketing and ageless marketing: life stage marketing.
Generically, life stage marketing is not a new idea. But when marketers talk about life stage they virtually always mean social stage, examples of which include school graduation, starting a career, setting up a household, marriage, children, last child moving out and retirement. Life stage in the context I use it refers to psychological developmental stage.
Developmental stage marketing combines the inclusionary objectives of ageless marketing with the exclusionary boundaries of age-based marketing.
For example, invoking a company’s genuine concern for the environment is a value that speaks to people of all ages – including children who bring home what they have learned about the environment at school. They can be very influential on Mom’s buying decisions in certain categories. When that same company presents its message with strong, dramatic graphics – a message that shouts at you – it will be targeting adolescents and twentysomethings. A message that reflects on future generations will likely be targeting middle age and older people.
Developmental marketing looks at the marketplace in terms of four seasons of life. Each season has its own set of needs that may be somewhat unique to that season. Empty nesters in Fall usually aren’t looking forward to the next PTA meeting. Young parents enjoy getting involved in their children’s lives. Retirees aren’t usually into job retraining.
Each season of life has its own developmental objectives. Time spent in the childhood and adolescents years (Spring) is focused on preparation for adulthood. Fantasy and play are the narrative themes of Spring and have a large role in defining the needs and desires of children and adolescents.
The young adulthood years (Summer) are concerned with social and vocational development. Most approach these years with a heady appetite for adventure and project a strong sense of the romantic and heroic. Again, the life stage characteristics of this season predispose the nature of a person’s needs.
Midlife (Fall) is about refining and developing the inner self with a major question being, “What is the purpose of my life). People begin looking less to material accoutrements for life’s pleasure and more to experiential pursuits. They also begin thinking in terms of “giving back.”
Finally, the lions and lionesses of Winter look to continue the simplification of life that they began in Fall and coming to terms with what faces them in the last quarter of life. They also expand the spectrum of experiences to which they look for enhancement of life satisfaction. At the end of the day, the marketing approach needs to be guided by the nature of the brand and the market. Not news, by any means, but so often ignored. Some brands are best developed in the market’s mind within the context of universal values. Hallmark does a great job at this. It sells love, certainly a universal value.
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