Marketing to Seniors, Boomers and the 50+

Our Understanding of the Older Consumer:

Mark Twain wrote, “The problem isn’t the things that we don’t know; it’s the things we ‘know’ that ain’t so.” His comment is simply a reflection of a common sense reality. Today, marketing and selling draw on a lot of things “we ‘know’ that ain’t so.”

For instance: Marketers once “knew” (and many still do) that people 50 and older rarely change brands. Everybody “knew” that once consumers settled in on a brand or a company they became more resistant to switching to another brand or business as they got older. Research shows that to be wrong. We also learned that consumer behavior is pertinent to the subtleties of marketing, advertising, and sales practices.

We’ve been helping clients understand better the older mind to better connect and successfully serve the older markets for more than twenty years. Our combined experience working with older customers on the client and agency side spans more than 50 years. Over that period we’ve learned a few things.

What We've Learned About Marketing to Baby Boomers, Part II image1. As we age, our individualism increases.

Older consumers are less subject to peer influence than younger consumers.

Marketing Implication: Keeping up with the Joneses is not as important as it once was; thus advertising that invokes social status benefits doesn't play as well in older markets as in younger ones. Largely freed from worrying about reactions of others, older consumers tend toward greater practicality in buying decisions than younger consumers. This increases individualization in behavior which makes it more difficult to predict what they will do in the marketplace.

2. We develop an increased demand for facts.

Adult consumers tend to be less responsive to sweeping claims in marketing messages as they age.

Marketing Implication: Hyperbole turns them off. If older consumers are interested in considering a purchase, they want unadorned facts, and more of them, than they usually wanted earlier in life. Years of buying equip older people with knowledge of what to look for and what information they need for an intelligent purchase. However, they often don't get to the point of asking for facts until a product has emotionally intrigued them.

3. Our response to emotional stimuli increases.

Older consumers tend to be quicker than younger consumers to reflect emotionally a lack of interest in or negative reaction to an offered product.

Marketing Implication: Such “first impressions” are more likely to be permanent than among younger who are more likely to give a marketer a second chance. On the other hand, you can embed a positive first impression especially deep in the emotions of the older person -- so much so that the older consumer is often more disposed to be a faithful consumer than the younger consumer.

4. We become less self-oriented, more altruistic.

Older consumers tend to show increased response to marketing appeals reflecting altruistic values.

Marketing Implication: This tracks with common middle-age shift toward stronger spiritual values in which concern for others increases. As altruistic motivations become stronger, narcissistic and materialistic values wane in influence. Marketers to middle age and older populations must rethink their traditional egocentric appeals in marketing communications.

5. We spend more time making purchase decisions.

As most people grow older, they experience changes in their perceptions of time, but also in its meaning and role in their lives.

Marketing Implication: For example, older people often ignore time-urgency strategies in marketing -- such as: "Offer good until ---," "Only three left in stock---etc...” Generally, "time is not of the essence" is a common attitude among older people, especially those who have retired.

What We've Learned About Marketing to Baby Boomers, Part III image6. We see fewer differences between competing products.

Because older people tend to be more highly individuated, and less influenced by external influences, perceptions of products more internally shaped.

Marketing Implication: They typically conclude that there is really little difference between products as many marketers' claim. This contrasts with the tendency of younger consumers to assert robustly the differences between a product they prefer and its competitors -- even when clear differences don’t exist. In beer tasting tests, for example, young consumers often cannot distinguish their favorite brews from others. Beer marketers can influence perceptions of beer taste as much as brew masters can.

7. We see more differences between competing companies

Older consumers tend to be more responsive to "companies with a conscience" than younger consumers.

Marketing Implication: From a self-interest perspective, they are also more attentive to warranty issues and a company's reputation for honoring its warranties than younger consumers.

8. When making discretionary-purchase decisions, older consumers tend to :
  • Have a decreased sensitivity to price;
  • Increased sensitivity to affordability;
  • and sharply increased sensitivity to value.

Marketing Implication: Older consumers have more complex ways of determining value than younger consumers. Value determination by older consumers tends to be an existentialist exercise whereby they combine soul (spiritual) values as well as mind (intellect) and body (tangible) values into the value determination process. Not only does an item purchased symbolize some aspect of the consumer's being, the entire purchase experience can be a projection of the consumer's whole being.For example, a person with a passionate concern for the homeless may more likely purchase a product from a company with a program benefiting the homeless. To that consumer, the product has a high Metavalues index, that is, an element of value unrelated to the product performance. Appraisal of Metavalues takes place mostly at subliminal levels of the mind because Metavalues tend to reflect deeply embedded, “background” emotional needs. Younger consumers tend to reflect more transparent motivations. After a mature consumer develops strong interest in a discretionary product purchase and determines that a brand has acceptable holistic value (basic plus Metavalues) affordability can easily become more important than price in the final decision.

9. We have an increased price-sensitivity in non-discretionary spending

As they age, many consumers develop higher economic "literacy" and skillfully apply it to get the best price -- an objective not to be confused with "getting the best value”.

Marketing Implication: Bargains primarily reflect price factors while implicit in the term "value" are all attributes of the product, the purchase experience and the expected ownership experience. In purchasing "need" items, older consumers tend to be more  bargain-minded, whereas in purchasing "desire" items, they tend to be more value-minded in a holistic sense.

10. We often project what seems to be contradictory behavior

We sometimes characterize older people as selfish and selfless, penurious and profligate, spontaneous and deliberate, and so on. These conflicting attributes lead some to characterize older people as contradictory -- or at least, confusing in their behavior.

Marketing Implication: However, older people are not contradictory in their behavior they are sensitive to context in their behavior. For example, an older shopper may be penurious in using cents-off coupons in a grocery store, after which she drives off in a Mercedes. This is not evidence of contradictory behavior, but an example of the rules of thriftiness applied to basics, and the rules of whole value applied to discretionary expenditures. In the first case, price is the common denominator in consumers' interest, in the second, there is no common denominator because each person calculates whole value in a unique manner.

What We've Learned

We’ve learned that building relationships with customers should be the object in all modes of marketing. New insights about how the brain works provide guidance for doing this. They offer clues for achieving the personalization qualities in mass advertising that marketers strive for in direct marketing and telemarketing.

We’ve learned that it’s about new rules, new mindsets and new processes. In short, it is about a new, authentically customer-centric paradigm. New paradigms challenge the mind because the mind has a natural bias toward preserving the old ways; even when old ways cease working as they once did. But when pain caused by an old paradigm’s breakdown exceeds peoples’ threshold of tolerance, they begin warming to new alternatives.

The differences in consumer motivations and decision processes between consumers in the first and second half of life boggle many marketers who have yet to figure out how to market to more mature consumers. The young are easier to analyze and sell to. Now, with adults over the age of 50 in the majority, marketers are being compelled to figure out their values and behavior.

Finally, we’ve learned that today’s marketplace is unlike any faced before. Most of its adult members are in the years when the influences of what Maslow called self-actualization begin to show up in behavior. Until the New Customer Majority emerged, these forces had little noticeable influence on the marketplace at-large. Now however, such attributes of self-actualization oriented behavior as the following are widely evidenced in the marketplace:

  • Perceptions – more conditional, less absolutist (shades of gray vs. black and white)
  • Relationships– more autonomous, less dependent on sources (such as advertising) in making decisions
  • Social behavior – more individuated, less subject to “herd behavior,” less easy to pigeon hole into segments
  • Decision making – more emotional (as in “gut feelings” or intuition), less “rational” in decision processes.

How Do Seniors Think Differently?


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