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.

How the Brain Processes Information

We’ve learned that marketing activities exert an enormous impact on individuals and that consumer behavior is very relevant to the dynamics of marketing practices. We’ve also learned that a good understanding of how the brain processes information goes a long way to improving connecting processes.

1. There are material differences between males and females in the architecture and functioning of their brains.

This often leads to different responses to the same experiences. Females generally make greater use of right brain functions in thinking processes, making them more subject to emotional arousal than males. However, research indicates that in later life, the gap between males and females in emotional sensitivity narrows. Males become more intuitive and depend more than they did earlier in life on emotional reads of a situation to determine if it warrants further attention.

Marketing Implication: Logic in product messages generally works better with males than females. However, this doesn’t mean qualitative differences in accuracy of perceptions because females generally make more effective use of intuition, a right brain, and emotionally based function. However, once a female experiences a favorable insight, she may become as rational in further processing of a matter as a male. It’s just that her right brain is a more formidable gatekeeper to the left-brain than male brains generally are.

What We've Learned About Marketing to Baby Boomers Part IV2. Our motivations do not originate in the conscious mind.

The conscious mind is the executive officer that, like a corporate CEO, makes decisions on needs that have been framed at lower levels. Neurologist Richard Restak states in The Brain Has a Mind of Its Own “We have reason to doubt that full awareness of our motives may be possible.” Adds brain researcher Bernard Baars in, In the Theater of the Brain, “Our inability to report intentions and expectations simply reflect the fact that they are not qualitatively conscious.”

Marketing Implication: Answers consumers give researchers about their motivations are often incomplete or off the mark simply because people can only speculate about their motivations at deepest levels of the psyche. Creators of product messages need to become more intimately familiar than is typical with the “hidden drivers” of consumers’ behavior, about which they have little explicit knowledge. These drivers tend to be stage-of-life specific. For example, young people generally have stronger outer-directed motivations relating to social status than older people. Older people’s motivations tend to be qualitatively more experiential and less materialistic than younger people’s motivations.

3. People use different brain sites and mental processes in answering researchers’ hypothetical questions than they use in real life situations.

Research respondents tend to draw more heavily on the objective sequential reasoning of the left-brain than on the subjective emotional right brain in answering researchers’ questions. This bias is reversed in favor of the right brain in reacting to product messages and making buying decisions.

Marketing Implication: We can improve research results by techniques that are more effective in defining consumers’ implicit testimonies that have not been distorted by undue influence from left-brain processing. The recent trend toward studying consumers in their natural living and shopping environments is justified by the finding that people process hypothetical information differently than they do real life information. Researchers need to make more use of indirect techniques to get behind the curtains of consciousness.

4. Brain development is lifelong, and how people mentally process information changes from one decade of life to the next.

This alters how people view and connect with the external world (worldview). Language style preferences also change over time. For example, youth and young adults generally have a more assertive language style than older people.

Marketing Implication: Product messages will be more effective when expressed in the stage-of-life language style of the core market to which you primarily address the message.

5. Adolescent brains are significantly inferior to adult brains in reading facial expressions.

The older people are, the more skilled they generally are at reading facial expressions.

Marketing Implication: Product messages depicting people should reflect awareness the core audience’s ability to read facial expressions. For instance, older people’s greater sensitivity to facial expressions means that facial expressions should bear authentic connection to the product and product message in older markets. Younger consumers will generally be more concerned with what people are doing than with what their faces are saying.

6. As midlife (40+) approaches, people increasingly draw on right brain functions.

They begin relying less on left-brain sequential reasoning and more on emotions – aka “gut feelings” or intuition.

Marketing Implication: Product messages for people over 35 should have more affect (emotional toning) than product messages for younger people. Under 35, people tend to have a stronger reasoning bias, thus product messages generally should implicitly or explicitly promote concrete reasons for purchase.

7. Information entering the brain’s cortex (outer layers) is first processed mostly in the right brain.

The right brain processes information as sensory images rather than as words and numbers. The left-brain works in numbers and words.

Marketing Implication: To arouse the strongest attention, product messages should be rich in sensory stimuli. Even though the right brain can’t process words, words can create sensory images, as every storyteller knows. The older a market, the more important it is to present a product in story form.

grandmother kissing granddaughter
8. Emotion, not reason, is the final arbiter in decision-making.

Initial responses to information entering the brain are visceral. Changes in body states (e.g., pulse, hormonal flow, saliva flow, body temperature, etc.) generate emotions. When a matter fails to generate emotions, a person will not take action on it. (Brain patients who have lost their emotional abilities while retaining full powers of comprehension and reasoning cannot make advantageous decisions in which they have a personal stake in the outcome.)

Marketing Implication: A cardinal rule for developing effective product messages is go with the grain of the brain or “Lead with the right; follow with the left.” The only way to get into a person’s conscious mind is via the right brain. Again, the use of sensory images is a key to getting into the right brain.

9. Gender tends to predispose responses to voice-overs in broadcast advertising.

For example, research tells us that male voices are more knowledgeable when describing technical attributes of a product, while female voices are more knowledgeable when describing a product with references to love, relationships and caring.

Marketing Implication: Choose the voice to match the content and delivery style of a product message.

10. Pictures of people in motion arouse the brain more quickly than posed pictures.

Marketing Implication: Avoid posed pictures like the plague. Motion conveys vitality. Posed pictures convey lifelessness. We should mostly avoid posed pictures in marketing to older adults, although marketers commonly use posed pictures for that market.

11. Each experience we have prompts the brain to create clusters of neurons (brain cells) with predisposed responses to new but similar experiences.

As the population of these dispositional clusters increases, a person becomes more habituated and reflexive in his or her responses. This decreases sensitivity to external influences, like advertising, making a person more autonomous.

Marketing Implication: Dispositional clusters are the marketer’s equivalent of “hot buttons.” The older we are the more hot buttons we have. This is good news and bad news for marketers. First the bad news: It’s harder to change people’s patterns after the early adult years. Now, the good news: When a marketer hits a consumer’s hot buttons, the deal is all but made. The challenge is learning what those hot buttons are. Fortunately, there is remarkable consistency in the general nature of hot buttons among people in the same season of life. Knowledge of the developmental attributes of consumers in a given season will guide a marketer to connect with their hot buttons.

12. Initial determination of information relevance occurs unconsciously.

When a person sees an ad, or a TV spot the right brain initially determines if it has personal relevance. The sequential reasoning processes of the left-brain only go to work on the ad after it has reached consciousness. The right brain conducts a process called information triage to reduce information flow to levels the conscious mind, with limited working memory (RAM) can handle. The primary criterion is relevance to a person’s interests.

Marketing Implication: Imagine having a conversation in your office or at a social gathering when you hear your name come up in another conversation not far from you. Your brain was hearing the other conversation all along, but only when your name was mentioned did it see fit to alert your conscious mind to the other conversation. That’s what information triage is about. Creating product messages that survive information triage is the biggest challenge in marketing. It has become fashionable to complain about advertising clutter. However, the clutter problem is in the brain, not on a television screen or in a magazine. When a message has relevance to a person’s interest, the right brain will take note. When we talk about having a “double take,” we acknowledge the right brain’s ability to pick up in a nanosecond something that has relevance to our interests.

Some Final Thoughts

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 before 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.

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