Aging Boomers Bloom Despite Marketing Shun
by Alf Nucifora
The statistics are, by now, well known. Seventy-eight million Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, with an annual discretionary income in excess of $750 billion, and in control of more than 50% of all discretionary income. This is the self-absorbed generation, consumed with owning BMWs and vacationing in exotic places. Boomers, comedian George Carlin notes disparagingly, "Went from cocaine to Rogaine" in one easy step.
Yet an analysis of today's Boomer reveals an interesting personality and shifting profile, a change that has not been noticed by most marketers who still hew to an outdated stereotype of the Boomer consumer. Boomers are now firmly in mid-life with more than half in the 50 plus age group. By 2010, one-in-three adults will be over 50; by 2020, one-in-five will be over 65. Leading Boomer researcher, Matt Thornhill, President of The Boomer Project, sums it up concisely when he observes that "they can't stop the march of time."
As Brent Green, President of Brent Green & Associates, a marketing communications firm specializing in Boomer marketing states, "They are not an older version of their younger selves." For starters, Boomers have suffered mightily from mid-career upheaval as Corporate America has retrenched and outsourced, particularly at the expense of the Boomer-heavy, middle-management ranks. On the home front, Boomers now find themselves as the primary caregivers for aging and ill parents. In their purchasing habits, they now gravitate to an entirely new class of products and experiences, each representing the unique lifestyle behavior of a group that hasn't ceased its quest for lifestyle experimentation and change. The "buy" list covers the gamut from retirement property to experiential travel, to healthcare-driven needs and services including cosmetic surgery and alternative medicine.
Ironically, this "me" generation has turned its eye inward, focusing on self development, seeking relevance in life and showing greater concern for legacy. Noted Atlanta-based creative marketer Joey Reiman said it best with his observation that, today, Boomers have turned their attention "to self worth, not net worth"…or as Thornhill puts it, "…from becoming someone, to being someone." It's a natural evolution, resulting in a change in values that seems to have been overlooked by the nation's major marketers.
The Marketing Fall-Out
For marketers within most consumer categories, Boomers represent a third of the customer base. And yet they have become increasingly under-appreciated and marginalized as marketing dollars are aimed squarely at the prized 18-49 demographic group…a sweet spot for many marketers. According to Advertising Age magazine, of the $8.5 billion in upfront and scatter TV buys, 58% was targeted to the 18-49 audience, hence the youth and young adult focus in mainstream advertising for broad product categories such as fast food and beverages.
To make matters worse, brands and their marketing communications are now managed by young marketers who lack the understanding of what motivates Boomer behavior. As an example, consider the Sony campaign for its camcorder featuring an affluent retiree "squandering" funds on a space flight. The TV commercial, with its spectacular production values and era-evocative Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young soundtrack, superficially succeeds in capturing mood, tone and attention but, with its cynical, closing put-down, fails miserably in understanding the mindset of the target. The gist of the commercial's primary message…"kids, if you want to see where your trust fund went, watch the tape." Very clever, but still the same shallow, out-of-touch Boomer typecasting, glaring in its failure to grasp the point or the person.
What's the Marketer to Do?
According to Green, marketers need to assess their current marketing plans to make sure that they are not only addressing the mature base, but are applying a sophistication and discipline to the process that is capable of unearthing and leveraging the nuance implicit in most successful communications with and between intelligent and demanding Boomer buyers. Notes Green, "Boomers possess a high level of generational consciousness that manifests itself in the need to have a relationship with the brands they use and buy." A few brands, Harley Davidson, New Balance, LL Bean, for example, get the message. Their authenticity is apparent. Most, however, fail to understand and connect with the Boomer ethos and values.
Thornhill sums it up nicely in his comparison of media stars David Letterman and Billy Crystal. Both are 57. One has a 14 month-old daughter; the other is a grandfather. That's why age, in itself, has lessening value in marketing to matures. With Boomers, it's more about the attitude, lifestyle and mindset.