Honda’s marketing strategy is to remain age-neutral

It is often said that age is just a number yet many brands continue to target consumers based on their age rather than taking a more universal approach to what makes a good product or service.

However, failure to attract consumers regardless of age could result in missed sales, so brands including Honda, Nestlé and Bang & Olufsen are increasingly adopting an age-agnostic approach to product design and marketing strategy.

“Brands must not miss the opportunities because for the first time in history, we have a society where five generations are living together,” says Marie Cesbron-Bloomberg, L’Oréal’s former director of customer insights and global innovation, who is now insight and strategy adviser at The Age of No Retirement, a social enterprise that believes marketers must react more quickly to a changing world where a person’s age is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

What is important, she says, is how brands react to people’s ability, or inability, to use the products they want to buy as they get older.

She says marketing’s obsession with those aged 18 to 34 is a throwback to the past and does not reflect the ageing population, the inter-generational society in which we live, or the economic realities of today.

Over 65s spend around £2.2bn per week on goods and services, according to a study by the International Longevity Centre, the Institution of Engineering and Technology and the University of Cambridge called ‘Opportunity Knocks: Designing Solutions for an Ageing Society’.

Based on an annual inflation rate of 2%, this figure is forecast to grow to more than £6bn per week by 2037. Simultaneously, the number of people aged over 65 is rising on average by 278,000 each year in the UK.

Brands across most sectors will often target younger consumers because they potentially offer longer-term value and their opinions can carry more weight on social media. But Cesbron-Bloomberg suggests that despite the fact that “money is not in the hands of the young, many brands remain very conservative in their marketing thinking”. She adds: “To be fair, targeting the young has worked in the past but age-agnostic marketing nowadays is crucial.”

Driving age-agnostic design

Automotive companies have been at the forefront of age-agnostic design.

Jemma Jones, marketing communications department manager at Honda Motor Europe, says it is the perfect strategy to widen the brand’s appeal.

She claims all Honda’s products and marketing activity are age-neutral and cites its ‘The Other Side’ campaign for the Civic Type R as an example.

“The brief for this project was to launch the new Civic 5D and Type R models in a way that showcased Honda’s new sporty direction,” says Jones. “We created the world’s first double-sided interactive ad where users could switch between two contrasting storylines on the same platform by pressing the ‘R’ button [on their keyboard].”

The campaign attracted more than one million views in the first week with viewers of the advert twice as likely to consider purchasing. The average age of the Type R customer is 43, which is lower than the average Honda user, the company says.

“Part of the success of this campaign was down to the fact it cut through multiple age groups with content that appealed to anyone, no matter how old they were,” says Jones. “Last year, following the launch of six new campaigns, we saw an increase in our brand metric among all age groups, ranging from 18 to over 50, which is testament to the fact that an age-agnostic approach can work and bring considerable value.”

Rival Ford famously took an age-agnostic line when it created the Ford Focus. Its engineers and designers were encouraged to wear a ‘third age suit’ to simulate the effects of ageing. The suit stiffened joints, added bulk to the waist and impaired vision. The outcome was a design that was roomier and had easier to reach controls and a dashboard that was clearer to read. Taking an age-agnostic approach resulted in the Ford Focus becoming a bestseller around the world.

“Our customers’ passion for design and quality craftsmanship never changes, whether they are millennials or someone who has recently retired“

Marie Schmidt, Bang
& Olufsen

The model was not marketed as a car for older people and the process demonstrates how all consumers are becoming more demanding and want simpler, safer and more convenient products.

Cesbron-Bloomberg says marketers must fight the fear that a brand’s equity will be damaged and a product perceived as less desirable if it is seen to be targeting all ages.

“This is an argument, but the solution is not to ignore older people,” she says. Instead, she suggests brands “market products and services to everyone in a way that does not impact negatively on brand equity”.

She gives the example of technology giant Apple, which is design-led and has products with a broad appeal. “Apple’s approach would hold true in any industry,” she argues. “The secret is to take into account the demanding needs of older customers, including the cognitive, physical and sensory changes people face as they age.”

This might include ensuring the packaging is simple to open, words are easy to read or people can access a product, such as a car, without too much difficulty. These factors benefit all consumers without blatantly targeting one age group.

Inclusive design

According to the British Standards Institution, inclusive design is classified as mainstream products or services that are accessible to and usable by as many people as reasonably possible without the need to be specially adapted.

From a business as well as a social perspective, adopting an inclusive and age-agnostic approach makes sense.

Nestlé has worked on inclusive design projects with the University of Cambridge since 2009. Its design improvements have included making it easier to extract sweets from Black Magic chocolate boxes. Its designers often wear gloves to replicate the effect arthritis has on dexterity and goggles to imitate the effect of blurred vision.

Bang Olufsen speaker
Bang & Olufsen has taken an age-agnostic approach since its launch 90 years ago

One brand taking a slightly different approach to age-agnostic marketing is high-end TV and audio systems company Bang & Olufsen. Like Apple, it considers itself a design-led company, but its strategy is to adapt its offer as its loyal customers grow older.

“We take our customers on a journey. They may start with a pair of headphones or with a £4,000 TV and while their age and circumstances may vary, their passion for design and quality craftsmanship never changes, whether they are a millennial or someone who has recently retired,” says Marie Schmidt, Bang & Olufsen’s corporate vice-president, head of brand, design and marketing.

She adds: “Design goes beyond pure aesthetics – it helps brands build familiarity and loyalty with an audience. It can be the difference between succeeding in a competitive market or falling at the first hurdle.”

Bang & Olufsen says it has taken an age-agnostic approach since it launched 90 years ago. “The majority of our customers invest in a product for a lifetime. For that reason, design needs to be timeless and as relevant now as it was a decade ago.”

Ensuring marketing messages and content appeal to all ages can also generate higher conversion rates.

Haircare and beauty supplier Sally has more than 250 stores in the UK under the Sally, Salon Services, Beauty Express and Shear Beauty brand names. It works with the Fishpie Design Agency to sell different haircare styles to various ages through its trade customers.

It will vary the tone of voice of its marketing according to the target audience via social media, point-of-sale material or direct mail. The choice of imagery or photography, colour, fonts and the key message is adjusted so the haircare and beauty products appeal to a wider age range.

Sally’s ‘Festival of Colour’ spring campaign uses a graphic-led image rather than a model to keep the communication generic and age-neutral. Similarly, the deals on offer are designed to appeal to students and salon owners.

Focus on usability

Glasgow-based design and engineering business 4c Design has been working on the development of inclusive products since 2002.

Owner and design director Will Mitchell, who works with an eight-strong team of designers, model-makers and engineers, says inclusive and age-agnostic design comes from having empathy with the target market and an understanding of the environment in which a product will be used.

“A product built initially for a particular age or group can be a product for everyone if it is well designed and good quality,” he says. “The marketing challenge is to avoid the stigma products can attract if they are perceived to have been designed for a certain age or group.”

If a brand creates something for a niche market it could have trouble widening its appeal later on, potentially restricting sales volumes.

4c Design developed the award-winning S’up spoon, initially created for a client with cerebral palsy. It allows the user to tip food into their mouth rather than requiring the upper lip and teeth to pull content off the spoon. The spoon has a deeper cavity to hold contents more securely and reduce spillage. The product is now being marketed to anyone with shaky hands, whatever their age.

“We designed the spoon to look good, so its aesthetic appeal as well as its usability benefits mean there is no stigma,” says Mitchell. “The S’up spoon is made from polypropylene with design cues to help as many people as possible. It has been designed to be complementary to the dinner table at home or in restaurants.”

With a maturing population, marketers need to consider developing an age-agnostic approach. People do not fall out of love with a brand just because they get older, but they might find a product more difficult to use. Clever design can make everyone’s lives easier, no matter how old they are.

Scandic Hotels has implemented changes so that everyone, no matter their age or ability, can use their hotels

How to appeal to guests of all ages

Scandinavian hotel chain Scandic Hotels ensures all its guests can use its rooms and facilities comfortably, whatever their age or ability.

It has appointed Magnus Berglund as its accessibility director, who says many hotel chains are missing out on sales because they do not list the information that older and disabled people look for when booking rooms.

“Our guests are paying the same amount for a room whatever their age or personal circumstance,” he says. ”But some of them need to know, for example, how high the bed is and details about the shower and bath, or how far different facilities are to walk to from the bedrooms.”

Berglund has been working in the hotel accessibility sector for 25 years. He says staff at the Scandic Hotels head office spent time in wheelchairs to experience how the hotels’ design features can have a negative impact on different guests.

It became apparent, for example, how difficult it can be to open doors if handles are at the wrong height when you have mobility problems. The handles have been adjusted and the alterations have helped older people.

“You can make subtle design changes to your product or service at quite a low cost and there can be strong business reasons for including everyone.”

Berglund adds that brands will also benefit from the positive PR and social media coverage that having an inclusive design approach brings. Scandic Hotels was a finalist in the World Responsible Tourism Awards 2015.

  • Mark Beasley

    This all sounds very familiar. So what’s new?

  • This won’t work!

  • Marie Cesbron

    Just like with digital, it will take years for (conservative) organisations to not only acknowledge the demographic disruption, but to figure out how to act adroitly and make it a strategy. Just like with digital,1st-mover advantages are high, but risks are low.
    Can you think of any universal design which didn’t result in top-selling, good design ie.”design that works” following Steve Job definition? From Apple devices (most valuable and innovative company), to the Ford Focus car (world top selling car, in top 5 since launch), to OXO Kitchen utensils (double-digit growth since launch), to YouGov website, to electrical toothbruhes, to velcro, to roll-along suitcases, they were designed to include a wide variety of abilities without being marketed as such to avoid the stigma, and were acclaimed by a very large audience seeking to make life more simple, productive and enjoyable. With universal design, age is a great place to start. Age is universal and associated with a wide variety of restricted abilities (sensory, cognitive and physical). Be prepared to hear a lot more about it in the near future!