Grey Matters

Today’s over-50s are a new breed of consumer. With people leading longer, healthier lives, marketers need not shy away from using modern technology to fully exploit their diverse interests.

Much has been written about the “grey market” being a great untapped consumer sector. But all too often the needs and concerns of this wide-ranging and complex group are considered as an homogenised mass under the catch-all term “over-50s”.

The difference in outlook between a 52-year-old working manager and a 78-year-old pensioner is probably too great to provide reliable similarities, yet the two are lumped together in a way that would be unthinkable if you were comparing a 12-year-old with a 38-year-old.

People are living longer and enjoying better health, which is swelling the number of over-50 consumers and persuading brand owners to look more closely at the opportunities offered by this sector. According to the Office of National Statistics, by 2001 more than four per cent of the population will be over 80; by 2031 there will be 18.6 million pensioners in the UK.

Society’s view of the over-50s – and their self-image – has changed dramatically in the past few decades.

A generation which enjoyed the new freedoms of the Sixties while in their 20s are now in their 50s. Consumers who grew up in a decade of youthful rebellion are unlikely to count themselves as part of today’s “grey market”, particularly when they can look at famous contemporaries, such as members of The Rolling Stones, who continue to enjoy outrageous lifestyles.

The charity Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), which recruits volunteers to work and teach in developing countries, says the number of over-50s joining the organisation has doubled in the past decade. Press officer Sue Randall says: “Older people are showing that they are not ready to join the scrapheap and that they still have plenty of energy and skills to offer.

“Older volunteers are very valuable to us because they have extensive experience and a mature outlook. We aim to change the misconception that volunteering is for young adults in their gap year between school and university.”

Marcus Mitchell, head of marketing at innovation specialist CLK, says: “People have changed. They don’t want to be treated on the basis of what age they are. You can’t treat today’s 50-year-olds in the same way as someone who was 60 years old ten or 20 years ago.”

Generation balancing act

He cites Virgin – led by the youthful and energetic, but 50-plus, Richard Branson – as a brand that can relate to this new generation of over-50s, while also appealing to younger consumers. “Virgin wants to remain contemporary but it has a big opportunity to stay true to the people who have grown up with it – from a brand that started off in music to one which has gone into the airline business and financial services. Great brands should be inclusive across very wide age ranges.”

Corporate Edge brand strategist Andy Wilson says the strongest corporate brands are those which transcend traditional demographic categories defined by age or class. He cites Nike, Virgin, Tesco and First Direct as ones which appeal to both young and old, rich and poor. “By targeting an explicit age segment you tend to pigeonhole older people, or you sound patronising. The same is true when marketers try to target women or the gay community.”

Wilson argues that, while older consumers used to have faith in traditional institutions such as the police, they are now putting their trust in a new order of corporate brands. He cites a Corporate Edge survey showing Marks & Spencer to be a more trusted brand than the Church of England.

He believes they are developing a keener sense of value because they now have a more mature attitude and are less likely to spend money frivolously. But they are not always conservative and do not necessarily respond well to conservative brands. Wilson says: “For example, Prudential’s direct banking arm Egg was developed as a radical, fresh brand – and it was inundated with enquiries from older people.”

Older consumers were not put off by the advertising “hype” surrounding the launch – what Wilson describes as “brand clothes”. They recognised the basic value Egg was offering.

The general consensus about marketing to the over-50s is that companies should consider their different attitudes, interests and lifestyles.

Chris Cleaver, a director and founding partner of branding consultancy Brandsmiths, comments: “Your circumstances may change as you get older but your basic attitudes are less likely to. If people are cautious savers, for example, when they are older they won’t turn into reckless spendthrifts.”

Saga specifically targets the older person. Although best-known for its holidays, the company also offers a wide range of products for the over-50s, such as financial services.

Richard Pinder, managing director of Saga’s advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, says the brand’s philosophy is based on the idea that turning 50 is an opportunity, not a problem. “Older consumers have one thing which the rest of the population doesn’t: time. They are much freer, their children, by and large, have left home, and they have often paid off their mortgages.”

The luxury of having more time on their hands is one reason why retired people are using the Internet more and more. Through the Net, they can actively seek out good deals.

Interactive TV shopping has great potential for older people, particularly if they find it difficult to get to the shops.

Local supermarket shops

According to a survey on shopping and the over-60s by packaging design company Siebert Head, many older consumers find the pace, variety, selection and lack of personal rapport in supermarkets intimidating. Director Tony Watts says: “The supermarkets’ new local shops are popular with older people because they are less confusing, and they can easily walk to them.”

He believes that in future supermarkets will use more e-commerce – one idea is to have video purchasing tables – for the benefit of older shoppers.

Other technological innovations, such as e-mail, will also improve the quality of life of older people. E-mail is a quick, convenient and cheap way of keeping in touch with family and friends – an important consideration for this age group.

Of course, there will be many older, possibly poorer, people who will not be at the forefront of technological change in the UK. It will take extra effort on the part of the marketers to include them, especially as many will be thinking: “I have bought my last TV set – I don’t want a digital one.”

Mitchell argues that it would be a wasted opportunity if companies at the centre of the wave of new technology ignored their needs.

He says that if the barriers to it could be lowered, technophobic older consumers could be drawn in – more quickly.

According to Mitchell, it usually takes little effort – or cost – to broaden the appeal of products and services in order to target older consumers, and that it is worth it even if they are less wealthy than those who work. “Marketers can’t afford to be that blinkered,” he says.

Jonathan Gabay, a marketing consultant who is leading a Chartered Institute of Marketing seminar on marketing to the older consumer in December, is forthright: “If you don’t start thinking about it, you can bet your competitor will.”

Gabay says the term “grey market” is insulting, and instead calls it the “silver market”.

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