The age old question

In marketing circles, if you’re not in the 18 to 55 age group, then you might as well not exist. But are advertisers losing out by ignoring the potentially lucrative gains to be made from pester power and the grey pound? By Martin Croft

If Shakespeare were alive today, his skills could have been put to good use working in an advertising agency, but not necessarily as a creative. After all, his famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech from As You Like It is a perfect example of how to slice and dice the UK population by age and reduce it to a form that is both easy to understand and to remember.

Perhaps the Bard of Avon, with his unsurpassed facility as a communicator and his understanding of the human condition, would have been happier as an account planner or even a market researcher, talking to people of all ages and eliciting useful information.

Marketing’s age concern

Unfortunately, he would almost certainly have found himself being forced to concentrate on the mid-range of his Seven Ages. Oddly, while modern day marketers claim to be well aware of the different stages through which we pass on our journey to wherever it is we are going, the majority tend to concentrate on the middle years, preferring to target those aged 18 to 55.

Despite all the fuss about marketing, to children and “pester power” on the one hand and the “grey pound” on the other, the two extremes of the age range – the very young and the very old – tend to be ignored by most marketers. Yet they represent significant buying power.

According to estimates from the Chartered Institute of Marketing, the pre-school market alone was worth &£4.3bn a year in 2002, with youngsters’ pocket money totalling more than &£2.3bn. Added to that, it has been suggested that children have a major influence on a further &£30bn of consumer spending a year.

At the other end of the age spectrum, according to a Datamonitor report published last summer, there were almost 20 million over-50s in the UK in 2000. By 2025, the over-50 population is expected to be about 27 million. And a report from the Henley Centre suggests that 70 per cent of the UK’s savings are controlled by those aged over 50.

The problem is not that market research is incapable of interpreting what the old and the young think, it is that marketers, who tend to be between 20 and 40, seem to assume that their potential consumers are reflections of themselves.

Charge of the blue-rinse brigade

Obviously, there are some major exceptions, such as Walkers for children and Saga for older people, but, in the main, marketers fail to understand the true complexity of the two groups, which are far less homogeneous than they assume.

As Martyn Richards, a director of qualitative market research agency OPERA and spokesman for the Market Research Society (MRS) on children’s issues, observes: “There is a terrible tendency to lump all children together, but they change at such a rapid rate. What you’d do with a seven-year-old is completely different to what you would do with a nine-year-old.” Indeed, most market research agencies which conduct tests with children will restrict focus groups to within a school year.

Marketers also have to be careful of the language they use. Richards says: “You have to make sure what we ask is comprehensible to them, but doesn’t talk down to them.”

Given the concern over paedophilia, there are also ethical issues that must be taken into account when trying to conduct research with children, and responsible market research agencies now ensure that the Criminal Records Bureau vets all their staff. The MRS has prepared a list of guidelines for those conducting research with children, although, as Barbie Clarke, managing director of specialist research agency Kids & Youth, says, the rules to follow are simple: “Don’t be alone with them. Don’t touch them. Try to conduct groups in a room with an open door or in a relatively open area. They are the same rules social workers, counsellors and teachers are encouraged to follow.”

Clarke’s company also obtains parental consent for any interviews with those aged under 17. While the MRS only recommends consent be obtained for subjects under 14, Clarke says: “I think that’s too young.”

Clarke, a trained counsellor who also works with abused children and young offenders, adds: “I believe it’s very important that anyone doing research with children should have at least a basic understanding of child and developmental psychology.”

Is Santa taboo

Marketers also have to understand that there are certain things you should never ask a child – for instance, whether they believe in Father Christmas or the Tooth Fairy. The act of asking the question might lead a child to question its own beliefs.

As with children, marketers have an awful tendency to lump together everyone over the age of 50, in the mistaken belief that a 50-year old’s spending power, abilities and interests are likely to be identical to a 70-year old’s or even a 90-year old’s.

As Sally Marsden, director of Leapfrog Research & Planning, says: “Marketers have a blind spot when it comes to old people. They all go to conferences about the ‘grey pound’, but when it comes down to it they say: ‘We don’t want any pensioners.’ To a marketer, if you’re over 44, you’re a coffin-dodger. It’s as if pensioners don’t have a point of view and plenty of money.”

Anne Edwards, strategic services director at direct marketing consultancy Target Direct, reinforces this point: “Marketers find it difficult to get interested in a group of people they see as only interested in their pipe and slippers. In fact, the older consumers want to do a lot of things and they are more likely to spend money on such things because they know they haven’t got all the time in the world to do them.”

Marsden also points out how foolish it is to concentrate on developing products for younger demographics when, as she says: “You can’t predict what the birth-rate is going to be, so you can’t predict how many teenagers there will be in 15 years’ time – but we can say exactly how many older people there will be.” Indeed, Marsden questions whether the use of age on its own has any value in research. She argues that ‘lifestage’ is a far more useful indicator of likely behaviour.

Of course, age can be a useful determinant of the media to use to get information from a target market. So teenagers and “tweenagers” (the nine to 12 age group) will be information technology literate and will use e-mail, mobile phones and SMS text messaging. The over-50s are significantly less likely to be users of SMS messaging, although marketers should be careful of assuming that they are IT illiterate – there are plenty of “Silver Surfers” using the internet to stay in contact with their families, find bargains and pursue their hobbies.

Teaching old dogs new tricks

Tacis Gavoyannis, head of Taylor Nelson Sofres’ telecoms division, says: “The internet is a very useful tool for reaching a range of age groups. They don’t have to fiddle with delicate mobile phone keypads, and they can take longer to answer surveys if they desire.” As yet, few older people are being targeted for SMS-based research, although Gavoyannis expects this will change as the population ages. “Over time, technology usage will move on to new age ranges and lifestages as today’s teenagers start working and have families.”

When dealing with an older age group, certain proprieties will have to be followed. As Louise Southcott, managing director of specialist market research consultancy Link Consumer Strategies, observes: “You must watch how they talk, and watch them in their own context – how they talk and relate in their own world is enormously powerful. So don’t use viewing rooms – they need a comfortable environment where they can open up.

“It also helps to start with a simple task – take a range of products they might use and ask them to group them according to when or how they would use them. That gives them a chance to think without putting pressure on them. It’s also a very useful research tool – physically mapping the market can show you relationships you wouldn’t see otherwise.”

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that with children and older people, research simply takes longer. “A discussion guide you would be able to complete in half an hour with a 24-year old will often take three or four hours with a 70-year old.”

As Southcott says: “The goal of the market researcher should not be to turn a thirtysomething marketer into a 15-year-old or 70-year-old. It’s to help them understand how 15-year-olds and 70-year-olds think; who they are in their respective worlds.”

And, when it comes to the language you use to talk to them, as Sally Marsden says: “Teenagers speak the same language as 50-year-olds, live with them, are taught by them, watch them on TV – it’s actually mood, confidence and hormones you really have to be aware of.”

Case study: Norwegian Coastal Voyage

James Hewlett is sales and marketing manager for specialist holiday company Norwegian Coastal Voyage (NCV), which runs luxury cruises to the Norwegian fjords, Chile, Spitzbergen and Antarctica.

‘Our core market is older – 70 per cent are over 60. People save up to see the coastline of Norway in the same way that they might save up to see the Pyramids or the Taj Mahal.’ NCV’s research is aimed at ‘maintaining the quality of our offering and encouraging added value purchases,’ Hewlett says. Hewlett joined NCV from a mass-market long-haul holiday operator, and admits that NCV requires ‘a completely different approach’.

NCV conducts focus groups on a regular basis, and shares its findings with allied organisations such as the Norwegian Tourist Board.

According to Anne Edwards, strategic services director at direct marketing consultancy Target Direct, which has been working on the NCV account and which has developed its own specialist segmentation tool for the older market, ‘Grey Rainbow’, NCV’s customers ‘are not typical cruise passengers, being more active and adventurous’.

Careful research allowed the company to refine its targeting, message, creative approach and list research, ‘resulting in a campaign that almost doubled response rates when compared to the average from previous activity’.

Hewlett observes: ‘We changed our approach to selling the value of the destination instead of concentrating on discounting, which allowed us to allocate a good proportion of our budget to educating them about the places we go to and stimulating their desire to be there.’

Edwards says that the research worked on two levels. ‘At the primary level it identified that, among the passengers of NCV, age and lifestage were relatively unimportant in comparison to income, health and attitude towards travel. At the secondary level, it was apparent that the indicators that were factors in tourists’ attitude to travel were the most important behaviour influencers. These told us that they were individuals looking for an active, organised holiday, offering them a unique experience.’

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