And age shall not weary them

As an ageing Conservative Party mulls a new direction, research suggests that older consumers may not be as unreceptive to new brands and technology as marketers often assume they are

The average age of Conservative Party members is reported to be 62 – yet they look likely to opt for radical change by voting in David Cameron as party leader, in a move that could see a refocusing of the Conservative brand.

If an ageing, and by definition conservative, party membership is willing to adopt wholesale changes then maybe marketers should question the idea that older consumers are unwilling to try new brands and are less interested than the young in keeping up with technology.

Assumptions about the attitudes of different age groups to brands and change are critical to most companies’ marketing plans, but despite its importance, we know surprisingly little about ageing and consumer behaviour. It is rare to find research that covers the full adult age range and which is comparable between countries.

OMD interviewed 4,800 people, between the ages of 16 and 65-plus, in Australia, the Czech Republic, France, the UK and the US. (The reason for researching the Czech Republic was to compare the reactions of the older citizens of the EU’s new member states with their counterparts in the UK and France.) Questions were asked about attitudes to brand-switching, interest in technology, willingness to embrace change and the feeling of financial security.

Multiple questions were asked about attitudes to changing brands. These were combined into a single measure: the level of positive reaction to new brands. To make it easier to compare countries, all of the results were normalised to the country’s youngest age group (16 to 24).

The results reveal significant country variations. In France the effect of ageing on reactions to new brands is similar to that predicted by conventional wisdom. The over-65s were 40 per cent less positive about new brands than those aged 16 to 24. As the French get older they become much less willing to try out different products.

In Australia, the result was the opposite. Older Australians are more positive about new brands than the young. Indeed the over-65s in Australia had the most enthusiastic attitudes towards new brands of all the age groups.

In the US, positive reaction to new brands decreases slowly with age. The reaction of 55- to 65-year-olds is nine per cent less positive than that of somebody aged between 16 and 24. In the UK, 35- to 44-year-olds have the most positive reaction to new brands. There is very little difference between the reactions of the over-55s and 25-to 34-year-olds.

This research shows that the relationship between age and the propensity to change brands is far more complex than is often thought. The belief that older people are less likely to change brands may be true in some circumstances and in some countries, but it is far from a universal truth.

Attitudes towards new technology seem to differ from country to country, and are illustrated by the contrast between the European countries surveyed.

In the UK, levels of agreement with the statement “I really enjoy the challenge of keeping up with the technology” remain the same until the 45 to 54 age group, when they increase. Surprisingly, the over-65s agree more with this statement than any other age group.

In France, enthusiasm for mastering new technology only increases among the over-65s. And in the Czech Republic, none of the age groups show much enthusiasm for the challenge with a rapid decline occurring after the age of 45.

OMD’s research provides three important conclusions.

First, there is no simple formula that links people’s ages to their behaviour as consumers. The stereotype of older people being technophobic, reticent to change and unwilling to try new brands is not borne out by the research.

Second, nationality appears to influence how people’s attitudes develop as they age. The responses from Australia and the Czech Republic are significantly different, as are the attitudes between older Australians and their French counterparts. The UK and US have similar responses to brands and technology but are very different in their desire to embrace new experiences.

Finally, when age does appear to be linked to differences in behaviour the variations are most often small.

The youthful bias of many brands’ marketing budgets is based on a few simple assumptions about ageing and how it affects consumer behaviour. This research would seem to suggest that it may be time to for marketers to rethink their approach to targeting older consumers.â¢

Dick Stroud is correct in asserting that the attitudes of older demographic groups are as much to do with national psyche as age. In his EU presidency, Tony Blair has been fighting an uphill battle to persuade France to abandon its laissez-faire attitude to business in favour of an enterprise culture.

In the UK we are more open to new brand propositions and older people are no exception. Fundamental to understanding the mature market in the UK is that older consumers may consider themselves to be youthful, but they do not respond to messages aimed at younger markets. Older consumers are very marketing-aware and are quick to reject communication if the use of language is wrong. They look for value and benefit, not image or façade.

Trends is edited by Nathalie Kilby. Dick Stroud, author of the 50 Plus Market, contributed to this week’s Trends Insight

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