There are no middle-aged geniuses. Not, that is, in the public’s imagination. From the Romantic poets to 1960s rock heroes, popular culture is shot through with the image of the rebellious youth who reinvents the world in his own likeness.
The association that we make between creativity, experimentalism and youth spills over into the world of business. One of its clearest expressions is a trend among consumer researchers to include in their sample respondents from an age group below the band they are targeting. But in a society in which older adults outnumber the young, and where wealth is concentrated in the hands of the maturing baby boom generation, is it the young or the old whom marketers should turn for creative inspiration?
Jonathan Fletcher, group creative director at market research consultancy Illuminas, says that brands should first look to young people. Starting from the position that young people are more creative and flexible in their thinking than their elders, Fletcher claims the under-25s make better research partners than older consumers.
He argues the value of working with young people is good for brands that want to update or refresh their offer. In support of this claim – and his wider belief that if a company can “create a brand that sells to the young other demographics will follow” – Fletcher cites an insight project that he worked on some years ago.
The research was for a satellite channel and led to the inclusion in the channel’s sports programmes of Hawk-Eye, the computer-simulated ball tracking technology. “All of the ideas about how to push the idea forward came from the younger sports fans. The older ones were more content with what they were already getting.”
Many marketers agree that the enthusiasms and fearlessness of the youth market have fuelled the boom in consumer technologies. A case in point, says Tacis Gavoyannis, director of business strategy at Q Research, is the explosive growth of mobiles, text messaging, social networking and iPods where it is often children and grandchildren who “push” other members of their family to try out new styles of communication.
However, using youth to predict what will become mainstream can be hazardous. An obvious risk is that brands could take literally the idea that older consumers will lap up youth fashions when they won’t.
One marketer who believes that brands are failing to relate imaginatively to mature consumers is Paul Foulkes-Arellano, managing director of brand consultants Wren & Rowe. Drawing on personal observation and research conducted by his agency, Foulkes-Arellano highlights a golden opportunity for marketers to tap what he dubs the phenomenon of the “middle-age gap year”.
Across the demographic groups, says Foulkes-Arellano, people of all ages and socio-economic status believe that you can be whoever you want to be. But in mature adults this appetite for grasping what the world has to offer is often sharpened by the reality of broken relationships and a sense, thus far in life, of having failed as a person. “What is shocking is the number of people from lawyers to dustbin men who seem hypercritical of what they have achieved.”
For adults who have reached such a crossroads, says Foulkes-Arellano, simplistic marketing campaigns offering quick-fix improvements – such as a toothpaste that will brighten your smile – are irrelevant. That is not to say that mid-lifers see brands as meaningless. Rather, that advertisers need to mirror their aspirations and, in particular, to engage with the desire for reinvention people often have as they approach their middle years.
At the core of the idea that older consumers will be drawn to brands that embody youth, is the notion that anyone over the age of 40 would prefer, in their hearts, to © be 20 years younger. This may be true to a point, but while many ageing consumers like looking young and modern, it may not mean they will model themselves on their juniors.
So what can brands do? Peter Kneale, head of segmentation and positioning for Europe at TNS, believes that as the population ages marketers will need to unlearn habits, such as excluding from research anyone over the age of 60. He urges marketers to focus less on age and more on the characteristics of consumers.
“There are creative people of all ages who can help with idea generation. The trick is to find the leading consumers in the group that interests you. If you are developing a product aimed at an older market, you should seek out consumers from the age group who are knowledgeable about the category, open to new ideas and likely to influence their friends.”
The argument that creative people are as likely to be found among the over-65s as in the youth market seems, at first sight, to fly in the face of the claim made by marketers such as Fletcher that consumers become resistant to innovation as they age. But the trade-off between youthful experimentation and mature patterns of behaviour is more complicated than might first appear.
As studies of brand use bear out, the under-25s are more likely to experiment with new products than the over-50s. But that is not to say that people become less creative, nor less inventive, as they age – merely that their buying patterns become more settled. Nor is it necessarily the case that younger adults are more engaged with the wider world, says Magnus Willis, founding partner at brand and consumer insight consultancy Sparkler. “A lot of older consumers, particularly those who have retired from a professional career, are passionately engaged with the news agenda. If you talk to this group they will tell you about streaming live content from the Washington Post.”
Involving educated and affluent retirees in insight projects as well as younger people opens up interesting possibilities for the future direction of creative research. To begin with there is the issue of time. Whereas younger consumers are time-pressed and often caught up in the immediacy of their lives, many older consumers with the luxury of greater leisure are ideally placed to engage in more reflective forms of research.
Another talent that mature consumers possess is an ability to make imaginative connections between the opportunities and challenges that brands face today compared to the past.
Where young consumers come into their own is in their closeness to emergent cultural codes and in their openness to radical innovation. The one downside is that the under-25s, in particular, sometimes struggle to put their imaginative insights into words. As Robert Ellis, spokesperson for the Market Research Society and managing director of Prism Strategy, puts it: “Young consumers are often very open-minded and quick to get new ideas; what they tend to lack are the frameworks and mental concepts to reflect and comment on their experiences.”
So how can brands best combine the creativity of young and old consumers? One way is to employ imaginative insight techniques that stimulate people to express themselves freely. Illuminas’ Fletcher, for example, would like to see consumer researchers apply to the adult market some of the game-based techniques popular in children’s research.
Mixing the age groups
Another approach is to work harder at identifying inventive and articulate consumers and then explore ways of getting them to bounce off each other’s strengths.
A further possibility is to engineer what Willis calls “creative collisions” – by bringing young and old together in polar pairings.
Rather than teaming people with their peers, Sparkler might pair a 20-year-old with a 70-year-old. This supposedly encourages both parties to step outside their immediate world and explore ideas from different angles.
“Jumbling up the generations is often a better way to solicit vivid responses,” says Willis. “The problem with people of the same age, say young mums, is that they tend to play up to the image that advertisers project on them.”
Brands that pin their hopes on the youth market and disregard older consumers often say the young are the future. But in an ageing society in which many affluent over-65-year-olds have 15 or 20 years of leisure and health ahead of them, such strategies are starting to look old-fashioned.