I was on a panel at the Festival of Marketing last month opining on ageism in marketing. My views on this are easily put: most brands are failing to understand that their advertising is alienating the very people they need to buy their products. Older people (and by this I mean over-40s) are largely missing from creative campaigns unless, of course, you are looking for an incontinence product or stair lift.
In business terms, it is plain stupid to ignore such a large proportion of the population. Far too much of the industry is obsessed by youth. Perhaps that is because young people dominate the sector. I have no idea where all the oldies have gone but a glance around the room at the recent Marketing Week Masters Awards confirmed my suspicions that they have fled the scene.
Brands are in constant pursuit of the youth market. I have no problem with that per se. It is blindingly obvious that if you fail to engage a new set of consumers you fail full stop. It is the chase of the young at the expense of the older that I object to.
So there I was on the stage at the Festival, calling for brands and their agencies to treat older people with more respect, to remember they do all the things that their younger counterparts do – eat, drink, wear clothes, drive cars, have sex – and there was a really positive response until I suggested that we stopped segmenting by age. How could we possibly manage if we didn’t categorise people by their age?
We have to if we want to build rewarding relationships with our consumers. Frankly, age segmentation is lazy and we can do better.
I am not saying that age is irrelevant. Of course it is a factor. On balance, older people are more likely to earn more, won’t be burdened by student debt and are less likely to rent, and it is absolutely the case that particular health conditions are more likely to occur at different ages. But age isn’t enough to draw us together.
Surely stage is more important? Are they at school, in further education, new parents, in work? As an adult I was genuinely surprised to find that my mother was the oldest of her group of female friends, in one case 16 years older. I had always thought of them as being the same age. They were tight, they laughed together, cried together (they still do), had their kids together, raised us together. Motherhood was one of the primary things they had in common. It was just that my mother had her kids relatively late for the time while others had had all their kids by the time they were 22.
But what bound my mum and my ‘aunties’ together for a lifetime was attitude, a shared set of values. In their case it was a very identifiable: anti-apartheid politics. All my aunts (and uncles) were involved in the South African resistance movement; they were different races and classes but shared common beliefs and values.
I grant you they are a very niche group and would be a marketer’s nightmare but most people can be more easily grouped by their values and attitudes. Are they trusting of technology? Are they thrifty? Are they worried about the environment? Are they socially liberal? Are they family-oriented? Are they adventurous in their eating habits? It strikes me that this is more likely to dictate an individual’s purchasing habits than anything else, certainly more than their age, or even race, class or gender.
And what is brilliant about working today is that we have data. We know so much about our audiences, so much more than in the days of Don Draper when age segmentation was cutting-edge. We can find out so much about them if we can be bothered. And if you can’t be bothered then I am not sure you should be working in marketing.