Stop defining over-50s by age alone or risk long-term brand decay

Brands are ignoring or irritating a vast swathe of the UK population by failing to target over-50s effectively, which is a massive missed opportunity given they have far greater spending power than younger consumers.

Sunlife conducts its own photoshoots each year to ensure it has pictures that represent real over-50s

Type ‘50-year-old’ into a search engine and you’ll be inundated with images of people with greying hair and wrinkles looking pensive or smiling inanely, many of whom are actually far older than half a century.

Madonna, Mary Berry, George Clooney and Gary Lineker are all over the age of 50, and apart from the fact there is no beige cardigan or walking stick in sight, they couldn’t be more different from one another.

Yet when advertisers target over-50s, not only do they treat them as one homogeneous greying group, they also portray them as Werther’s Originals-wielding grandads or someone in dire need a funeral plan, not someone with their own life, hobbies and interests. Or worse still they ignore them all together, as is the case at some fashion brands contacted for this feature, who do so on the assumption that by targeting over-50s (who, by the way, are already their customers), they will somehow devalue the brand and make it less appealing to their target audience of 35 to 45s.

But these brands are missing out on a wealth of opportunity. There are more than 23 million people aged over 50 in the UK, according to the most recent data from the Office for National Statistics. That’s more than a third of the population. And it’s the third with the highest level of disposable income.

People aged over 75 buy five times as many cars as those aged 18 to 24, as Ad Contrarian blogger and former ad man Bob Hoffman has pointed out, yet do you ever see a 75-year-old featured in a car ad?

“We’ve got an ageing population in this country where most of the economic power resides, and most people are healthier, more active, more alive in their skins than people our age might have been in generations gone by,” says RBS CMO David Wheldon. “That strikes me as a majorly untapped market who aren’t being communicated to as effectively as they should be.”

If people find a brand that isn’t patronising and has made an effort to understand them, they will respond very positively to that, which is very good for brands commercially as well.

Ian Atkinson, Sunlife

Wheldon himself feels increasingly angry that advertisers focus entirely on his age when targeting him. He says he uses Instagram often, which should be a clear indication of what he is personally interested in. “Yet as I scan down the advertising that’s currently being served up, there’s not a single thing that’s relevant to me,” he explains. “I may be of an age type but most of the targeting I actually see is to do with that and nothing else.”

As well as being a waste of money for the advertiser, bombarding consumers with irrelevant marketing could have long-term implications for brands and destroy any chance of a future relationship. Wheldon says: “They have no idea their [poor targeting] is actually causing me to dislike their brand, because I don’t yet need a walk-in bath. If I’d had a major hip operation and they could see my medical data and served me an ad then maybe, but there’s nothing I have done digitally, other than be the age I am, that made them decide to serve that.”

Wheldon’s thoughts are reflected in a study by Gransnet and Mumsnet, which shows 78% of those aged 50 or over feel under-represented or misrepresented by advertising, with 49% saying they actively avoid brands who ignore them. Plus 69% suggest they would be more receptive to brands if their advertising represented over-50s more accurately.

READ MORE: Russell Parsons – A memo to marketers everywhere, life doesn’t end at 50

To better understand the market, insurance firm Sunlife undertook a study of 50,000 people over 50, which revealed that far from winding down and resigning themselves to a life of daytime TV watching, this group are picking up new hobbies, setting up cottage industries, travelling and seeking out new experiences.

This was brought to life in Sunlife’s 2017 campaign ‘Welcome to Life After 50’, which challenged stereotypes by showcasing the different behaviour, attitudes and activities enjoyed by those past the half century mark. The campaign, which won Marketing Week’s Masters Award for financial services in 2017, helped increase brand consideration by 8%.

“We want everyone in the UK to look forward to being over 50 because actually people who are in their 50s, 60s, 70s are very often enjoying the best years of their life. But people under 50 are told they should dread it because it’s a decline,” says Ian Atkinson, marketing director at Sunlife.

While Sunlife describes itself as an over-50s financial services company, Atkinson is clear this is just shorthand for letting people know what it offers rather than being a one-size-fits-all brand for the over-50s. That means it will target someone in there 50s in a different way to someone in their 80s.

“We do psychographic and behavioural segmentation, something that’s absolutely vital if you want to understand your customer,” he explains. “We have customers who are taking out equity release, customers who are taking out an ISA and customers who are taking out a funeral plan – they are all completely different products, so we have segments for each of those propositions.”

Given over-50s have far greater spending power than younger consumers – they hold 75% of the UK’s housing wealth, for example – the rewards for brands that get it right are huge.

Atkinson says: “If people find a brand that isn’t patronising and has made an effort to understand them and be authentic, they will respond very positively to that, which is very good for brands commercially as well.”

He adds: “[Over 50] is a massive group, but they have historically been neglected. Our research shows that in all sectors they feel under-represented and ignored by brands, so they’d be very happy to see any brand that does make an effort to understand them and represent them more effectively.”

Age is a blunt instrument for targeting

While some brands are drilling down further into the over-50s market and better defining different consumer types within this sector, others are choosing to move away from age altogether.

Microsoft, for example, chooses to target by use and adoption of technology instead, from technology natives and early adopters all the way through to tech avoiders and those who struggle to see how technology could benefit their lives.

“We don’t target by age because we feel it’s a very blunt instrument for targeting,” explains Paul Davies, Microsoft’s consumer marketing director. “We also believe that age doesn’t define us as much as it perhaps did in the past. That’s partly driven by technology because tech doesn’t discriminate by age, tech platforms are open to all.

“We see some very tech-savvy 50- and 60-somethings being more active on Facebook than perhaps a busy millennial who is juggling the demands of a busy career and an expanding family life. And because of that we think age as a targeting tool has become a bit outdated.”

READ MORE: ‘Brands should stop seeing age as a defining feature of the over-50s’

Davies says moving beyond age will enable brands to understand consumers on a deeper level, which will deliver better ROI. “Brand owners can maximise their efficiency by interrogating their audience much more deeply, beyond just age alone, by understanding attitudes towards their brand, their usage of the brand, and how familiar they are with the category in question.”

By not doing so, brands risk becoming homogeneous and less relevant to anybody. “A brand might be known and appreciated by many, but it will be truly loved by very few,” he warns.


Likewise, BT looks beyond age alone when targeting older consumers. Nearly half (44%) of its core audience is aged above 55, so David Stratton, general manager of marketing for BT’s consumer division, says it’s important this group is “strongly reflected” in its advertising, particularly as older, more affluent consumers tend to have the disposal income to spend on a premium provider like BT.

“With an ageing audience and the new gradient of how wealth, and property in particular, is allocated in the UK, these groups have more time and spending power than older equivalent generations did. And that manifests as behaviour,” he says.

“We’ve got more specific activities and behaviours to be able to target on for this group than we did in the past and [the data available is] growing fast. So rather than targeting purely on age ranges there’s far more opportunity to target on how [these consumers] act.”

BT has used this approach for its Complete Wifi product, targeting and serving creative based on the type of online activity it identifies in audiences.

“We’re targeting those more interested in entertainment, music, movies or games while remaining age-agnostic,” he says. “Prince Charles and Ozzy Osbourne would be grouped together looking at traditional socio-demographics – both males born in England in 1948, have children, remarried and wealthy. Yet lifestyle, beliefs and behaviours clearly differentiate them and provide a more nuanced and accurate view of both as individuals.”

Do we need more marketers who are over 50?

There is a risk that poor targeting of over-50s is being perpetuated by the fact advertisers are too young to understand the demographic. This was a key finding of research by Gransnet and Mumsnet research, which reveals 88% of the people surveyed think brands and agencies need to hire people that are more representative of those they are targeting.

In order to remedy that, Sunlife has a team of in-house creatives who are over the age of 50, and while they weren’t hired specifically for their age, marketing director Ian Atkinson says it does help the business to understand the market better.

“It’s one way of being able to more authentically create work which is representative of the audience,” he says. “We hired people who can do the job and have the right ability and it just so happens they are over 50. We’ve got plenty of people who are under 50 as well, but it all helps having that understanding that the customer is the starting point of everything.”

However, Microsoft consumer marketing director Paul Davies believes that, while having diversity of thought in marketing teams is really important, it’s not necessary to have people who are over 50 working on activity for over-50s.

“I don’t necessarily think it follows that a marketing team has to mirror the demographic of their target audience to really truly understand them, because the art of the marketing discipline is to be able to put yourself in the shoes of your customers and derive deep insight by doing that.”

Either way, it’s clear many brands are failing to effectively market to over-50s, and given we’re an ageing population, it’s about time marketers took a more active approach to understanding this vast audience. Not doing so means their brands may not survive another 50 years.