Marketing to the over-50s

Growing older is getting cooler, according to the ad industry. As those who (mis)spent their youths in the late Seventies hit the “big five-oh”, marketers are wondering how brands can target this new wave of oldies.

Ten years ago it was the Sixties generation which attracted the attentions of brands. Sales of Harley-Davidsons soared as middle-aged Easy Riders whose kids had left home finally found they had the time and money to live out their fantasies.

Today, popstar Madonna is the poster girl for the new cohort of 50-somethings. Madge enters her fifth decade this August and looks as well toned as when she launched her career in 1982.

So reaching 50 does not have to mean slipping on furry slippers and curling up on the sofa with a cup of warm cocoa. There is life in the 50-pluses yet, and where there is desire and aspiration, you can bet a marketer will be lurking close at hand offering a path to salvation through consumerism.

Barclays Wealth is surfing the age wave with press ads showing a wet-suited man of advancing years hunkily striding from the sea clasping a surf board, greying hair bunched in a pony tail, eye sockets scored by wrinkles. Dove memorably used a 96-year-old model in its “Real Beauty” campaign and L’Oréal employs mature actresses such as Jane Fonda, Catherine Deneuve and Andie McDowell (50 this year) in its ads.

50 and connected
On the internet, website 50Connect, which claims to be the UK’s biggest lifestyle portal for those between the ages of 45 and 60, relaunches this week. Meanwhile, Robert Campbell, a founder of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe and the man behind a string of Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Mobile ads, is launching his own e-commerce website that aims to connect brands with people who have just passed their half century.

The venture, to be called tgi50, will be co-managed with Toby Constantine, former marketing director of The Times and The Sunday Times, and no stranger to sales promotion and direct marketing.

Campbell says: “I’m defining a new marketing sector which is ‘50-Just’ rather than ‘50-Plus’. What I’m creating is a conduit to introduce contemporary brands to upmarket contemporary 50-year-olds.”

He believes many brands want a “below the radar” way of communicating with 50-somethings, since their youth positioning can suffer if they are seen by under 35s to be targeting older consumers.

The website will use closed user groups, promoting brands in sectors such as music and fashion as well as travel and financial services. “It will be done via membership and we’ll give it away to people we want to be members,” says Campbell. Invites could go out to the likes of Madonna, Iggy Pop (61) and eventually to Bono (48 next week). Funding for the venture is yet to be finalised and its launch could be six months away, says Campbell.

But he believes there are powerful revenue streams to tap into through search marketing and financial services referrals. The venture will aim to strike data-sharing deals with brands to profile relevant over-50s and target them with offers and promotions. For many, Campbell is an archetypal, old-school 30-second ad man, though he says: “I’ve been a convert to one-to-one marketing for years.” He is a non-executive director of search optimisation agency Steak Media.

However, the new generation of 50-somethings are in for a shock. They are not ready to grow old quite yet, says Y&R Europe planning director Simon Sylvester: “This new generation is shocked to find they are hitting their 50s – they have been brought up to believe they were the cool young generation of the Seventies. Things that switch on the over-50s are very different from ten years ago – you might need TV commercials with soundtracks by The Clash.

“This age group is having to handle some serious investment issues. Fewer have final salary pension schemes and they have a major task to make sure they are financially secure.”

The over-50s are an increasingly powerful group, owning 80% of the UK’s wealth, and they will make up more than half the adult population by 2020. In many cases they have more time and money than ever, as their children have left home. They are prime consumers of financial and travel products and hobby services, such as investment schemes.

Saga, the granddaddy of over-50s marketing, has been selling cruises, insurance and other services to older consumers since the 1950s. Its database containing demographic information is the envy of the direct marketing world. However, many believe its profile is more geared to post-retirement age groups than “young 50s”, leaving a gap in the market.

That said, Saga often sends mail-outs to people after their 50th birthday (not a welcome sight for many 50-year-olds). They may be tempted by its cheap insurance offers, and buy more products as they grow older. But it sells mainly white-label or own-label services and does not tend to tie up with other brands.

The man who built up Saga, Roger De Haan, sold his interests to a private equity-backed management buyout almost four years ago. Saga’s owners recently merged it with the AA in a move some marketers felt lacked commercial logic.

But Saga’s direct marketing approach is felt to be the most appropriate way to target the over-50s. According to Rory Sutherland, vice-chairman of OgilvyOne and vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group, mature consumers are more open to rational persuasion than the emotive appeals which are successful with younger people. Long copy explaining a product’s benefits can be more effective than a glitzy TV campaign: “As people get older, they become more discerning and thoughtful in their purchases. They’ve started to understand what to buy and what not to buy,” he says. For this reason, he believes that “cohort theory”, which holds that if you can get consumers loyal to a brand when young means they stay with you for life, is not always applicable. He points out that people do switch brands as they get older.

Then again, many successful brands learn to grow older with their consumers, as Time Out magazine has done. Virgin has also taken its loyal fans along its journey over the years and is seen by some as a trendier version of Saga.

However, beyond these lifestyle brands, taking account of the over-50s in marketing campaigns is a minefield. Many people do not want to be reminded of their advancing years and the youth-obsessed ad industry has generally steered clear of using older people in advertising. This is seen nowhere more clearly than with car brands. Over-50s purchase up to 60% of new cars, and many people use their lump sum retirement payout to purchase a vehicle. But car ads avoid representing these people.

For instance, a Jaguar spokeswoman admits that the brand does not use models who look over 50 in ads, though she denies discriminating against older people. “There are target age groups for specific name plates, but it is about attracting a type of consumer that is youthful and outgoing rather than saying they are people in their 30s or 50s,” she says. Many believe 50-pluses are the heaviest buyers of Jaguars.

The current set of 50-somethings may be a Peter Pan generation that refuses to grow old; certainly, stars such as Madonna and Iggy Pop are doing a good job of preserving their youth. And people’s pursuit of staying younger older makes it easier for marketers looking to separate the new grey wave from their cash.

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