Sales of Harley Davidsons have boomed in recent years, fuelled, we are told, by the demands of Baby Boomers who refuse to grow old gracefully.
Role models such as Jane Fonda, Tina Turner and Mick Jagger are inspiring a generation which firmly believes that sex-appeal and energy are no longer the preserve of youth alone. For older women, in particular, the changes have been immense with many enjoying levels of purchasing power and financial independence their mothers could never have imagined.
Yet, despite this, many manufacturers have been slow to recognise the needs and aspirations of older women, while some have even been downright resistant. LancÃÂ´me, for example, provoked outrage when it retired Isabella Rosellini at the age of 40 because she was considered too old to be a role model.
Independent consultant Emma Fric thinks LancÃÂ´me’s decision was shortsighted and cites the example of L’Oréal, which is continuing to use another older star Andie McDowell. Fric says: “The trouble is a lot of ads are still made by men who use women they would like to go out with.
“Of course they assume younger women look nicer and are more aspirational, but they rely on stereotypes of what a woman should be like when she hits 30 or 40, even though many women do not conform to those stereotypes.”
While experts agree that women of all ages are gradually becoming more responsive to marketing, particularly in areas of high interest such as cosmetics, there is also recognition that older women are becoming more confident.
Despite Avon’s mumsy image, 60 per cent of its consumers are under 45. According to Bridie Pollard, head of public relations and market research at Avon Cosmetics, older women are not as pressurised by fashion as younger women. “Sometimes they are happier buying a mass-market brand, whereas younger consumers might feel they have to buy an expensive one. It used to be that premium brands had all the technical lead, but nowadays it trickles down so fast that more blurring occurs between mass and premium products, which suits the older shopper,” she says.
So how valuable is advertising in reaching the older woman? “Not very,” says Fric. “I don’t think advertising alone has much impact. It’s increasingly about the power of editorial.”
Yet Fric thinks that editors often run shy of addressing older women’s needs. “Lifestyles of older women may change but biology doesn’t. Few people are aware how much their skin will change through menopause and that they will have very different product needs, but it is not an area that is discussed,” she says.
Avon is one of the few manufacturers to have addressed this area with the recent launch of a range, Positivity, which targets menopausal women. “Older women definitely pay attention to what’s coming out and are actively looking for anti-ageing products,’ says Avon’s Pollard.
She also thinks that interest in anti-ageing products is a key reason behind research findings that older women are becoming less brand loyal and more promiscuous in product choice. According to L’Oréal head of research Ann Murray, “It is now a myth that older women are more brand loyal than younger women. We conduct research across the broad spectrum of age groups and our understanding of consumer demands and spending patterns shows that older women are more flexible and involved in their retail choices.”
Even if cosmetic product development is keeping track with the new demands of older women, there is widespread agreement that retailers are lagging far behind. “If you are more confident you need more involvement with the product before you will buy it,” says Fric. “Department stores haven’t changed a lot and most point of sale material is really unsuitable. The best are those stores that have introduced more of a salon style where people can learn about products.”
Older consumers, in particular, feel uncomfortable and resent the time commitment to sit in a public arena to have make-up applied by a stranger.
Pollard thinks this is one of the reasons for the enduring popularity of Avon. “In any research, among both young and old, the intimidating sales assistant is always mentioned. One of the key benefits of buying from Avon is that it is a more relaxing and comfortable environment because it is your own home and it is a one-to-one service, often from someone who knows you and your needs,” she says.
In many ways, older women are becoming more like younger women in their buying habits, challenging the preconception that they become less adventurous as they get older.
Pollard believes that if any turning point in behaviour does exist, it is actually at quite a young age. “The watershed is 30 not 40 because that is the age women suddenly start to notice their skin and the effects of ageing,” she says. Pollard also points out that it is dangerous to generalise about consumer behaviour: “There are pockets within each age group which tend to be resistant to change and it is impossible to generalise,” she adds.
Royal Bank of Scotland marketing director of credit cards Tim Lewis also thinks that it is rash to assume that behaviour patterns are uniform across all product areas: “Brand promiscuity depends on the sector. I don’t believe people are always promiscuous or always innovative in every category,” he says.
Yet one of the biggest differences between young and older women is their interest and involvement in the purchase of financial services. Research from Prudential Retail shows that older women are generally happy to leave financial control and decision-making to their husbands. For example, 26 per cent of 55- to 64-year-old women believe women are content to rely on their husband’s pension provision compared with 16 per cent of 35- to 44-year-olds.
Lewis points out, however, that women of all ages are less likely to respond to financial direct mail than men are, but that women with the title “Miss” or “Ms” are more responsive than women with the title “Mrs”. In addition, when Royal Bank of Scotland reviewed a recent campaign, they found that 30 per cent of responses were from people who had not been mailed and within that a significant number were from men with the same surname and address as a female non-responder. This suggests many women had simply passed the mail to their partner to handle.
Many claim the automotive industry is one of the worst culprits in its disregard for the older woman’s needs, barely recognising the existence of the female consumer, let alone the nuance of age variations.
Toyota marketing director Paul Philpott thinks this was certainly true in the past, but cites the success of Toyota’s Yaris (voted Good Housekeeping’s Women-friendly Car of the Year in 1999) and the relaunched Celica. He also claims that Toyota recognises the older age group, but prefers not to target it directly. “Research shows that women in their 40s and 50s don’t want to be approached on the basis of age because they may not like to be reminded that they are older,” he says.
Philpott also believes many older women have much in common with women of 25 when it comes to choosing cars. “There are two main elements in any choice: rational and emotional benefits. In your late 20s, emotional factors influence decisions more strongly, but as you get older you become more concerned with practical considerations. Nowadays, once free of family, many women come full-circle and want to make a statement about their youthfulness. We have concluded that by targeting our advertising at the younger group we also appeal to the older group, particularly if we include media, such as The Sainsbury’s Magazine, which reach an older audience,” he says.
The Internet may provide the solution for reaching older women in a targeted way without alienating them. “At the moment, sites such as Handbag.com are hailed as targeted just because they have singled out women as their audience. The successful sites will be those which look at the different roles women play rather than age per se and then tailor communications and products accordingly,” says Fric.
“The truth is that marketing to older women has nothing to do with age; it’s all about attitude,” she concludes.