Why using demographics instead of values and attitudes turns people off.
One of the most lucrative and fastest growing markets in the world is also the most misunderstood. Seniors, better described as ‘older people’, make up a large, highly variable group.
Joseph Coughlin, author of The Longevity Economy, has been busting myths about what older people actually want, which is often at loggerheads with conventional wisdom. Founder and Director of the MIT AgeLab, Coughlin’s website says the market “consistently defies expectations”.
According to his deep insights, Coughlin says seniors continue to hold “personal and professional ambitions”, desire experiences, and actively self-actualising or on a quest to do so.
It seems, however, that very few businesses marketing to older people are getting it right.
A noteworthy case was in the 1950s product by Heinz, Senior Foods. Although data suggested that 15% of baby food was being purchased by seniors for their own consumption, the pureed stews were not embraced by the market.
Sensibilities were offended
Senior Foods bombed. In order for it to have succeeded, the purchaser had to identify with being old and infirm. Ryan cites the company spokesperson as saying “I think their sensibilities were offended.”
One exception Nancy Ryan cites is the California Prune Board. Prunes are eaten primarily by those over 55 years, but age is never mentioned in the creative executions. Instead it focuses on the nutritional qualities of the product.
The image problem of marketing to a stereotype of older people is evident everywhere. Unsophisticated marketers segment by age, not psychographically. Seniors are a diverse group and each senior has a strong self-image. Research has shown that this is generally of someone much younger than their actual age. People in later life don’t necessarily identify with being an old person, they identify with what they have been, and their formative experiences in life.
In a May 2019 New Yorker article Younger Longer, Adam Gopnik writes that “old people will not buy anything that reminds them they are old.” The PERS (personal emergency response system) is an example. Despite being extremely useful, the PERS pendants and bracelets have had less than four percent takeup from the US market of over 65-year-olds, essentially due to a product design problem. Gopnik says the distinctive pendants and bracelets signify “Old man walking”. Other PERS systems that have higher rates of adoption include iPhone or Apple Watch apps. They are discreet. They are congruent with their self-image as experience-seeking and capable.
Identity matters more than utility
This is something all marketers do well to remember: the importance of self-expression in branding. How does our product make our prospective customer feel? What does it say about them? How does the product reflect our self-image?
Gopnik nails it when he writes “Identity matters to us more than utility.” Self-concept has a big influence on an individual’s perceptions and behavious.
Startups for seniors
The Younger Longer article is useful to startup marketers in another aspect. Much startup funding goes to the stereotypical youthful entrepreneurs for products designed for other youthful people. In fact, many of these offerings are perfect for seniors because they enable them to achieve the freedom, lifestyle, experiences that they want.
Most retirement-aged people don’t go to nursing homes and aged care facilities. By and large, they want to, and do, stay at home.
Old people seek independence and autonomy. To tap into these huge, profitable niche, how can we facilitate that desire? How do we help them continue to enjoy a high quality of life at home with service delivery to the door, jobs on-demand, simple-to-use technology that enables connection with others?
Popular food delivery services caught on a few years ago with Deliveroo, menulog, now Uber Eats. Groceries stores including Coles, Woolworths offer delivery, so do meal and weight-loss companies such as Lite n Easy, as well as convenience-offering HelloFresh. The target markets for these services are usually young. These services are designed for busy families, career professionals, and young people who like takeaway food but don’t want to get it.
The United States has TaskRabbit, in Australia, we have AirTasker in which users can hire skilled people to perform jobs for them — from assembling a flatpack wardrobe, cleaning, running business errands to changing a lightbulb — for a fixed fee. We have Uber for flexible mobility even if we no longer hold a driver license.
The lesson for both the startup and the seniors marketer is twofold: if you are a Startup, don’t forget to consider the advantage that the older people niche could offer in terms of its wealth and size. Your product might have a perfect solution to an existing problem faced by this experience-seeking group who strive to stay living at home but require technological assistance.
Marketing to older people
By the same token, if you are marketing something for older people, it isn’t necessary to state that in the creative. Especially, don’t call them seniors. Or the ‘elderly’. Don’t depict them in photos and video as white-haired and highly dependent.
Focus on the benefits and make sure your communications reflect the ideal self-image of the target customer (resourceful, experience-seeking, content, happy), not what you might consider to be the reality (old, infirm, forgetful, lonely).
The self-concept of an older person is most probably that of when they were more youthful. That may be 20 years younger than their chronological age. A powerful photo series ‘Reflections of the Past’ by Tom Hussey depicts this beautifully.
For greater authenticity for your brand, focus on the values and attitudes of your target customer, not their age. Young people often consider themselves to feel much older than they actually are. Older people often consider themselves cognitively much younger. Focus on the experience you provide and how it can delight your customers.
As always, it takes not only an insight into your market to successfully resonate with them. It also takes deep respect.
Top photo credit: Tiago Muraro on Unsplash