Ageless Marketing Matters

In 2013, the United States ‘celebrated’ a historic milestone that has gone generally ignored by governments, businesses and nonprofit organizations. For the first time in history, those ages 65 and older outnumber those under the age of 15.


This is a change of epic proportion and yet little has been done to adapt marketing materials, hiring policies, sales training or aging programs and services. When the media or politicians do recognize the growth of the older market it is to view it as a growing crisis, problem or challenge rather than an opportunity.

Not only is this the most dynamic demographic shift in history, the members of the new consumer majority are uniquely more informed, better educated and autonomous than prior generations. Yes, the baby boom, pig-in-the-python, phenomenon that fueled yesterdays mass market now are to ‘blame’ for the lack of effectiveness to today’s marketing and advertising messages. While their life experiences were unique, the boomers are developmentally aging just as the generation the preceded them.

In spite of a growing body of evidence that the older brain and mind process information differently than younger minds, ad agencies, marketing companies and aging organizations continue to follow the features and benefits paradigm developed to communicate with yesterday’s youth market. Paradoxically, the members of the New Consumer Majority of age 60 plus consumers and the explosive youth market of yesterday are the same people…but different.

Shoe in Water

Common Marketing Missteps

For the past two years, I have had the honor of judging marketing materials for a competition sponsored by the International Council on Active Aging (ICAA).

A few examples of marketing missteps in many entries along with suggestions for improvement follow:

  • Excessive use of sans serif fonts (aerial, Calibri, etc.), which are harder to read and slow the processing speed and comprehension of older readers. Sadly, younger creative directors who grew up in the computer age have embraced sans serif as it now dominates web sites and emails. Interestingly, sans serif was created because the first computer printers could not print serifs; not because it was easier to read on computer screens.
  • Printing on enamel paper stock which creates glare bothersome to older eyes. A quality matte paper stock should be the standard with a 12 pt. serif font such as Times New Roman. To create more depth in color photos, try using spot enamel on the photos only.
  • Focusing on objective appeals using features and benefits rather than emotional appeals that connect with life experiences, later life values and experiential desires. An objective appeal with excessive details is more likely to be dismissed as so much hyperbole by experience older consumers. The presentation of a product, service or idea should be done in a manner that is more suggestive than descriptive since the older mind is context sensitive. When using an emotional appeal, enough is said to get general interest, and enough left unsaid that each person’s brain can complete the picture by drawing on their own life experience rather than that of the copy writer.
  • Using stereotypical, exclusionary terms such as senior, elderly, boomer, zoomer, etc to segment consumers. Older consumers are not always conscious of their frame of reference (negative stereotypes), but disregard information that does not fit their reality. The brain is context sensitive and fills in the missing pieces of a picture with a bias toward one’s world view, values and life stage. Before publication, review all materials and delete all terms that could conjure up negative images of aging. Then, re-read the copy and realize how little impact these descriptors actually have.
  • Using sedentary stock photo images rather than older consumers involved in meaningful pursuits. Pictures that tell a story will have a greater appeal that posed stock shots.
  • Talking about perceived consumer needs rather than the values of targeted consumers using a language of exclusion. As stated, appealing to emotions is essential for gaining an older consumer’s interest. When your message is relevant to the prospect’s interests and grounded in their internal life stage values, the message is more likely to survive the brain’s screening & reach the conscious mind. Objective appeals require first gaining the prospective customer’s interest; however, reason will not fully kick in until the emotions have given the green light to think about your offer.

What is confusing to those of us who have spent our careers trying to convince businesses, nonprofits and government agencies of the potential of an aging market place is why they refuse to accept what author Tom Peters might call a “blinding flash of  Flarethe obvious.” For example, Dove challenged ageism through its award-winning Campaign for Real Beauty. One advertisement and billboard featured a 95-year-old model and posed the question: “Withered or Wonderful? The campaign resulted in a 700% rise in product sales in the United Kingdom and 600% in the U.S. within the first two months of the campaign’s launch; and yet few companies followed suit by embracing positive aging.

The Dove campaign chose to present aging in a positive context and were rewarded by consumers of all ages. This campaign clearly demonstrated that consumers do not see what you want to them to see, but what their brains want them to see by filtering with an unconscious set of assumptions, perceptions and aspirations. In other words, they did not just want to know Dove wanted their business; but understood the importance of a positive aging self esteem.

Last year, I opened a statewide conference for aging network service providers with a 3 minute, 2011 commercial for Taiwan’s TC Bank created by Ogilvy and Mather Taiwan that asks the question, "What do people live for?" The commercial is based on the true story a group of older men seeking purpose and adventure in spite of a variety of physical infirmities and concludes with the Bank’s positioning line, “For Ordinary People with Extraordinary Dreams.” Spontaneous applause followed the viewing, which has happened every time I have shown the spot as part of a presentation.

The failure to embrace and expand on this approach no doubt stems from a lack of understanding of later life values. As the late David B. Wolfe observed in a 1998 article in American Demographics magazine:

There is no better way to begin dealing with those challenges (marketing to older adults) than by making a concerted effort to learn more about adult development. Few consumer researchers and marketers have any grounding in adult development psychology. This is a costly deficiency. Knowledge of adult development can provide critical information about consumers that is not available from traditional survey and focus group research.

Vector Grass

If you believe the old adage that the majority rules, organizations are foolish to ignore the power of the aging marketplace. In less than 7 years, one in five consumers will be over age 60 and that number will continue to grow. To hold onto the marketing paradigms of yesterday’s youth dominated marketplace is simply fool-hardy.

From Paradigm Keepers to Innovators

Even with the positive, bottom line results that are possible, companies continue to ignore the benefits of embracing a new marketing paradigm. Even as the effectiveness of traditional advertising continues to erode, few have embraced ageless marketing principles. Likewise, a majority of aging service organizations and communities for older adults continue to embrace outdated medical models of operation and programs that inadvertently perpetuate ageism.

When it comes to aging, these organizations are like processionary caterpillars, which move in a long procession, one leading and the others following with their eyes half closed and heads snugly fitted against the rear extremity of his predecessor.

In the late 1800’s, John Henry Fabre, the great French naturalist, conducted a most unusual experiment with some processionary caterpillars. These caterpillars blindly follow the one in front of them, hence, the name. Fabre carefully arranged the caterpillars in a circle around the rim of a flowerpot, so that the lead caterpillar actually touched the last one, making a complete circle. In the center of the flowerpot he put pine needles, which is the preferred food of the processionary caterpillar. The caterpillars started walking around this circular flowerpot.

Around and around they went, hour after hour, day after day, night after night. For seven full days and seven full nights, they went around the flowerpot. Finally, they dropped dead of starvation and exhaustion. With an abundance of food less than six inches away, they literally starved to death. Much like many organizations creating communications targeting older consumers or managing aging services, the caterpillars confused activity with accomplishment.

In spite of the evidence, organizations defend actions as the way it has always been done, tradition, standard practice, regulatory requirements, congressional intent or a variety of other excuses to justify holding on to approaches they understand. Of course, they continue to experience repeated failures despite the untold potential that lies easily within reach. These organizations are blinded by their own limiting beliefs and the inability to consider alternatives.

From wellness centers, to communities for older adults, to ‘senior centers’, to cities and Questionscommunities …we are in the business of facilitating human connections. And, if we do it well, we create vibrant/magnetic places that are not just active and appealing, but experiential and authentic. In the sea of sameness and other possibilities, organizations need to ask WHY they are worthy of the consumer’s interest. What makes your offer unique AND compelling?