The New Old - Mean New Rules for Sales and Marketing

David Cravit (November 2008)

Imagine that's it 1980 and you're 65 years old.

What have your life experiences been? How much longer do you think you're going to live? How much longer are people around you living? And how do the answers to those questions shape your behavior in the marketplace – and, thus, the attitude of the sales and marketing community toward you?

You were born in 1915 and you grew up in the Depression and fought in World War II. Your experiences made you cautious, a saver rather than a spender. You've been saving, in fact, precisely for this last phase of your life – 10 years, maybe 15, tops, in which to enjoy (hopefully) a relatively dignified and pain-free glide to the finish line.

Not surprisingly, members of the sales and marketing community have almost no interest in you. They figure your brand preferences are already set in stone. They note you're frugal, and probably living on a fixed income. And besides, you're going to be six feet under in a decade or less. So why should they bother?

This set of assumptions may have been fine for 1980. But it's wildly inaccurate for 2008. Yet, not only does this still govern most sales and marketing attitudes and strategies but, believe it or not, sales and marketing professionals are actually resisting the biggest and wealthiest segment of the consumer marketplace.

The Zoomers – Canadians 45-plus – add up to 14.5 million people, control almost 60% of all consumer spending, and are the only demographic segment whose net worth actually increased over the past 20 years. Yet the advertising and marketing world remain obsessed with the so-called 'youth market' – a segment whose share of the population and share of consumer spending has been in decline.

Not surprisingly, the Zoomers have noticed.

A study by US cable network TVLand indicated that almost half of Baby Boomers (the oldest now being 63) feel overlooked by marketers who advertise on television. Only 3% of them said they were extremely satisfied with the TV programming options available to them. And this is the generation that grew up on TV.

In the UK, a 2004 survey published by specialist marketing agency Millennium revealed that 86% of Boomers felt ignored by the marketing industry, and 70% felt patronized by advertising.

It's no better in Canada. In an online poll we conducted of our own audience at ZoomerMedia, 80% of respondents said marketers were not interested in them and not communicating effectively with them.

Why do so many in our industry still remain blind to the importance of the Zoomer market? And – aside from not allocating enough dollars to reach them – why are so many unable to frame their sales messages effectively?

In my experience, marketers are, slowly, beginning to catch on to the numbers. They nod their heads and say, "Hey, yeah, the Zoomers...right...it's big..." But then they go on acting as if the Zoomer phenomenon simply means there are more "old people." In other words, they acknowledge the trend as a quantitative issue...but assume the qualitative issue is the same as it's always been. Old people aren't spenders, they don't have much time left, and their brand preferences are locked in stone, so why bother?

You have no hope of effectively tapping this market until you realize that the "old people" of today are not the same as the "old people" of any previous generation in history. In my book, ‘The New Old,' I make the case that this is a qualitative issue: "An astonishing process is under way today. It's just starting to take shape, and its influence will be felt for centuries – maybe forever. The process is being carried out by the demographic segment that has been poked, prodded, analyzed, loved and hated more than any other group in history – the Baby Boomers. What the Baby Boomers are doing is, quite simply, destroying our entire concept of aging. The Boomers are, in effect, de-aging."

The effects of this phenomenon influence groups older than the Boomers, hence our embrace of the entire 45-plus demographic under the umbrella name of ‘Zoomers.'

It shouldn't be too hard to understand what's happening because it's happening right before your eyes. Let's go back to that example I led off with – someone who was 65 in 1980.

Now let's look at someone who is 65 today.

If you're 65 in 2008, you were born in 1943. You grew up in the post-war Baby Boom era (although you're technically a year or two older than the earliest Baby Boomers) - a time of peace and prosperity. Also a time of high inflation, easy credit, and a non-stop proliferation of new products and exciting technology. A time in which it made sense to borrow, not save. When Pierre Elliott Trudeau was the hot new product in Canadian politics, you were only 25. You may have attended Woodstock. Your contemporaries include Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, George Bush and Bill Clinton. And, thanks to today's medical capabilities, you're probably looking at another 25 years. Minimum. In other words, you're still a player. And you've got the money to be a player.

You ought to be the most desirable audience for any marketer out there. But most of them still don't get it.

What do sales and marketing people have to do? How can they better understand, reach and sell to this demographic?

In ‘The New Old,' I offer a questionnaire that enables readers to evaluate to what degree their own organization is, or is not, responsive to the Zoomers. Since space here is limited, let's jump to some solutions.

First, let's look at the enemies of an effective sales and marketing campaign:

  • Condescension – I call it the "there, there dear" syndrome. It communicates the idea that the target audience is old and helpless and relatively disengaged. It's particularly lethal in the area of computers or other high-tech products, including the Internet: do not make the assumption that this market is too old to understand or use technology. The reality couldn't be more different: they're all online and over 1 million Zoomers spend 2+ hours a day on the Internet. In Canada, over 3 million own home theatres, over 4 million own digital cameras, over 7 million have cell phones; over 9 million have personal computers.
  • Vagueness – This is the generation that grew up on TV. They know how to tune out the bullshit. They're interested in information - in fact, they're hungry for information. They actively want to know how your product or service can make their lives better. They won't be fobbed off by vague imagery and soft content.
  • Insincerity – This is an extension of the previous point. Some companies feel they can reach this group by pandering to them through imagery that evokes their past lives and experiences. This will never work if it is seen as a gratuitous add-on. If your product or service is irrelevant to their needs (or if you can't explain why it's relevant), then you're not going to be able to save the day by shoe-horning a Grateful Dead song into an otherwise vacuous message.

So what are the buttons you should be pushing? What are the appeals that are likely to work?

The key drivers of Zoomer appeal are:

  • Health and Well-Being – Zoomers want to live longer and be healthy and active for as long as possible. Show how your product or service can contribute.
  • Quality of Life – They want the best. They want to be surrounded by interesting and enjoyable things. They particularly want to benefit from new technology.
  • A Feeling of Youthfulness – They act 10-15 years younger than their chronological age. A product or service that says "You've still got the magic" will be coveted.
  • Exploration, Discovery, New adventures and Experiences – They're still making plans! Anything that speaks to education, exploration, adventure and trying new things will generate strong interest.
  • Independent Living – They're going into that nursing home...never. Show how your product or service can enhance their environment, making it safer and easier for them to live independently.
  • Fashion, Style, Sex Appeal – They want to look good, feel good, and be seen that way by others. Does your product or service help them in this area? And note: Sex continues into the 70s and 80s.
  • Exceptional Service – Let's face it, these people can be very high- maintenance customers. They want service that is highly personalized, that anticipates their needs, that delivers superior quality for the price. You can win on this one attribute alone.
  • Convenience – They want products and services that are easy to use and shopping experiences that are as convenient as possible.

Tailor your product or service offerings, and the content, style and tone of your sales and marketing messages, to as many of these desired attributes as possible. This means digging deep into what you are actually offering, and trying to improve it substantively – you cannot rely only on the message.

Look at your product or service and run it up against each of the key drivers. Ask yourself:

  • How competitive is this product or service today, vis-à-vis each key Zoomer driver?
  • How could it be repositioned? Could some of its attributes be emphasized or highlighted so as to better fit with one or more of these drivers?
  • How could it be modified or improved to fit with each key driver?
  • What entirely new products or services could we introduce within our overall category of business, to better appeal to the key drivers?

This exercise will force you to constantly evaluate what it is you're offering and how you're framing it. Remember that the Zoomers is the all-time "been there, done that" market – this group wants the real stuff, its members are very good at tuning out fluff, and substance will always trump tap-dancing.

That said, when it comes to actual communication, there are some important dos and don'ts.

1, Think Products and Benefits - Not Psychographics

The trick here is not to over-think the psychology. What this market wants, above all else, is relevance. Zoomers want to quickly understand how your product or service relates to what they're looking for. Every Boomer can remember the classic Wendy's burger campaign, "Where's the beef?" Take that as your mantra.

2. Show, Don't Tell

Far too much of today's advertising worships creativity for its own sake and fails to communicate the benefits of buying and using whatever it is you're selling. I'm not saying your message should be boring. But the key is to communicate the benefits clearly, and to cast your product or service in the context of the Zoomer lifestyle. And this, in its own right, should be even more exciting than anything an ad agency's creative department can dream up. Think of it – the substance of your product or service is actually contributing to the Zoomer revolution. It is actually helping a generation that is shattering all the traditional ideas of what it means to age. Showing that role - bringing that experience to life – ought to be a creative assignment people would kill for.

3. Don't Let Anyone Under 40 Write Your Copy. And Make it a Firing Offence to Produce Work That Shows Any Sign of Condescension

I am completely serious. You are playing for tens of millions of dollars, perhaps much more. How can you let the message be created by people who are 20 or 30 years younger than the target audience? Especially since these people, in the experience of most observers of the ad scene (including me) have not demonstrated even the slightest ability to understand and communicate with Zoomers?

If it were up to me, your ad agency would immediately replace the entire creative team with Boomers. Nobody understands this market better than the people who are in it.

If that's impossible, require your copywriters to get a signed note from one of their parents before they submit any work to you. The note should say that the proposed ad or commercial has been read by the parent, and that the parent did not roll his/her eyes, burst into hysterical laughter, or want to punch the writer.

4. Create As Many Opportunities as Possible for Boomers to Engage in Dialogue with You

Zoomers are very interested in high levels of service, and in being treated as important customers. They've been that way all their lives. It's only now, as they butt up against the traditional frontiers of "oldness", that they discover that marketers are no longer interested in them.

Remember, too, that Zoomers have spent their lifetimes being cynical about advertising and sales, and suspicious of the claims of marketers, particularly where those claims have to do with the marketers' professed attitudes toward consumers. "Your call is important to us" – a staple of the automated telephone responses that are the norm in business today – is perhaps the most exquisite expression of "We couldn't care less about you, or why else would we substitute this recorded message for a live person?" Eventually, all these pious expressions of good will - so blatantly unfulfilled in the customer's real-life experience – become background noise, and all large organizations morph into the same remote, indifferent, incompetent blob, to be navigated around, rather than engaged.

This leaves a pretty big vacuum for someone to do it right. Why not you?

The Internet provides a quick way of achieving this. A Zoomer-focused site can provide many opportunities to solicit feedback, create dialogue (between Zoomers and your organization, as well as between Zoomers and each other), and give your organization a human face while showing the Zoomers how important you believe them to be. Consider

  • Polls, surveys and other feedback devices
  • The opportunity to rate products and services
  • Chat and forums, where your site can become a meeting place
  • Podcasts, webinars, and other online events, both archived and in real time
  • Virtual trade shows, fairs, exhibits, conventions
  • Blogs and videos from your corporate executives, with talkback features for the audience
  • Value-added "clubs" that offer enhanced services (or discounts) to frequent shoppers

The technology to execute every one of these already exists, and Zoomers are already heavy Internet users. Remember my earlier point: they are actively seeking relevant and helpful information.

5. Until the TV Industry Wakes Up, Your Best Media Are the Internet, Radio and Magazines

This audience grew up with TV and loves TV, but there is relatively little programming that appeals to it today. Indeed, the TV industry appears to be doing everything it can to drive them away. Until that changes, other media will get you there more quickly and efficiently. Remember that Zoomers like to read, and are hungry for information. The Internet is the fastest and most convenient medium for product research, and magazines offer the most focused and in-depth coverage of lifestyle or specific topics. Radio can also offer excellent reach: the audiences are growing older as the kids abandon the radio stations in favour of their IPods.

To sum up:

  • Canada's 14.5 million Zoomers control the marketplace
  • Before you can sell them effectively, you have to understand this as a qualitative issue. They are literally creating a revolution in aging, and they are emphatically not the same "old people" as ever before.
  • They want to hear what you have to say. They're rooting for you to have solutions they can use. What they don't want – and what they will punish, ruthlessly, in the marketplace – is fakery.

David Cravit has over 30 years' experience in advertising, marketing and consulting in both Canada and the US. He is now Executive Vice President of Zoomer Media, one of North America's foremost experts on marketing to ‘the new old,' and author of book The New Old, which will be released in October.