Leading industry expert Dr. Alexis Abramson shares information and advice for marketers setting out to target the older-adult market or improve the success of their efforts…..
by Colin Milner, Chief Executive Officer of the International Council on Aging®
When 2014 came to a close, the Baby Boomers—that society-shaping generation born between 1946 and 1964—all belonged to the 50-and-older age group. Leading-edge Boomers will started turning 70 just a year later. This generation of consumers has joined with today’s longer-living older generations to create a demographic representing a wealth of business opportunities for all kinds of companies.
For marketers, a traditionally youth-oriented profession, the 50+ demographic presents challenges as well. Too few marketers fully understand the new landscape. Research by Euromonitor, for example, cited the spending power of adults ages 60 and older to hit US$15 trillion by 2020, an increase of US$7 trillion over 2010 estimates. Yet many marketers do not respond to older consumers or pay them little attention. According to a 2021 Nielsen report fully 95% of marketing dollars still target the 35-and-under consumer.
Unfortunately, those marketers who do attempt to reach and influence older consumers all too often fail. The latest Nielsen Global Survey About Aging revealed that more than half of the 30,000 individuals who responded to this poll “[did] not see advertising that reflects older consumers.”4 These findings reinforce the fact that a great many marketing professionals need to learn more about the 50+ demographic and how to craft authentic portrayals of and effective messages for these consumers.
To help meet this need for education, the International Council on Active Aging® held a one-day symposium called “Marketing: moving beyond the status quo” in conjunction with its national conference in November. Among those anchoring the symposium was keynote speaker and panel moderator Dr. Alexis Abramson.
In her keynote, Abramson discussed how to capture the older-adult, or mature, market through Gerontographics. This segmentation approach, she explained, is based on the premise that the factors that make these consumers more (or less) receptive to marketing offerings are directly related to their needs and lifestyles, which are in turn influenced by changing life conditions.
A leading industry expert on those over age 50, Abramson has a PhD in gerontology from the University of Southern California’s Davis School of Gerontology. She is a speaker, blogger, corporate consultant, successful author, and award-winning entrepreneur and journalist. Her commitment to Boomers and older adults has been featured in many publications, including TIME, Forbes, Entrepreneur and the Wall Street Journal. The Emmy and Gracie award-winning journalist appears frequently as an on-air expert gerontologist for NBC’s Today show, CNN, CBS, MSNBC and other media outlets. Abramson is also a featured blogger on websites such as YAHOO!, Huffington Post, Sharecare and Caregiving.com. Her next book, The Ultimate Longevity Guide, will delve into the secrets for a happy, healthy (long) life.
“I am focused on the cutting-edge business and lifestyle trends that influence the 109 million Americans over the age of 50,”4 Abramson says. “Older people are more active and vibrant than ever before, they’re projected to hold 70% of US disposable income in the next five years,3 and they currently spend upwards of US$3 trillion every year on consumer-related services.2 My job is to teach companies how to attract, and retain, those consumers.” Clients have included such major organizations as AARP, Arthritis Foundation, Philips Electronics, AIG, Comcast, Humana, Delta Airlines, American Automobile Association (AAA), Century 21, Kimberly Clark, Walmart and Hyatt.
In our recent interview for the Journal on Active Aging®, Dr. Abramson shared her thoughts with me about how the field of aging has changed, how businesses and marketing professionals are responding to the mature market, what advice she would offer new marketing professionals about older consumers, and what trends and traits are important to organizations that aim to target this market. Check out the discussion below for highlights.
CM: Why did you choose the field of aging? And how has it changed since you first started?
AA: I chose the field of aging early on because I have always felt a kindred spirit towards the older generation. I spent a great deal of time with my grandparents when I was growing up and found my experiences with them to be life-changing. While others were putting the older generation out to pasture and marginalizing their role in our society, I was doing everything I could to learn from their experience and wisdom. I find my work extremely rewarding because, quite frankly, this is still an absolutely untapped market—the opportunities within the field are infinite. With the growing demographics and the true “global graying” on the way, those who have chosen to be in the field of aging are ripe for success, both from a personal and professional aspect.
The field of aging has changed dramatically since I first started out in the industry many moons ago. As our society continues to age, more and more people are entering the field on all levels—be it healthcare, technology, sales, etc. This influx of new blood into the field is positive. But there are also some real challenges associated with the overall growth.
Due to the fact that there are so many noble (and lucrative) opportunities, both from a business-to-business and business-to-consumer standpoint, we are attracting a ton of candidates that lack the experience and education needed to succeed. I’m of the opinion that we need to put some tighter parameters around the field, so that we have high standards and can effectively regulate the sector in an effort to deter unqualified individuals who simply want to make a quick buck.
CM: Are companies responding to the needs, dreams, desires and wants of this market?
AA: It has taken a long time to get organizations to realize that the “silver tsunami” is truly upon us and that the 50+ generation must be paid attention to by governments, private companies, nonprofit organizations, and others. I’ve screamed from the rooftops about the impact of this tremendous demographic paradigm shift and tried to get people to let go of the myths associated with aging and fully embrace their own futures. So many companies just want to put this whole segment of society on the back burner. I’ve worked for decades to get businesses and individuals to understand—if for no other reason then the financial impact—that this is a viable segment that folks need to stop sidelining and start empowering.
Businesses, foundations and agencies in a wide variety of industries (including fashion, fitness, travel, healthcare, transportation, retail, automobile, relationship and real estate) need to be prepared to offer the services demanded by this growing population, which is already outspending other generations by an estimated US$400 billion each year on consumer goods and services.6 So even while the escalating number of retired adults may begin to strain government resources, they will provide enormous money-making opportunities for those who are offering products and services that are geared toward 50+ individuals.
CM: If I were just starting in the field of marketing, what advice would you offer me about the older consumer?
AA: My number one piece of advice is to never put the entire 50+ market into one bucket from a marketing standpoint—you must fully understand the various cohorts within this large sector. The 50+ are absolutely not a homogenous group, and they prefer not to be treated as one.
Whole generations of people who are retiring find themselves enjoying all kinds of adventurous activities that would have seemed atypical in the past. Older people are often active; they want to explore, learn new things, start new businesses, support new organizations. And even though they may not actually do all the things they dream about doing, they want to know the possibility is there and the products and services are available.
Members of the mature market are experiencing what I like to refer to as the 30 Bonus Years™. These are the additional “bonus” or “gifted” yearsthat we now have the luxury to enjoy as we grow older. Due mainly to technology and medical breakthroughs, the average life expectancy went from 47 in the 1900s to 77 and beyond today.7 Now that we will be living much longer, the 50+ population is not willing to just step aside and be forgotten.
The key to working as a marketer in the field of aging is most definitely passion. But the nice thing is that due to the growing demand, you can turn your passion into profit—if you just know how! In order to be successful, you need to take the time to really study the 50+ market. So many organizations and individuals have jumped on the “gerontology bandwagon” in the last few years without truly taking the time to get to know the 50+ market. That’s why there are so many “fits and starts” in the industry.
I studied the field of gerontology on a PhD level, so I am able to get a true sense—from both quantitative and qualitative standpoints—about how to translate current industry-related research into action and therefore disrupt dated perceptions about the mature market.
CM: What successes were achieved by following your advice? Did these transform your marketing efforts, or the efforts of your clients?
AA: Over the years my consulting work has influenced the media, corporate and nonprofit industries to create positive change for businesses and consumers alike. Some of my wins include:
- serving as the consumer expert/spokesperson for the Humana Walmart-Preferred Rx Plan initiative and helping to raise awareness about all of the benefits it offers
- strategizing with the Delta Airlines marketing and branding teams on the development of the Delta frequent flyer program for mature adults and consequently helping them produce a business plan and marketing/advertising collateral related to the program
- assisting in the development, launch, implementation and promotion of the Bank of Montreal enCircle® caregiving initiative
- working closely with the Subway® restaurant chains marketing team to create original concepts in an effort to help them appeal to and capture the Baby Boomer demographic
- helping the Arthritis Foundation staff create an “Arthritis-Friendly” product selection for their website
I’ve been fortunate throughout my career to align with organizations that are not only excited about the opportunities within this vast 50+ segment, but that also truly understand the need to fully capitalize initiatives that will lead to a substantial return on their investment.
CM: What traits lead to an organization succeeding with the older consumer?
AA: The size and buying power of the Boomer and older-adult demographics are staggering, but for some reason many companies mistakenly underestimate today’s mature market. With 77% of the current wealth in the United States being controlled by older adults, this market is clearly a viable target.8 If companies want to reach this demographic, they need to understand how and why these consumers buy and/or use specific services. Marketing to Boomers, and older adults, involves establishing a relationship, building trust, and providing opportunities for growth, learning and interaction.
Techniques in 50+ sales, marketing and advertising continue to evolve and change rapidly. Organizations must put their business intelligence to work here and ask: Are Boomers and older adults included as prospective customers in our vertical markets? Companies that ignore these generations do so at their own peril. These businesses must recognize that as Americans are aging, they are accumulating wealth, and their spending is growing at a pace that’s leaving younger generations far behind. Companies need to be prepared for a rough ride over the next 20 years if they have a service or product that might appeal to the 50+ consumer but don’t have a strategy for making their offering relevant to this group.
CM: What three aging trends do those in the field of marketing need to know about?
AA: Only three???? Ok….here goes….
Longevity: Older people comprise approximately 13% of the American population today.9 But by the middle of the new century, more than 20% of the population will be over 65, and 5% will be over 85.9 Beyond the extension of the human life span, and the likelihood of relatively good health during the later decades of life, there is another important demographic phenomenon: the so-called “bonus years.” Not only are we gaining years at the end of our lives, but we are also gaining healthy, productive years in our sixth, seventh or eighth decades. Unfortunately, we do not yet have blueprints or expectations for how these years might be spent. The new “bonus years” challenge us all—as policy-makers, professionals and individuals—to reconsider learning, work, self-expression and service, and to try out new paths for growth in the later years.
Aging in place: Tomorrow’s mature population will differ from those of past decades. They will enjoy longer lives, better health and more active lifestyles than previous generations. Still, the overwhelming majority will also face that growing and continuous challenge: maintaining their precious independence. According to AARP, 9 out of 10 older adults stay where they currently live upon retirement, preferring to grow old in their own homes.10 But successful “aging in place” demands that one’s home and household products provide continued enjoyment and stimulation, as well as support declining function and enhance quality of life. Refusing to be stigmatized by living in a “home for the aged” or using “elderly products,” aging Boomers will seek out designs that accommodate rather than discriminate, sympathize rather than stigmatize, and appeal to users of all ages and abilities.
Financial: The fact that people are now living longer is desirable and has improved individual welfare. However, there are financial costs of longer life expectancy—for governments through employee retirement plans and social security schemes, for corporate employers with defined-benefit pension plans, for insurers that sell annuities, and for individuals without guaranteed retirement benefits. The financial implications of people living longer than expected (the so-called “longevity risk”) are large. Things will get more expensive. Even if inflation averages about 3% per year, the cost of living will double in just 23 years.11
- Financial: The fact that people are now living longer is desirable and has improved individual welfare. However, there are financial costs of longer life expectancy—for governments through employee retirement plans and social security schemes, for corporate employers with defined-benefit pension plans, for insurers that sell annuities, and for individuals without guaranteed retirement benefits. The financial implications of people living longer than expected (the so-called “longevity risk”) are large. Things will get more expensive. Even if inflation averages about 3% per year, the cost of living will double in just 23 years.11
CM: What’s next for Alexis Abramson?
AA: At the moment, I’m immersed in delivering keynote speeches, serving as a spokesperson for products and services geared to the 50+ consumer, and consulting with corporate clients as they create plans to properly position themselves to embrace the 50+ market segment.
I’m helping my clients understand the significant impact that longevity will have on their businesses (and their bottom line). Consumers now have this whole new “segment” of their lives to figure out what to do with and how to plan for going forward. Most of us will be experiencing many different transitions, good and bad, during this time period—widowhood, second careers, going back to school, new relationships, following our passions, reinventing ourselves, grandparenting, divorce, new hobbies, spirituality, chronic conditions, recovery, second families, and more. Basically we will recognize a “new life stage.” Instead of the traditional bell curve (young, middle age, old age), we will have childhood, adulthood, new life stage (a.k.a. “30 Bonus Years”), retirement, and old age.
I’m determined to help organizations reach and capture these “longevity” customers. To explore and answer questions such as: What kinds of products and services need to be developed to facilitate these additional years? What does research tell us will allow us to live as healthy, happy, wealthy and wise as possible during this new life stage? What are the cutting-edge 50+ business and lifestyle trends? And how do we effectively market and position products and services with the bonus years in mind?
Responding to the market
For marketers that aim to enter the mature market or to improve on current efforts, questions abound about how to reach and appeal effectively to age 50+ consumers. How do these professionals create messages that resonate with this market? Success comes with becoming more knowledgeable about older adults; understanding the incredible diversity of this market and the needs, dreams, desires, hopes, abilities and expectations of consumers; crafting messages that speak to these realities; and reflecting authentic portrayals of this life stage.
Questions about marketing go hand-in-hand with larger questions about how companies respond to the age 50+ demographic, as Dr. Abramson suggests. Immense opportunities await those that recognize the mature market constitutes not just a viable, but also a desirable, target—one with more disposable income,3 net worth12 and spending power3 than younger generations. This market also reflects every facet of the wide-ranging and changing experiences of aging today. Companies that make these consumers a priority will reap the benefits for decades to come.
1. The Intergenerational Center at Temple University. Capturing Experience: How People 50+ Can Help Your Organization. Module 1: People 50+: One Size Doesn’t Fit All. Retrieved on November 7, 2014, from http://cil.templecil.org/node/3.
2. Boyle, M. (2013, September 17). Why Companies Are Failing to Cash In on Flood of Aging Baby Boomers Worth US$15 Trillion. Retrieved on November 8, 2014, from http://business.financialpost.com/2013/09/17/why-marketers-are-still-struggling-to-cash-in-on-flood-of-aging-baby-boomers-worth-us15-trillion.
3. Nielsen. (2012). Introducing Boomers: Marketing’s Most Valuable Generation. Available at http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/reports/2012/introducing-boomers–marketing-s-most-valuable-generation.html.
4. Nielsen. (2014, February 25). Press release: Nielsen: Global Consumers Highlight Opportunities for Retailers, Brand Marketers and Service Providers to Better Meet Needs of Aging Consumers. Retrieved on November 8, 2014, from http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/press-room/2014/nielsen-global-consumers-highlight-opportunities-for-retailers-brand-marketers-and-service-providers-to-better-meet-needs-of-aging-consumers.html.
5. Annual Estimates of the Resident Population by Single Year of Age and Sex for the United States: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2012. United States Census Bureau, Population Division, June 2013. Available at http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?src=bkmk.
6. US Government Consumer Expenditure Survey, 2013. United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Available at http://www.bls.gov/cex.
7. Manton, K. G. (2007). Life expectancy. In J. E. Birren (Ed.), Encylopedia of Gerontology, 2nd ed., vol. 2, pp. 61–67. Oxford, UK: Elsevier.
8. Moody, H. R., & Sasser, J. R. (2014). Aging: Concepts and Controversies, 8th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
9. Jacobsen, L. A., Kent, M., Lee, M., & Mather, M. (2011). “America’s Aging Population,” Population Bulletin, 66(1). For permission to reproduce portions from the Population Bulletin, write to Population Reference Bureau, Attn: Permissions; or email: email@example.com.
10. Farber, S., Shinkle, D., et al. (2011). Aging in Place: A State Survey of Livability Policies and Practices. Published jointly by the AARP Public Policy Institute and the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Available at http://www.aarp.org/home-garden/livable-communities/info-11-2011/Aging-In-Place.html.
11. Pfau, W. (2014, March 18). Retirement Risks: It All Starts With Longevity. Available at http://www.forbes.com.
12. Fry, R., Cohn, D., Livingston, G., & Taylor, P. (2011). The Rising Age Gap in Economic Well-Being. Pew Research Center Social and Demographic Trends. Retrieved on November 8, 2014, from http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2011/11/07/the-rising-age-gap-in-economic-well-being.