Companies looking for foolproof strategies to market products and services to older Americans have learned the hard way that there's no one marketing formula, no one medium, no one message.
Older Americans, generally the 64 million people over 50, are as misunderstood by marketers as they are numerous. Strategies that work so well for products geared toward youth markets often fail to work with older people. Older Americans have a different set of priorities than younger consumers, a fact some companies have not yet realized.
"When you get down to the nuts and bolts of marketing to older consumers, companies make the biggest mistakes when they try to use strategies that work with younger adults," says David Schless, manager of communications and research with the National Association for Senior Living Industries in Annapolis. "There are tremendous differences and a great deal of diversity in the older population."
Businesses that don't recognize those differences may miss out on a huge market.
Baby boomers aren't getting any younger. The demographic core of American consumers, the 18- to 34-year-olds, will decline by more than 10 percent in the 1990s, according to Census Bureau projections. Meanwhile, the biggest earning -- and spending -- group, the 45- to 54-year-olds, will grow by nearly 50 percent.
Some companies have been misled by simplistic stereotypes of older adults, Mr. Schless says. Americans over 50 don't lack spending money, he says. They control more than half of the U.S. discretionary income and 77 percent of its assets.
They are not, he adds, fiercely brand loyal -- more than 80 percent of consumers over age 50 are receptive to new products and services that increase life satisfaction. And most are not in poor health -- they enjoy a level of vitality often envied by their stressed-out sons and daughters.
As a whole, older Americans are less influenced by age of life and more influenced by stage of life, writes David B. Wolfe, a consumer behavior expert. His book, "Serving the Ageless Market," suggests that as people mature, age becomes far less important to them in buying and lifestyle decisions. Their motivations and prior ities shift dramatically.
These people don't care if they keep up with the Joneses. Many baby boomers, who have lapped up self-oriented products and services for years, grow into another stage of life -- enjoying it for its own sake. But not all reach that stage at the same age, and some won't get there at all.
As a result, statistics about how many 65-year-olds buy widgets have limited value as marketers try to fathom what older consumers want and how to reach them.
Attitudes and emotions may be more reliable than demographic statistics, says Susan Rothenberg, vice president of account services with Adams Sandler, a marketing communications firm in Baltimore. In preparing marketing strategies for clients whose customers are largely over the age of 50, Adams Sandler relies on qualitative research such as focus groups.
Another important element is Values and Lifestyles Segmentation data, market research that groups people according to their interests and personalities rather than by age, income or other statistics.
"Qualitative research shows us how older consumers feel about themselves," Ms. Rothenberg said. "We've done some focus group research with 50-plus markets who use health care services marketing. They're a very sophisticated and well-educated group. The same group 20 years ago thought doctors were God and looked to them for guidance in everything.
"People now in their 60s are very savvy health-care consumers," she says. "They read everything. They are predisposed toward prevention of illness through nutrition and exercise. We work very hard in our advertising to make sure we don't show seniors as being confined and inactive."
Mature-market analysts suggest considering each marketing situation on an individual basis. A few common-sense approaches also apply.
Companies who have successfully reached older consumers see the 50-plus population as ageless. They don't associate aging with handicap. To assign labels to one group of older adults is to risk alienating others. Emphasizing age is a sure way to alienate them.
John Meyers, a spokesman for the American Association of Retired Persons in Washington, says AARP refers to people over 50 as older persons or older Americans. "We do not refer to them as senior citizens," he says.
NASLI's Mr. Schless recommends not talking about age at all, "even if your product or service is specifically geared toward the elderly consumer. Showing people of all ages interacting in a positive way is a great way to make the most of the ties that bind several generations together," he says.
"Being over 50 should be portrayed as a favorable and productive experience," Mr. Schless adds. "The spirit and vitality of mature consumers should be a major focus of marketing strategies to them."