The Best Way to Market to Baby Boomers and Beyond

by Colin Milner on Jun 20, 2016

To connect with Baby Boomers and their elders, you have to target their interests and abandon stereotypes.

By 2017, one out of every two adults in the United States will be 50 or older (Nielsen 2012a). Let’s take a moment to absorb what this means to you and your business.

By next year, half of your potential customers will be 50 or older. That’s a very large number. Are half of your current customers in that age group? Gaze at the people on your exercise floor. If the answer is no, maybe it’s time to explore how to maximize this demographic opportunity. Given that this age group accounts for seven of every 10 dollars that could be spent with you, it is well worth your time and effort (Nielsen 2012b).

But before you invest time and energy in older adults (or reinvest in them if you have been working with this group for a while), you need to commit to becoming a student of healthy aging. Here are three reasons why:

  • Research from the United Nations shows that lack of interest in the older consumer stems from ageism and a limited understanding of the market (UNFPA 2012). Are you or staff members unconsciously avoiding older adults, even though they are loyal and appreciative, and many have money to pay for services?
  • A lot of companies are unaware of the potential of the changing market and the demand for products, while others have failed to respond and adapt (AWN 2012). Will you need to attract older age groups to stay in business 5 or 10 years from today?
  • A widespread lack of thought about this issue is limiting the availability of goods, products and services for people in older age groups (FUTURAGE 2011). You can stand out from the crowd by providing services that appeal to these groups. If you open the door to older adults, will their kids and grandkids walk through it, too?

If you fully understand older consumers, you will be more effective in addressing the challenges and opportunities they present. To start doing that, you must first remember that just one word describes the 50-plus population: diverse. After all, no two people experience aging in the same way. Our life experiences, families and social surroundings make us unique. Our physical and cognitive abilities lie on a lengthy continuum from fit and alert to impaired or disabled (see the sidebar “Physical and Cognitive Levels of Function”). And we differ by health; age; work and marital status; gender; sexual orientation; race and culture; child rearing; access to transportation; and income levels (Larkin 2011) .

Your job is to identify the people you can serve, based on the demographics and socioeconomics of your area, and to figure out what skills and tools you need to serve them. Don’t limit yourself to masters athletes. They are great clients, but so are people with physical limitations or less enthusiasm for exercise. Planning a program for one of these clients can be just as challenging as planning for an athlete, and it will keep you interested while benefiting the client.

Breaking the Mold

Government agencies and advocacy organizations have been calling on various sectors of society to change their current models—health care, transportation, finance, marketing—to better meet the needs of an aging population. Yet not much progress will happen until people rethink how they view the older population.

Imagine trying to change your marketing efforts if you keep seeing older people as a burden, frail, cranky and so forth. For new business models to succeed—and your client base to expand—we need a seismic shift in our attitudes about older adults and the aging process.

Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, challenged all of us to modernize our views on aging. “Past stereotypes developed in past centuries no longer hold,” Chan said at World Health Day 2012 in Geneva. “When a 100-year-old man finishes a marathon, as happened last year, we know that conventional conceptions of old age must change” (Chan 2012). Today, 85% of people between 40 and 90 years of age do not see themselves as old (David & Anderson 2013), so marketing anything for “seniors” may hinder your success.

Once you grasp the diversity of “older adults” and toss out stereotypes, you’ll be better able to provide relevant and effective solutions in marketing, facility design, programs, staff training and education, policies and procedures. Let’s explore the first three.

Marketing

“Marketers need to put the β€˜me’ back into their messaging and media thinking,” says Nielsen Research (Nielsen 2012a). “Authentic communications always begin with a genuine understanding of the consumer, but this bar is higher for Boomers.”

Why is a focus on “me” so important for this group? Older people don’t often appear in advertising, but when they do, most campaigns are patronizing or unrealistic. This group wants to be heard, and they’re willing to speak with their wallets. Placing positive images and “me” messages in your media could help you grab onto that high bar to reach the Boomers, who are now 52–70 years old. Those same messages will likely appeal to older age groups, too.

Before developing your marketing strategy, look at two key elements you are marketing: your facility and your programs.

Facility Design

The environment of your club, studio or training center is crucial to reinforcing your marketing message targeting older consumers. The physical layout can either encourage people of all ages to lead an active, engaged life—or discourage them from getting involved (White et al. 2013; NSPAC 2012; I’DGO 2012). To design compelling settings for your older consumers, focus on inclusiveness.

  • Choose appropriate equipment. In your facility design and equipment selection, consider targeting lower-functioning older adults—perhaps aiming for a cross between therapy and personal training. This doesn’t mean constructing a new building, but rather making your space accessible. You just have to provide an environment that meets the specific expectations, needs and capabilities of people in the age groups you will serve.
  • Get older clients’ input. Ask your older clients to help out by walking through your facility and writing down what they like and do not like. Does the lighting make it easy for them to see? How are the bathrooms and locker rooms? Do the front desk, fitness areas, café and equipment enhance the experience or detract from it? Why? What would they change to make the environment more engaging?
  • Visualize your new knowledge. Once you gain this market intelligence, create a large storyboard with recommendations, pictures and more, and place it in full view of your staff. (A meeting room or office area is the best location.) Start the process of improvement, and don’t stop until you have addressed everything on the board. Then repeat the walk-through with your target clients. How do they react now?

This simple method can help you create an inclusive, ageless environment for your business. It’s also crucial to the development of a compelling story that you and or your marketing team will use to attract more older clients.

Programming

What programming should fill the space? Programming possibilities for older adults are limited only by our creativity and our biases—what we believe older adults can (or should) do or not do. Consider the next two points when designing programs:

  • Reflect all seven dimensions of wellness. Multidimensional wellness—physical, emotional, environmental, social, vocational, spiritual and intellectual/cognitive—offers you a breadth of programming options to meet the needs, capabilities and expectations of the older-adult market. Keep in mind, though, that wellness is not singular; it is like a good wool suit: best when tightly woven.
  • In your programming, a tight weave might mean integrating intellectual challenges into group exercise sessions, or adding periods of meditation, or using space for health education or life skills like financial planning. It might mean instructors introduce class participants to one another or build partner or circle formations into routines to encourage social connections.

  • Adapt for differing abilities and health issues. Think functional levels. The dimensions of wellness provide life-fulfilling opportunities, but benefits can fade if programming does not address consumers’ diverse physical and cognitive abilities.
  • Get personal. One-size-fits-all programming won’t bring results, given the diversity of older people, their health issues (92% of people over age 65 have at least one chronic condition) (NCOA 2014) and the wide range of functional abilities (Milner & Milner 2016).

What works? Personalized training that considers all these elements and addresses people’s expectations and aspirations. It sounds easy, but it’s far from simple. Personalizing programs means trainers need to better understand how multiple health issues interact and how to customize programs to fit people’s mental and physical abilities.

Now that we’ve looked at programming and facility design, let’s dig deeper into rethinking your marketing message.

Refining Your Message

Running a marathon at age 100 is one example of how older adults benefit when they embrace their potential, irrespective of age. If you can help older clients enhance their physical, cognitive, social, emotional and spiritual potential, how should you shift your marketing message to reflect that? Let’s find out.

Start with a blank piece of paper. Draw vertical lines to form three columns and label the first one “Words,” the second “Models” and the third “Story.” Use this framework to choose appropriate terminology, the people you will use as models, and the story that will send the right message. Add one element at a time. No matter what marketing tools you use to deliver your message, make sure you present these three elements in an authentic, compelling manner.

Here are a few things to consider:

  • Focus on what’s in it for them. As the research shows, older adults want to be visible (95% of all marketing dollars are spent on people below the age of 50 [Nielsen 2012a])—they don’t want to be an afterthought. Design your marketing materials so they are easy to comprehend, and gear information and images specifically to this audience.
  • Eliminate stereotypes. GlynnDevins, a marketing company that specializes in older adults, recently found that 60% of the people surveyed (all over 70) thought advertisers portrayed older adults as aging stereotypes, both positive and negative—either “too good to be true” or “too bad to be true” (GlynnDevins 2014). Unfortunately, using stereotypes can come back to haunt you.
  • Strive for substance. You may like to market the sizzle, but this is not about you. An effective campaign will keep in mind the preferences of older adults—and they prefer the steak. Substance is not boring. Arouse your clients’ emotions with a compelling personal story. In creating that story, consider comprehension and reading levels, as well as the ability to track long copy versus short. Use succinct paragraphs. Most importantly, be clear. Have a focused message that speaks to this group’s diversity of life experiences, cultures and values.
  • Always remember to say what’s in it for your consumers. Use your copy to convey the value of exercise—the reason to buy, the reason to visit and the reason to call.

  • Target their aspirations. You may have seen the Toyota advertisement that shows Boomer parents out riding their mountain bikes while the kids are at home using the Internet. The message is aspirational, targeting older adults who envision themselves dispelling myths and living life while the world tweets by. This advertisement builds people up instead of breaking them down. Of course, it targets adults with a higher level of function. Yet an equally strong story could be told for people who are moderately active or need more assistance. It is important to target the potential client you wish to reach.
  • Choose the right words. The key to penetrating the hearts and minds of older consumers is to speak their language. To get their attention right away, use terms that resonate with them, and address their concerns in a positive, upbeat manner. Examples of areas to focus on are autonomy, relationships, lifestyle, health, wellness, quality of life, financial health and productivity. Everyone has dreams, desires, wants and needs. Older adults will perceive your ability to support these things based on how well you speak their language. Note: Just as effective images reflect your consumers, language should include, not exclude, the older adults you want to reach. Speak to their values.
  • Get feedback. To create the most effective marketing approach, ask your older members for advice. Do they like the message, story and images? How easy is it to read, watch and understand—can they follow it okay? If you ask such questions, your members and clients will tell you if you are on the right path, or if you need to start again.
  • Keep it real and credible. Hyperbole is the antithesis of authenticity. Look no further than television to find endless examples of overstatement, as every show seems to be touted as “number one,” “must-watch TV” or “the season’s hottest new show.” After a lifetime of hyperbole, older consumers have learned to tune out meaningless words and empty promises. That is why older consumers need you to be direct and factual with them.
  • Realism and authenticity are key to communicating your message to an older consumer. An example: As much as the “super senior” may inspire you, for many older adults it is an unattainable ideal and therefore not real.

  • Stay upbeat. In your marketing copy, stay away from black-and-white, one-size-fits-all solutions. Life’s journey has shown older adults that there is more than one way to do things. Keep the message positive. Let your consumers see themselves in your message and photography, but don’t draw conclusions for them. They will form their own.

After you have thoroughly explored how to make each area of your business attractive to the older consumer, it’s time to develop and deliver your marketing strategy. The tools to accomplish this are limited only by your creativity and budget. As you begin, remember one simple rule: Everything matters—from how professionally customers are welcomed into your business to the design of your website, fliers, handouts, advertising, emails, brochures and, yes, even the sign out front. Everything you do must reinforce your marketing message.

Reaching the Older Market

It’s a myth that older people do not exercise. Today, two-thirds of older adults say they exercise at least once a week (NCOA 2015), and 50% of adults over 50 are meeting the aerobic portion of the 2008 U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines (CDC 2014).

The new view of aging is about fulfilling our potential, no matter where we are in our life. How about you: Will you fulfill your potential with the older consumer? Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the cost of action? How much must your organization spend to maximize this opportunity? How much time, energy and money will you have to invest to ensure an optimal return?
  • What is the cost of inaction? How much business will a wait-and-see approach cost you? Will your competitor become the top-of-mind brand?
  • What is the cost of reaction? What will it mean to your organization if you eventually have to make wholesale changes, instead of incremental ones, to address this group’s needs?

Here’s the real question: How will you respond to this opportunity? Now, the rest is up to you.

References

AWN (Ageing Well Network). 2012. New agenda on ageing: To make Ireland the best country to grow old in. Accessed Apr. 22, 2016. www.atlanticphilanthropies.org/research-reports/report-new-agenda-ageing.

CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). 2014. National Center for Health Statistics. Health, United States, 2013: With Special Feature on Prescription Drugs. Trend Tables. Table 68. Participation in leisure-time aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities that meet the federal Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans among adults aged 18 and over, by selected characteristics: United States, selected years 1998-2012. Hyattsville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Accessed Apr. 22, 2016. www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/hus13.pdf.

Chan, M. 2012. Opening remarks at World Health Day 2012. In “Good Health Adds Years to Life” roundtable meeting in Geneva. Accessed Apr. 22, 2016. www.who.int/dg/speeches/2012/ageing_roundtable_20120404/en/.

David, P., & Anderson, G. 2013. Attitudes of aging. AARP Research. Accessed Apr. 22, 2016. www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/research/surveys_statistics/general/2014/Attitudes-of-Aging-AARP-res-gen.pdf.

FUTURAGE. 2011. The FUTURAGE Road Map for European Ageing Research. Accessed Apr. 22, 2016. http://futurage.group.shef.ac.uk/road-map.html.

GlynnDevins. 2014. Seniors’ portrayal in advertising falls flat with audience. Senior Living Insights Accessed Apr. 22, 2016. www.glynndevins.com/insights/2014/08/seniors-portrayal-advertising-falls-flat-audience/.

ICAA (International Council on Active Aging). 2005. ICAA functional levels. Adapted from Spirduso, W., Francis, K., & MacRae, P. Physical Dimensions of Aging (2 ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

ICAA. 2015. Strategies for bringing wellness to people with cognitive decline. Accessed Apr. 22, 2016. http:icaa.cc/business/whitepapers/ICAABlueprint.pdf.

I’DGO (Inclusive Design for Getting Outdoors). 2012. Why does the outdoor environment matter? Accessed Apr. 22, 2016. www.idgo.ac.uk/pdf/Intro-leaflet-2012-FINAL-MC.pdf.

Larkin, M. 2011. Tackling graywashing: What drives it, how to recognize and avoid it. Journal on Active Aging, 10 (4), 24-33.

Milner, C., & Milner, J. 2016. Impact of policy on physical activity participation and where we need to go. Annual Review of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 36 (1), 32.

Nielsen. 2012a. Introducing boomers: Marketing’s most valuable generation. Accessed Apr. 22, 2016. www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/reports/2012/introducing-boomers--marketing-s-most-valuable-generation.html.

Nielsen. 2012b. Don’t ignore boomers--the most valuable consumer. Accessed Apr. 22, 2016. www.nielsen.com/us/insights/news/2012/dont-ignore-boomers-the-most-valuable-generation.html.

NCOA (National Council on Aging). 2014. Healthy facts. Accessed Apr. 22, 2016. www.ncoa.org/news/resources-for-reporters/get-the-facts/healthy-aging-facts.

NCOA. 2015. United States of Aging Survey. Accessed Apr. 22, 2016. www.ncoa.org/wp-content/uploads/USA15-Full-Report-FINAL.pdf.

NSPAC (National Seniors Productive Ageing Centre). 2012. Neighbourhood characteristics: Shaping the wellbeing of older Australians. Accessed Apr. 22, 2016. www.nationalseniors.com/au/be-informed/research/publications/neighbourhood-characteristics.

UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund). 2012. Ageing in the twenty-first century: A celebration and a challenge. Accessed Apr. 22, 2016. www.unfpa.org/public/home/publications/pid/11584.

White, M.P., et al. 2013. Would you be happier living in a greener urban area? A fixed-effects analysis of panel data. Psychological Science, 24 (6), 920-28.

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About the Author

Colin Milner

Colin Milner IDEA Author/Presenter

Colin Milner is chief executive officer of the International Council on Active Aging. He also serves as an adviser to the U.S. Administration on Aging, the National Institute on Aging and the National Blueprint on Aging. He has authored more than 150 articles on aging-related issues.