Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Gray is just tarnished gold

Marketers have never felt comfortable talking to older consumers as a group.  Oh, sure, they know how to crank out pharmaceutical ads featuring men with just the right amount of gray hair and they manage to find acceptably perky older women for incontinence ads.  However, most marketers focus on the 18-49 year-old audience.

Ask marketers why they don't target older consumers as a rule and you'll usually hear some variation of "less wealthy, less likely to try new products and less willing to change brands."  (Shout out to Stuart Elliott for reporting on the counter-trend).  However, they tend to ignore two key truths:

  1. Older consumers have more money.  Spend any time on my favorite US government website (you do have one, don't you?), the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and you'll quickly see that the 50+ market has all the money.  They own their own homes.  They've largely paid for their children's education.  And while they have lower incomes due to retirement or throttling back, they also have more cash on hand.
  2. Older customers do try new things.  All the time.  Some years ago, I did some initial exploratory research on the older market for a consulting project.  I interviewed anyone on the street with gray hair who would stand still long enough to chat (harder than you might think).  Most of them eagerly discussed new things that interested them, such as hobbies or travel to new places.  Clearly, they have the time and the money to try new things.

Nevertheless, older people do represent a tough audience.  I think this toughness stems from their experience.  They know how to buy things.  I'll give you a personal example.  A few years ago, I needed a new pair of khakis.  I went into a store I hadn't visited before and saw some nice-looking pants at a price that seemed a little steep to me ($60), but not out of the ballpark.

I then did something I would never have done in my twenties.  I looked inside.  There I found uneven stitching and ragged edges--seamwork so shoddy that I wouldn't have paid $20 for the pants.  That's when I glimpsed the challenge--and the opportunity--of older consumers.

To understand how to make this segment more valuable, follow the lessons of a brand that does very well with a middle-aged and up clientele: Lexus.  A recent review on Autoblog reminded me of what works:

  1. Detail.  What Lexus lacks in excitement, they more than make up for in terms of fit and finish.  You can't find an uneven panel gap in even the least expensive Lexus.  A 20-something or even a 30-something relatively new to the new car game may not notice or care about glue spots on the interior, but the senior set will.
  2. Service.  Famously, Lexus treats its customers like royalty.   Someone who's bought five to ten cars over time has had enough frustration to last a lifetime.  Affluent consumers in particular expect the red carpet all the time.
  3. Simplicity.  The unsung hero in the Lexus story is simplicity.  Yes, their cars have all the bells and whistles, something that occasionally leads to grousing from their customer group.  However, almost all their cars have all the bells and whistles, which means that a customer doesn't have to spend the mental energy figuring out what features he or she wants.  The buying process seems easier.
Anyone else have any thoughts on appeal to older consumers?  Fire away in the comments, please!

1 comment:

  1. I think you have hit the nail on the head with this. Not only has it been for a while that older consumers have much more buying power than they are given credit for, but that gap continues to grow (which of course is a separate problem). The internet era seems to have ushered in (or at least coincided with) an era in business where customer service was ignored in the interest of cost reduction. But, I think companies who are still pursuing that strategy are going to have troubles.