to Reaching the 50+ Market:
Don’t Let the Past Get in Your Eyes
By William D. Novelli, AARP CEO
The following speech was made at the NOP World Consumer Conference
in New York City on May 6, 2004. It is reprinted here with Mr. Novelli’s
permission. It may not be reproduced without permission from AARP.
I want to begin by thanking Ed Keller and his colleagues at NOP
World for the fine work and support they have provided to AARP over
the years. It has contributed greatly to our understanding of the
changing 50+ population and helped keep us ahead of the curve.
working together now on our 2004 Multicultural Survey as well as
on a voice of the member perspective for our magazine. Both these
projects are focused on consumer protection. And speaking of our
magazine, Steve Slon, the editor of AARP The Magazine,
is here today. The Los Angeles Times recently said that
Steve has a real feel for the boomer generation, and I agree.
I spent the
early days of my career marketing laundry detergent, fabric softener,
margarine, kids’ cereals and pet food at Unilever and then
Wells, Rich Greene. Most of the time, the target market was housewives
18-39. Occasionally, we’d get creative. Once we targeted younger
female heads of households in cat owning households. I guess a good
portion of the marketing world still operates this way.
just a few days ago, an article in the Financial Times
said, “Recently, AARP has been waging a vigorous campaign
in the marketing trade press urging advertisers not to write off
the over-50s in their all-too-evident desperation to reach a younger
audience. But in a delicious paradox, I noticed one of its “Rethink
50+” ads popping up this week on Advertising Age
magazine’s website, alongside a story claiming Gillette was
on the verge of signing up 28-year-old football star David Beckham
in one of the world’s biggest celebrity endorsement deals.
If agreed, the deal will sum up just about everything that AARP
and its members find so frustrating about advertising’s obsession
with youth. As the baby-boomers grow older and live longer, the
over-50s are accounting for an ever greater proportion of the population
and consumer spending; yet to advertisers, it is as though they
me of a story from the Peanuts comic strip. Charlie Brown’s
team is beginning another baseball season. Lucy, the existential
right fielder, told Charlie Brown that this year things would be
different. She was going to be a better player.
Well, the game
was tied, and the last opposing batter was at the plate. He hit
a fly ball. Lucy positioned herself to make the catch. But, as the
ball came down, it hit her on top of the head and rolled out toward
the fence. All the runners scored, and Charlie Brown’s team
once again snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. After the game,
Lucy walked up to apologize to Charlie Brown, "Sorry I missed
that fly ball, manager—I thought I had it, but suddenly I
remembered all the others I've missed. The past got in my eyes!"
to a lot of people. My message, of course, is that to be successful
in reaching the growing 50+ market, we can’t let the
past get in our eyes. We have to think of today’s 50+ population
differently. So put aside the old, negative stereotypes, cast aside
previous assumptions and begin to look at this population through
a new lens.
is changing. The signs of it are all around us, even though sometimes
we don’t even notice them. Pick up the newspaper or listen
the news on any given day, and we see the evidence of it. Just last
Thursday I found these three news items:
- The last
Oldsmobile rolled off the General Motors assembly line in Detroit,
headed not for someone’s garage, but for the GM museum.
The once great Oldsmobile brand has now gone the way of the dinosaur.
- The World
War II Memorial opened on the mall in Washington, DC. The official
opening is scheduled for Memorial Day, but they wanted to open
it sooner because the members of this “Greatest Generation”
are dying at a rate of about 1,000 per day.
- In England,
researchers believe they have unlocked the genetic code that will
allow people, using their own DNA, to grow new teeth.
These are all
signs of our new, and changing world…all signs that our future
will be much different than our past. And, if we let the past get
in our eyes, we, too, could end up like the Oldsmobile.
One of the
realities of our new future is that more people are living longer
and better than ever before. The growth of the older population
and increased longevity—and the opportunities and challenges
they present to society—are truly dramatic.
There is a
whole new paradigm for life after 50 in America, and it is impacting
American and global business in very profound ways— most notably,
the marketplace and the workplace.
The 50+ population
will more than double over the next 35 years. This is changing the
fundamental age distribution in our population. In 1900, only 13
percent of the population was age 50 or over. In 2000, it was over
27 percent. And, by 2020, it will be over 35 percent.
I am focusing
today on the United States, but the rest of the industrialized world
is aging even faster than we are. Global aging is a huge
A person turns
50 today in the U.S. every 7½ seconds, and then has half
their adult lives ahead of them. That’s a lot of time to buy
products, use services, eat in restaurants, go to movies, stay in
hotels, work out, travel, build new homes (and renovate existing
ones), rent cars, go back to school and experience new adventures.
traditionally thought of the period of life after 50 as one of diminishment—empty
nests, retirement, solitary survivors. But that’s clearly
not the case. In fact, research conducted by NOP World for AARP
The Magazine shows that people experience more life transition
events in their fifties than in any other decade. And they are at
the peak of their earning years.
Americans make up 35% of the population, they have 77% of the countries’
financial assets and 57% of the discretionary income. Boomers—indeed,
America—will experience the greatest transfer of wealth in
between 1946 and 1964—focus not so much on age as on lifestyle.
To them, growing older is not simply a matter of just getting by,
it’s about being vital and enjoying the lifestyles they choose.
Moreover, boomers want things their way, they want them now, and
they want to be involved in the experience. For example, they don’t
just want to buy a car, they want “the total driving experience.”
to have fun. And one of the precepts that guides their quest for
fun is that they prefer spending money on experiences. They are
looking for the new experience, and they want to create their own,
because they are often bored, and searching for novelty.
important to think about the different social roles that people
experience as they go through life at 50+—roles that often
influence their behaviors as consumers. For example, there are 60
million grandparents in the United States—72% of everybody
over 50 in this country is a grandparent. Do you know the average
age of first time grandparents in the U.S.? It’s 47.
spend time and money with their grandchildren—over $30 billion
in annual spending. Research shows that grandparents are taking
their grandkids places in greater numbers than ever before, and
our own research shows that eating in, going out to a restaurant,
and watching television together are the activities grandparents
and grandkids do most.
So called “grandtravel”—grandparents
and their grandchildren going on vacations together without mom
and dad along, is a growing trend. I know Disney certainly cares
So, not only
are the baby boomers leading a demographic revolution that
is changing the way we think about aging; they are also leading
a consumer revolution that is changing the way we do business.
And the two are connected: demographics and consumerism.
Hobbs, of the American Institute of Architects, observed, “The
impact of the aging population on markets, employers, and culture
cannot be overstated. Just as the baby boom flooded maternity wards,
ignited school construction, and made ‘youth’ the cultural
icon of the 1950s, ‘60s, and 70s, the ‘senior boom’
of this century will shape the 2010s, ‘20s, and ‘30s.”
Now, if you
let the past get in your eyes, you might be thinking, “Ok,
this population may be growing, but they’re just buying more
of the same products. We all know that as people get older they
remain loyal to the products and brands they have always bought.”
not true of today’s or tomorrow’s older segment. As
people age, they don’t necessarily become increasingly loyal.
They do not get hardening of the consumer arteries and continue
to buy the brands they have always bought. They will buy products
that they had never bought before.
If we look
at people 45+, we see that a large majority, 87%, say that they
are brand loyal for some things, but not at all for other products
or services. Contrary to some widely held beliefs, older consumers
are not typically more loyal than younger consumers. In fact, brand
loyalty seems more a function of the product or service than of
age. For example:
to banks is around 60% — for all age groups.
to airlines and athletic wear is under 25% — for all age
People of all
ages tend to be reasonably loyal to health and beauty products,
like soap and cosmetics. But we found that about 58% of consumers
45+ would switch to, and even spend a little more for a competitor’s
product if it somehow meets their needs in a better way. Examples
of such reasons for switching include a better reputation for quality,
or if the new brand is familiar because the consumer already buys
other products from the same company, or a believable product claim
about a proven advantage over the previous brand. And more than
half of these consumers 45 and older said they would switch products
if they are similar, but priced a lot lower or sometimes even a
We found the
same is true in other product categories — in electronics
and computers, in financial services, insurance, and travel services,
among others. Cars proved a little different — at least at
first. About 46% of older consumers claimed to be loyal to a specific
manufacturer — and here their loyalty increases slightly with
age. But for vehicles other than cars — SUVs, minivans, pickups
— the reverse is true and loyalty declines with age.
But like the
products and services I mentioned before, older consumers will switch
to another car, and for similar reasons: a better reputation for
quality, familiarity with the company’s other products, or
a new innovation or technology.
So older consumers
will change the brand of car they buy for the same reasons they
will change their soap or their insurance company. And isn’t
it interesting that a consumer segment thought to be stuck in its
ways is attracted to innovation and new technology?
As Sony learned,
ads that caught the imagination of older people pushed camcorder
sales into “high double-digit growth,” according to
a recent account in the Wall Street Journal. The Sony marketing
staff refer to people between 50 and 64 as “zoomers,”
aging consumers who are active and want to try new things. In this
case, camcorders. By putting aside a stereotype, that only younger
people buy camcorders, Sony expanded its market. Or you could say,
they created a new market. Many of these buyers had not bought Sony
Now, if Sony
had let the past get in their eyes, they might think that older
people are afraid of new technology and innovation. But that’s
clearly not the case.
And if we were
invited into the homes of these older consumers, we would probably
see many more $5,000 home entertainment centers than we would find
in the homes of younger people. Why not? People between 45 and 65
are in their peak earning years, and have the highest median household
net worth. In many cases they have lots of equity in their homes,
against which they can borrow these days at low rates.
net worth of households headed by someone between 55 and 64 was
$112,000 in the year 2000, but only a little over $7,000 for households
headed by someone under 35. This is not to say that all older consumers
are rich — far from it. But most are not poor. By and large,
they are in solid financial health.
So put buying
power together with willingness to buy and try new products and
services and we begin to get a true image of the older American
consumer. Not all that different from younger consumers, but usually
with more money and quite often with more leisure.
Anheuser-Busch are two companies that are partnering with us as
they reach for older consumers. P&G is targeting older women
who once were the 18-39 year old housewives I mentioned earlier.
And Anheuser-Busch sees the older market as a place to build volume.
How do we reach
these consumers, these “zoomers?” How do we persuade
those 78 million Americans 50+ who control two-thirds of the nation’s
more about brand affinity, AARP and NOP World started asking older
consumers about their likes and dislikes in several product categories.
What we came away with was, well, kind of romantic.
in love with brands — develop an affinity that leads to loyalty
— perhaps something like the way they fall for other people.
Our respondents were looking for seven primary qualities in a product.
- It must
be a consumer’s “type.”
- It must
be “a winner.”
- It must
- It must
- It must
- It must
help consumers express their individuality and style.
- It must
be good with money.
like the response to a questionnaire from a dating service. And,
like dating, things can go right, or not. The affinity has to be
expressed well. Older prospects want the brand to be something they
aspire to own or use, it must meet their needs, it must be a company
or a brand they trust, and it must be for people “like me.”
Again, sounds like looking for a significant other.
a product or service significant is not always easy. We found
that our respondents are divided equally on advertising that’s
aimed at older people. Half thought such advertising was sensitive
to their needs and the needs and feelings of their age group. Another
half thought such advertising tended to be insulting or condescending.
did well with older consumers and some did poorly. Among the most
successful were automobile, home electronics, and computer and tech
companies. Among the less successful with older consumers were insurance
companies, financial services firms, and women’s apparel makers.
We might wonder
if all this has less to do with the industries or products in question
and more to do with how these companies are approaching older consumers.
Think of the seven basic components of affinity I mentioned, starting
with “has to be my type.” Older consumers seem to be
looking for something they can stay with for a long time. Maybe
even more than with younger market segments, anyone trying to reach
the older consumer needs to find ways to establish an affinity and
older consumers must start with an appreciation of who they are
— human beings, not stereotypes. They are men and women in
the marketplace, with money to spend, whims, changes of taste, and
so forth. We don’t want to forget that we are addressing older
people. But we don’t have to rub it in. People know how old
they are. But a 70 year old man doesn’t have to watch a 70
year old actor or model on TV or in print to be tempted to try a
low-carb Michelob Ultra or a titanium driver or a stationary bike.
It’s the product — “it’s my type”
— that will do that.
There are different
ways to think about this. Many marketers who are aiming at older
consumers can be found in AARP the Magazine. Their ads for financial
services, pharmaceuticals, cars, vacation destinations, cosmetics
and other goods and services tend to be pretty good at building
On the other
hand, the CEO of a major cosmetics company told me that he aims
at older women, but doesn’t want them to think he knows
they are older. So he avoids AARP the Magazine in favor of other
publications, like Town & Country, that skew older but try not
to say so.
As I said,
this is not easy and may require a pretty substantial makeover,
not just of an organization’s marketing, but of its fundamental
thinking. To illustrate what I mean, let me talk about what we have
been doing at AARP.
been around for a long time and we are pretty well known—
for our advocacy on Social Security and Medicare and other issues.
And of course we’re known for our discounts. We were in the
thick of the legislative battle to add a prescription-drug benefit
to Medicare last fall. We got it done, and now we’re working
to build on this foundation and to continue to address the high
cost of prescription drugs. That’s part of what we do, but
it’s not all we do — and not where all our resources
We think of
our organization as resting on two-complimentary pillars—social
impact and member value.
shows that our members believe that social impact—that is,
positive social change—is member value. Yes, they want the
discounts. Yes, they want our magazine and our monthly newspaper,
and our Spanish language publication, Sequnda Juventud. And
they want the insurance products and other services we market through
our business partners, including the Hartford, New York Life, Met
Life and United Health Group. In a nod to our boomer members, we’re
even marketing motorcycle insurance.
But our members
also value our advocacy, such as fighting age discrimination and
working on long-term care and Social Security and affordable and
accessible prescription drugs.
We are doing
a lot of advertising, using the theme, “if one person could
do it alone, the world wouldn’t need AARP.” The tag
line is: “AARP—The Power To Make It Better.”
GSD&M, our ad agency, and Fleishman Hillard, our PR partner,
and other agency partners, we have strengthened our brand.
We have undertaken
change, because we want to stay relevant to men and women 50+. We
want to speak for them in Congress and in state legislatures. And
to do that, we must speak to them in a language they appreciate.
We must be “their type.” Our image of aging, therefore,
tries to be honest, but positive.
There was a
time not many years ago, when it was said that nobody ever got sick
or died in our magazine. That has changed. Now we discuss disability,
but not less than we discuss fitness.
most significant alteration in our outlook has been to focus more
on the baby boomers. About a quarter of them are old enough to join
AARP now. And they are, at about the same rate their parents joined
AARP. The oldest of the boomers will reach 65—the traditional
retirement age, in 2011 — and many will retire earlier, or
at least start getting Social Security, in 2008. These are not distant
But many will
work into their so-called retirement years, some because they want
to and some because they have to. A short time ago we began a partnership
with The Home Depot. The first thing we are doing together is to
have AARP recruit and train older workers for employment at the
Home Depot. Almost immediately, other major companies wanted to
talk about meeting their own needs for older employees.
of older workers is a powerful, growing trend in America. Older
people who want to work can benefit themselves. They also benefit
employers, since fewer young workers are coming into the pipeline.
And they benefit the taxpayer, by putting less pressure or Social
Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
that we need to engage our members — not just on issues being
debated on Capitol Hill and in state capitols, but in their communities.
So we are expanding our volunteer programs. We want to help them
to be engaged in every community in this country.
When I began
as the CEO at AARP in mid-2001, I said that there are three great
goals for our organization to aspire to.
- To be the
most successful organization in America for positive social change.
- To help
each and every member to have choices, reach their goals and dreams,
and make the most of life after 50.
- To be a
world leader in global aging.
We are working
away at our three great goals and our resulting social impact and
member value agendas. And it’s paying off.
of our members like AARP, and 86% would recommend it as an organization
to join. We have engaged our members, even challenged them. We have
paid much more attention to our younger members — the boomers.
We have seen
that the nature of aging has changed radically in recent years.
And, consequently, we have come to understand that older people
themselves have changed. They want engagement as much as they want
security. They want to zoom as much as they want to take it easy.
I have thought
about how we have been able to recruit the boomers and appeal to
them, while remaining relevant to our older members. Our research
suggests the answer.
In terms of
what people want, boomers are different from older
generations. They use information and media differently. They are
much more focused on instant gratification. And they tend not to
be as socially engaged as their elders.
But when it
comes to needs, there is more similarity across the generations.
People 50 and older tend to have two overarching needs: health and
health care, and financial security. These are constants.
And at an even
deeper level—that of values, I think the generations
are truly alike. They don’t necessarily use the word, but
a common value is a sense of legacy. They care about their
children, their grandchildren, and about leaving America a better
place than they found it.
This is something
to remember in approaching these people—as human beings, who
have lived, worked, had success, suffered loss — and we try
to acknowledge all those things. And given the number who approve
of what we are doing and would recommend that their friends join
AARP, I think we are doing pretty well. There is always more to
do—loyalty has to be kept and earned over and over.
trying to stretch ourselves and to learn and practice new things.
We know we can’t let the past get in our eyes. We now have
nearly 36 million members, and a boomer joins our organization every
But, we know
that we have to continue working hard to keep our members’
trust, to continuing earning their loyalty and to keep delivering
value to them. And, that’s a valuable lesson for all of us.
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