Is longevity destroying marketing?
It’s certainly destroying the classic marketing model, based on age-driven consumer “life stages.” The model, which predates Don Draper, decrees that the most valuable target audience is young families — they’re independent shoppers for the first time, and they’re just forming all the brand preferences that will guide their future behavior in the marketplace for decades to come. Beyond 50 — or certainly, beyond 50 — don’t even bother. Their brand habits are already locked. And besides, they’re going to die soon.
In my previous post on this topic, I showed how longevity has made nonsense of this model. The “older” generations are living longer and longer, are not retiring “on schedule” at 65, and still represent the majority of purchasing power. Meanwhile, the “younger” generations are not moving into the marketplace on the same timetable as previous generations — they’re still living at home with their parents, into their late 20s, and they’re delaying the steps that would have marked new family formation: marriage, first kids, first home.
Is this true of everyone? Of course not. The absolute number of “older” people who are indeed retiring at 65, trying to live on fixed incomes, forced to become very cautious and modest consumers, and in general matching the past stereotypes of old age, is in the millions. Similarly, the number of Millennials who are getting rolling when the model says they will, is also in the millions. One size does not fit all.
The important point is that age is not as great a predictor of behavior as it used to be. What has happened is that age-driven behavior has been pushed to the two extreme margins — childhood and end of life.
At the “young” end, we have birth, childhood, adolescence and twentysomething. The patterns of behavior haven’t really changed: more or less complete dependency on parents, and little or no participation in the marketplace. The age when this safely applies — 0 to 18 — is the same as the model.
At the “old” end, we have retirement, gradual deterioration of health, decreased participation in the consumer marketplace (although heavy spending on health care) and, finally, death. The age when this safely applies is being pushed further and further out: the fastest-growing age group, in percentage terms, is centenarians.
In between the two extremes, age is significantly less of a driver than it has ever been. The model must be adjusted — dramatically, I think — to reflect this new reality. We are moving to the “age of ageless” — an age in which we will not be able to count on age to be the main determinant of consumer attitude and behavior.
Yet age still defines media-buying targets, for example: adults 18-34, women 25-49, etc. This is primitive. It’s the application of obsolete thinking and obsolete tools to a demonstrably different marketplace:
- It’s absurd to think that newlyweds who are 35 will behave the same way as their parents or grandparents (the Baby Boomers) did as newlyweds at 25
- Even more absurd to think that newlyweds who can’t dream of owning a home in the foreseeable future will behave the same way as their parents did when they bought that “starter” home in their late 20’s or early 30’s
- Or that people who are having their first children at 35 (or older) will behave the same way as their parents or grandparents did when they welcomed, at 25, their first baby
In all three cases, the people in question are simultaneously younger and older: they’re not hitting key demographic benchmarks (marriage, first kid, first home) until later, but they do have that many more years of knowledge and experience under their belts when they do hit the benchmarks.
Or go the other way:
- It’s nonsense to think that a 65-year-old (by definition, a Baby Boomer) who is still actively working, will be as disengaged from the consumer marketplace as a 65-year-old “retiree” of a previous generation
- The Boomers are demonstrably soaking up as much tech as they can get their hands on — thus, very much in touch with the same tools the younger generations are using — and at the same time very aware of, and engaged with, their own and their (still living) parents’ health issues. They have no problem simultaneously behaving younger and older.
I’m not arguing, of course, that age has no influence on attitude and behavior. And certainly, the major milestones of the consumer “life stage” journey remain in place: birth, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, family formation, “middle” age, retirement, decline, death. But the age at which these milestones occur is becoming more muddy. In fact, except for the first few phases — birth, childhood, adolescence — there is no one age that can be counted on.
People are experiencing these milestones at a wider range of ages than ever before — which in turn will trigger radically different sets of attitudes and behaviors. Older people in particular are simultaneously experiencing more than one age — new family formation coinciding with age-related health issues, retirement coinciding with new job (yes — retiring and continuing to work part-time or in a home-based business, a huge trend), embrace of new technology coinciding with “old age.” The nice, neat “here’s what happens at 25” model is ludicrous.
We urgently need some new thinking on all of this. In the next installment, I’ll propose some steps that might be helpful.