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Baby Boomers Neglected by Marketers, an Interview with eMarketer

Our president Lori Bitter spoke with eMarketer senior analyst Lisa E. Phillips about how boomers use media and the best ways to reach them.

eMarketer: The baby boomers grew up with television, and got accustomed to being the target market. Now that most of them are in their 50s and 60s, how do they view advertising and marketing messages?

Lori Bitter: When we talk to boomers in our research, they really feel that for many mainstream products, the messages aren’t being targeted to them at all. With boomers, it’s not about age, it’s about being able to see themselves in those brands and products. They feel disconnected from a lot of the brands that they helped make successful, like Levi’s and Gap, and other mainstream brands.

“We’re about a lot more than health conditions and retirement plans. There’s a lot more going on in our lives.”
A lot of boomers say, “We’re about a lot more than health conditions and retirement plans. There’s a lot more going on in our lives.” Yet that’s the only advertising they really see focused on them. And it’s sort of like, “Well, what about the other 80% of my life? Two minutes of my day are spent swallowing a pill for a chronic condition and after that, I’m just a person who needs to buy clothes and cars and shoes and homes and all sorts of other things.”

They’re not being messaged to and they don’t see themselves in those messages.

The baby boomer generation was the first consumer culture in our country. They were the focus of music and clothing styles, you name it. Now people in their 50s and 60s are looking around and saying, “The market was chasing me my whole life and when I turned 40, they didn’t care anymore. All of a sudden, I’m passé.”

eMarketer: That leads me to the question, are they as brand-loyal as some marketers assume? If they stop marketing to them, will boomers keep buying “their” brands because they always have?

Bitter: Boomers are no more brand loyal than any other generation of consumers. They’re absolutely not. One of the arguments on Madison Avenue about why we don’t target older adults is that they’ve made all their brand choices for their lifetime and they’re sort of done.

We have a chart in our presentation that we call the Life Stage Mosaic. It shows all the different life stage dynamics that happen between the ages of 40 and 60. Around 50, there are all these new things going on in boomers’ lives and every time a boomer leaves one of these life stages or enters into a new life stage—for instance, like caregiving or grandparenting or remarriage—all of a sudden they’re buying and considering products and services and brands that they may never have had any connection with before.

eMarketer: If marketers aren’t bothering to tailor their messages to boomers, they probably don’t realize that about 80% of them are online. Do you think advertisers are really trying to reach them online?

Bitter: Not very well. I’ve been looking at the sites that I consider the usual suspects for targeting boomers, and the ads are for the antidepressant Cymbalta and erectile dysfunction. Boomers have very robust, rich lives and lots of really cool and deep interests, because all of a sudden they have a lot more time in their lives. They’re not parenting children anymore and they’ve got more time to explore.

“Brands tend to be afraid of ‘ageing’ their brand by creating boomer/senior messaging.”
Brands tend to be afraid of “ageing” their brand by creating boomer/senior messaging. There are so many places and ways online to make those messages very personal, where no one would ever know other than the boomer on that site that a brand was reaching out to them.

eMarketer: Are there any brands or products that are using ageless messaging to reach boomers?

Bitter: Yes, look at Apple’s advertising. It’s decidedly ageless. It’s about a lifestyle and a state of mind—actually, more a state of being. It’s about controlling all your media, and that appeals to boomers. That control thing is a big factor and Apple has managed not to alienate any population with the marketing that they do.

eMarketer: Is anyone doing a good job, do you think, reaching boomers online?

“I see some great things from advertisers like Bloomingdale’s and Barneys and some of the retailers in New York that tell me they really understand who the consumer is on that site.”
Bitter: I don’t see a lot of great stuff. Some sites do a good job with baby boomers without overtly saying, “This is about baby boomers.” There’s a site called WowOwow.com, which I think is a very New York-centric site, based on some of the women who put it together. I see some great things from advertisers like Bloomingdale’s and Barneys and some of the retailers in New York that tell me they really understand who the consumer is on that site.

There are some community sites online that are very specific, targeting life stage for baby boomers like a Caring.com or a Grandparents.com. Just from a pure aesthetic—design and usability—they’re doing a great job with their target. I think Caring.com does a fantastic job targeting what you could call a niche, but it’s a huge issue with the baby boomer population.

Some of the more general interest stuff, all you’re really seeing are things like drug ads. You see a little bit of lifestyle stuff, but not anybody who’s doing a great job. I look at brands like Talbots and Chico’s, for example, and I wonder why they’re not online, why I’m not seeing any digital advertising for these brands.

eMarketer: I happen to know that Talbots uses a lot of email, to the point that it feels like overload. As much as I like them, I just can’t respond to that many emails, free shipping or not.

Bitter: Exactly. And that begs the question, do marketers to this age group think, “Older people are heavy users of direct mail, so can we get boomers to respond to email”? I need to go into my email and unsubscribe to a lot of things because like you, I get bombarded.

eMarketer: What has popped up in your research that surprised you?

Bitter: The last study we did showed baby boomers falling into two really distinct segments around age: leading boomers, who are 55 to 65, and the trailing boomers, who are late 40s to mid 50s. The older boomers are much more like senior consumers and trailing boomers much more like Gen Xers.

So we are preaching to our clients that, while traditional media still works for the older end of the boomer segment, we’d like to see them move more dollars into digital media and start connecting with boomer consumers online—and then using the traditional media that we know works as support around those campaigns.

A longer version of this interview is available to eMarketer Total Access clients only. If you’d like to learn more about becoming a Total Access client, click here