Back To The Future

The start of a new year always brings about predictions of things to come (The Patriots are a lock to win the Super Bowl).

This week, we're going to look back in order to prognosticate about marketing to Boomers going forward.

At the start of the Great Recession two years ago, we wrote about the return to "Responsible Consumerism," where people focus not on buying more, but on getting more out of what they buy. It's a consumer mindset our grandparents had, thanks to the Great Depression. Our prediction was on three factors:

One, Boomers as a generation have reached the time in their lives when their goals shift from the material to the ethereal. Less about success, more on significance. Not a generational trend, but a human nature shift that happens around age 50 (read some of your old Psych 101 textbooks).

Two, consumers of all ages are embracing sustainability. Being green isn't just for tree-huggers and Kermit the Frog anymore; some 80% of consumers of all ages told us they think or act green. It's mainstream and here to stay.

Three, the Great Recession will wake up indulgent Boomers and get them to reassess their spending game plan.

Now, let's move forward in time to today and take stock of this movement.

Recently, we had the opportunity to hear J. Walker Smith of The Futures Group (formerly Yankelovich) share some of his perspective on Boomers and the current global consumer mindset. He has reached the same conclusion: that the consumer has moved to a new address, and it's time marketers catch up.

Smith labeled the last 30 years or so of the Boomers going through young adulthood as the "Era of Indulgence." Attitudes about the future were bullish, spending was about accumulating and trading up, everyone felt exuberant. Morning in America, indeed.

Along came the Great Recession, which, while painful, is only a temporary downturn. During it, consumers did immediately shift attitudes and behaviors about spending. They became economical, frugal, anxious and, quite frankly, sober (even though alcohol sales have remained strong). But Smith points out that this behavior is not a permanent change. Being frugal is a coping mechanism and is far from aspirational.

Smith says we're now entering the "Era of Consequences." Consumers are being responsible with their purchases, doing a better job of prioritizing, acting more vigilant with their money and being resourceful. One reason this is happening is because we have returned to an era of economic risk. Not all investments, including your home, will increase in value automatically. There are consequences.

In our role as observers of consumer behavior (emphasis Boomers), we couldn't agree more with this assessment. Our preference is still to think of this as a shift towards responsible consumerism as opposed to "consequences," which don't strike us as particularly aspirational either, but we're splitting hairs.

What is interesting is that this "responsible" mindset goes beyond consuming behavior. It has showed up in voting behavior. We suspect the word "responsible" comes up frequently among tea partiers. And thanks to the 2010 election, a "responsible" mindset has re-entered Washington (this year's hope and change).

For marketers trying to engage Boomers today, our advice is this: don't focus on your value only as defined by price and quality; include your values, too. Demonstrate that you understand the consumer mindset has shifted towards responsible consumerism, address the sustainability aspect of your product or service, and enable Boomers to see experiential benefits of making a purchase, not just material benefits.

Let's buckle up in the DeLorean and head off to a brighter future.

6 comments about "Back To The Future ".
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  1. Melissa Lande from lande communications, January 10, 2011 at 10:18 a.m.

    -.Your comment "the Great Recession will wake up indulgent Boomers and get them to reassess their spending game plan." There is huge percentage of such people who have been woken up by the foreclosure of their homes and the whittling away of any savings after a lifetime of work for at least 3 years. (I'm not sure why you're writing about it now.)
    -True Psych 101 talks about people over 50 shifting to less consumerism, more on "what can I do to be happy in realizing my mortality?" Unfortunately, the Psych books of 1975 or so, when Boomers were reading them, had nothing about the media shift (which counts for many behavioral issues- good and bad) and nothing about how to experience recession during pre-Golden years, now tarnished for many.

    I know it's important to direct target shot to Boomers or specific demographics. I'm happy Mr. Thornhill is pointing them out-- but I'm wondering what is new here. I do like the idea that everyone who "feels" something is not a tree-hugger. Generalizing about anything is what we do to try to target and make sense out of our lives and businesses, but there are so many exceptions to every generalization -- I wonder who keeps the stats on those. You know like the homophobics who have homosexual children whom they still love. Or those Baby Boomers who indulged their children who are now dead from drug abuse. I think we need to look past what the "trends" are into the micro niche exceptions, which themselves are trends.
    I don't mean to sound negative and I appreciate Mr. Thornhill's strap into the Delorean -anything is possible attitude. This is a MUST for any individual to move forward both personally or in business.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, January 10, 2011 at 11:02 a.m.

    The Great Recession has left many boomers broke and not buying and cannot get the easy credit as before. Marketeers can market their little hearts out, but the money is not there. In 1975, 50 year olds didn't have as much time left, as much education or wear jeans as a daily fashion statement. Those is the DeLorean club are not in the same universe and those who want to go back to the future with Marty are yet in another universe.

  3. Ted Rubin from The Rubin Organization / Return on Relationship, January 10, 2011 at 11:57 a.m.

    I disagree. I believe this is wishful thinking for those who want to see a better and more measured future from a "Responsible Consumerism" standpoint . What I see happening is a public quickly forgetting, living and spending the same way once the money starts flowing again, and simply thinking they will be more careful and not make the same mistakes... or foolishly blaming others.

    Commerce continues and those doing the purchasing are simply looking for, and getting, better deals. Same old, same old.

  4. Kate Lafrance from Hartford Woman Online Magazine, January 10, 2011 at 12:48 p.m.

    I agree with @Paula Lynn and would like to add that, while a responsible person does not want to see the false affluence of another economic "bubble" of any kind, this massive loss of spending ability (whether by choice or not) is pro-longing this recession and if it becomes universally accepted and institutionalized it will mean the US economy NEVER comes back. Embracing responsibility (ie new austerity) is like Stockholm Syndrome for kidnap victims - learning to "love" a situation that you can't control just to make it bearable.

  5. Brent Bouchez from Five0, January 10, 2011 at 2:34 p.m.

    All of the comments here seem to be opinions...not facts. Walker Smith deals in numbers so he's simply reflecting what the data is showing. Matt Thornhill is also someone who deals in hard data. We deal in the softer side, focus groups and interviews...and we see the same things Matt is talking about.
    People aren't going to stop spending, they're not going to become penny pinchers. They are going to think more, they're going to look for more value (and yes that means cultural as well as monetary) and they're going to seek out the brands that consciously embrace them as consumers. This means understanding all of what Matt and Walker have to say and then crafting it into messaging that is created for and relevant to the older consumer. If you're not sure what that looks like, we are and we can help.

  6. Nancy Padberg from Navigate Boomer Media, January 10, 2011 at 5:19 p.m.

    Thank you Matt, always enjoy your articles. Recession or not. The reality is in the significant large purchasing power. Boomers may be frugal, however they will still purchase the most travel services, cruises, vacations, autos, health & wealth services, prescriptions, gifts for grandchildren because there are 78 million of them controlling 77% of the U.S. wealth. We speak with marketers and advertisers every day targeting the boomers online, not always price driven messages with more emphasis on benefits and value propositions.

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