I am frequently invited to speak about marketing to Baby Boomers – Marketing’s Most Valuable Generation – and recently I found myself addressing a gathering of prominent financial services executives and their largest clients.
I was invited to discuss Boomers’ attitudes towards aging and the rapidly changing notion of “retirement.” Just about every time I speak on this topic, I show a slide that highlights Boomers’ self-appraisal of their anticipated wellness and mortality. It illustrates the universal, and equally irrational, belief that aging will not come with any erosion of wellness or quality of life. This never fails to evoke a ripple of nervous laughter with a Boomer audience. They laugh because it rings true, but they’re also nervous because they know it’s probably not.
The fact is that many, if not most Americans over 50 have a completely irrational view of their own aging. According to the Pew Research Foundation , the majority of Boomers believe that old age starts at 72…just seven years shy of the average mortality age of 79!
The eternal optimism of the Boomer generation consistently trumps the reality that they experience everyday. Boomers believe that they will be healthy and vigorous until the end of their lives at which point they will simply cease to exist. No debilitating disease, chronic condition or slow deterioration of mental faculties for the Boomers…they’ll be fine…until they’re not.
Perhaps this explains why the median balance in the average Boomer retirement account is a paltry $12,000. Why put away money for retirement if you’re going to be healthy and productive until the day you die?
The challenge for brands in every category is to simultaneously understand the irrationality of this consumer group while offering rational solutions and innovative new products and services targeted to the changing realities of aging. A key to success in this effort will be marketing and messaging that starts by re-defining the now irrelevant concept of “old age.”
For financial services companies, the dates, numbers and asset allocation strategies that have been the marketing currency for as long as we can remember haven’t worked too well…at least as far as Boomer retirement accounts are concerned. Automobile manufacturers sell youth as much as they sell cars, and are targeting Millennials while Boomers are the fastest-growing segment of the new car market. Consumer Electronics companies innovate gadgets that are increasingly complex; but the most successful of these – Apple’s iPad – is the simplest to operate… and is especially beloved by Boomers precisely because of its simplicity.
What’s become clear is that the Boomers’ irrational perception of their own aging is incongruent with the overwhelmingly rational marketing approach taken by most brands.
This irrational perception -- to life and marketing -- acts like a filter on a camera lens. It colors the way Boomers see things that might seem black and white to others. So, the key to marketing to them effectively begins with acknowledging that there’s a filter and then figuring out what “color” it is. If it’s yellow, you’ll need to deliver blue to get the Boomers to see green.
The point here is that the “I’ll be fine…until I’m not” mentality is firmly entrenched and not going to change. Don’t make the mistake of telling Boomers they’ve been wrong, because as long as they’re doing fine they probably feel that they’ve been right. Your plan needs to grapple with the irrationality, not deny it.
Sound tricky? It is.
Maybe we should consult that great American philosopher Yogi Berra for help, because one thing’s becoming increasingly clear when it comes to planning for the future: “If you don't know where you’re going, you'll end up someplace else.”